“Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.”
In his stunning novel, The Hours , Michael Cunningham draws from the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the stories of three women during an apparently unremarkable yet pivotal day of their lives. The author calls it a “riff on British novelist Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway ” and a tribute to what he terms “the first great book he ever read.” The Hours won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and is nothing less than a literary feat that Cunningham has achieved effortlessly and with grace.
Cunningham says that a significant part of Woolf’s greatness lies in her insistence that there are no ordinary lives, just inadequate ways of looking at them. Woolf understood that most of our lives look ordinary from the outside. And sure enough, in The Hours , Cunningham pays tribute to all acts of creation that the three main women characters indulge in, be it a book, a party, or a cake. Cunningham believes that almost everyone is a creator of some sort, just as he feels that Woolf believed it too.
The feeling that creativity goes along with a sense of failure is replete throughout the book. Virginia Woolf, one of the characters says, “I am not a writer, just a gifted eccentric.”
First published in 1989, a new edition of The Hours is being re-released by Picador to coincide with the debut of the much-heralded motion picture a few weeks ago, starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Meryl Streep as Clarrisa Vaughan and Julianne Moore as Laura Brown. It seems like a tricky novel to film, with much of the beauty of the novel in Cunningham’s prose as well as the alternating narration of the three women characters. But the director of the film, Stephen Dardyll, argues that “once the stories start colliding, it works like a mystery.” Oddly enough, Streep is mentioned in Cunningham’s novel and likened to an angel. It is as if the author foresaw that Streep would be in a film of his book
The novel is about many, many things and it would be a quite a thesis to unravel them all. It seems to be a meditation on creation, destruction, ordinariness, sanity-insanity and the fine line between the two. The sub-text is rich and varied and celebrates creativity in the ordinary. And yet the prose is highly accessible and reaches out to the reader with its delicate emotional depth.
The Hours was Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway . In Cunningham’s novel, he imagines several events in a single day in the life of Woolf in 1923. It is the day that she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway . Using biographical details, Cunningham recreates the events in a day of Woolf’s life, like her conversations with her husband and sister, her arguments with her cook, and her attempts at preserving her sanity. He sets these events against a day in the life of a Los Angeles suburban housewife, Laura Brown in 1949 who reads Mrs. Dalloway , cares for her young son and prepares a birthday cake for her husband. Laura is trying not to panic at her feelings of suffocation in her humdrum domestic life.
Cunningham’s third character is Clarissa Vaughan who is a book editor in the present-day Greenwich Village in New York City. He describes a day in her life when she is organizing a party for her former lover and oldest friend, Richard, an AIDS-stricken poet who has just won a major literary prize. As the novel traverses through the century, the lives and stories of the three women converge, unexpectedly and movingly, the night of Clarissa’s party for Richard.
He also invents the afternoon of Woolf’s suicide: “She hurries from the house wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun.”
The question that has been often asked is if The Hours is merely an updated, postmodernist Mrs. Dalloway . The answer to that is fairly complex. While most of the characters in The Hours have a parallel in Mrs. Dalloway , The Hours is an experiment in style and narrative. “Is Clarissa Vaughan the modern Mrs. Dalloway?” In a way, she is. The Clarissa Vaughan of the present times makes safe decisions in her life as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. She is a conventional wife and mother as a lesbian in New York City. Had she decided to stick with Richard in her relationship with him, no doubt her life would have taken a different turn and her life wouldn’t be as “stable” as it is now with Sally. At this juncture in her life, she often wonders if she has missed a richer life by not staying with him and making a “safer” choice.
With this book, Cunningham reaffirms Woolf’s enduring significance. Her questions about life remain pertinent and even urgent for us today. The Hours is about the richness of time, creativity, and about trying to live true to oneself, if only for an hour.