Reviews

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Nithya Krishnaswamy

A meditation on creation, destruction, ordinariness, sanity-insanity and the fine line between the two.


The Hours

Publisher: Picador USA
Length: 240
Formats: Re-released as (paperback
Price: $13
Author: Michael Cunningham
US publication date: 2002-11
Amazon
"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."
— Virginia Woolf

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image