Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

This is a well beloved book, and one where I feel I have to confront the harsh truth that Virginia Woolf is not for me. Don't get me wrong--I admire her writing, and what she set out to do she did accomplish. I am fascinated by her as a person, and by her status as an artist who bridges the Victorian Age and the modern one. She comes from a world that no longer exists, and she was struggling to make her mark on the new order, writing at the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Edith Wharton. She made a huge contribution to the literature of modernism through her own books, her criticism and the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard. She is entirely absorbing and a major artist.

I want to love her books, and I just don't.

There is a lot of psychology, a great deal of symbolic import, some truly brilliant insights and memorable moments in this book, but for me they are so lost in the flood of words, and the artifice of the internal dialogue. The writing fails to hold my attention, and I'm not sure why. The sentences are long--Henry James-type long, with lots of dependent clauses. She also is committed to staying in the subjective experience of her characters, and so trying to sort out what is "true" and what is "misapprehended" and even what is merely evanescent is such a chore.

The plot, such as it is, is negligible. Clarissa Dalloway is going to have a party, and at the beginning of the book she goes out to buy flowers. She walks across town to the florist and then walks home. She repairs the dress she intends to wear, and an old flame visits her briefly. She invites him to her party.

Meanwhile, Septimus Warren Smith waits with his Italian war bride to visit a Harley Street doctor. Septimus suffers from shell-shock, and he veers from delusion to clarity and back again. His wife is quite unhappy and worried, and she doesn't understand what is wrong--the family physician has told her there is nothing wrong with her husband. The Harley Street specialist recognizes the problem, and insists that the only treatment is to take Septimus away for a very long rest cure. Septimus jumps out his window to escape being taken away, and ends up impaled on a fence.

Richard Dalloway has lunch with a Lady Bruton and another old acquaintance, and buys Clarissa some roses. He goes to visit her while she is resting during the afternoon--she has recently been very ill, and has been sleeping in a separate room in the attic. He wants to tell her "I love you," but can't actually bring himself to say it. Clarissa seems to understand him entirely.

The old flame, Peter, walks around Regent's Park, arguing himself back into and out of love with Clarissa. He had asked her to marry him some twenty years before, or maybe he meant to, but she realized they were ill suited. But now, looking back, she too wonders what might have been. Not that it would change anything.

The Dalloways' daughter Elizabeth is in the emotional clutches of a very odd woman named Miss Kilman, who has political and religious objections to everything about the Dalloways. This is about the only character I have any emotional reaction to: she is so frustrated, so unhappy, so desperately disconnected from other people that I while I did not enjoy her company, she made an impression on me in a way the other characters mostly didn't. The two pompous doctors are also extremely unpleasant, and they too engender a spark of passion in the writing, as if Virginia Woolf was so angry about the behavior of their real life counterparts that that anger came through.

In the end, Septimus kills himself, but he has all along been so harrowed by his own mind that it feels like rather a relief, since it frees his poor wife from having to put up with his misery. Someone mentions this death at Mrs. Dalloway's party, and Clarissa takes the news rather personally for someone she has never met. The message that we are all connected seems implied by her reaction, but it feels rather more like ghoulish fascination with morbidity than a recognition of their common humanity. Especially since the two of them never met, never overlapped, and there is no reason she should respond to this gossipy tid-bit any differently than she responded to the news of men killed in WWI.

I understand that Woolf was trying to invent a new type of writing, which captures the flow of thoughts and feelings while also smoothly moving between the minds of different characters in a manner that is downright cinematic. Many of the transitions between characters happens without any particular break in the narrative. In many cases, it is nearly cinematic, where the camera (the eye of the narrator, perhaps) follows one character until he crosses paths with another, and then picks up the story of the new person. I found it somewhat like watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which was filmed in a series of long takes, where the camera moves sinuously around the set, never really blinking, never compressing time.

However, Mrs. Dalloway is just too distant for my taste, too clinical or reportorial. It believably documents the characters' thoughts as they shift and dance, but I never really found myself caring about them at all. Perhaps I cared a bit for poor Septimus, in the moments where he could see the hell that the Harley Street doctor's plan for a rest cure would be, so he jumped out the window and died rather than submit.

I continue to wonder what impact Virginia Woolf has had on literature. Is she beloved, or respected? Is her technique something that outlived her use of it, or is she best viewed as an early pioneer of subject matter (feminism) and technique (stream of consciousness) that has evolved to something entirely different? I find her life fascinating, I have great respect for her writing. I just don't enjoy reading her the way I enjoy some other writers. I am willing to assume that the fault is entirely my own--and so I disappoint myself.

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