There is a video in the archives of The New Yorker online which includes what most believe is the only recorded spoken words of author Virginia Woolf. It is a strange piece of audio, surreal to be listening to the voice that I have imagined so differently. It was part of a BBC recording entitled "Words Fail Me."
This post could hold a title of the same name. Michael Cunningham's The Hours is an absolutely brilliant piece of literature, and if I were able to discuss it with even half of the intelligence, wit and sensitivity he exhibits, I would be writing books, not just reviewing them -
So then let me start by sharing a few of my favorite quotations from the novel, which was written from the perspective of three different women living in three different places at three different points of history divided by chapters. Some of my humble thoughts follow.
(Laura Brown, 1950 LA) Page 109: "Laura is flooded with feeling. Here, right here in her arms, are Kitty's fear and courage, Kitty's illness. Here are her breasts. Here is the stout, practical heart that beats beneath; here are the watery lights of her being -- deep pink lights, red-gold lights, glittering, unsteady; lights that gather and disperse; here are the depths of Kitty, the heart beneath the heart; the untouchable essence that a man (Ray, of all people!) dreams of, yearns toward, searches for so desperately at night."
To define a person, to discuss what makes a being a being has been debated time and again throughout the centuries. While the preceding paragraph doesn't offer any theological answers, how beautiful, how accurate a depiction of the soul as "watery lights?"
(Clarissa Vaughan, present day NYC) Page 159: "We're buying boots today," Julia says. "Period."
Clarissa's daughter, this marvelous, intelligent girl could be some cheerful wife, shepherding her husband through a day of errands. She could be a figure from the fifties, if you made a few relatively minor alterations.
Mary says to Clarissa, "I couldn't do it without help. I can face a cop with tear gas, but don't come near me if you're a sales clerk."
Clarissa realizes, with a shock, that Mary is making an effort. She is trying, in her way, to charm...
Julia says "Mary, let's go."
Clarissa says to Julia, "Take good care of her."
Fool, Mary Krull thinks. Smug, self-satisfied witch.
She corrects herslef. Clarissa Vaughan is not the enemy. Clarissa Vaughan is only deluded, neither more nor less than that. She believes that by obeying the rules she can have what men have. She's bought the ticket. It isn't her fault.... Page 159
What I love about this excerpt is that rather than making a seamless transition from the perspective of Clarissa into the mind of Mary, the transition is shocking, hard. Just like the character Mary Krull herself. The sudden and almost violent shift is further emphasized by the italic font, and serves to punctuate the differences between the two women. We can discern as much about Clarissa as we can about Mary from this tiny little scene.
(Virginia Woolf, 1923, England) Page 165: "She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest."
While we know now that Virginia Woolf in life was truly disturbed, depressed and ultimately suicidal, the concept of depression was not one that was addressed in the 1923 suburbs of London, and such is not discussed here. Instead we get paragraphs like the one above, and references to headaches that creep, to daily failures that could be easily dismissed by a heart-happy person. I appreciate that Cunningham assumes the intelligence of his readers.
I have nothing ugly to say about the book, from the prologue that features the painful and descriptive drowning of Virginia, to the concrete and well thought out ending that brings the stories of all three women together in complete harmony.
**See Also: The Hours, a film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.