Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)[*****] I've never before read any fiction by Virginia Woolf, though I read and loved A Room of One's Own as a teenager, and I read about VW many years ago in Nigel Nicholson's biography Portrait of a Marriage about his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, in which Virginia Woolf plays a role as one of Vita's many lovers (I loved that book too).  But I'd always been a little afraid of actually reading Virginia Woolf, cliche as that may be.  Recently a friend spoke highly of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, but I thought I should read Mrs. Dalloway first.  I'm so glad I did.  I just loved this book so much.  Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day, throughout which Big Ben marks the passing hours while Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party.  The narrative is stream-of-consciousness, tracking the interior lives of not just Clarissa, but also of all the people with whom she comes in contact throughout the day.  The point of view is constantly changing, like a baton that gets passed from character to character.  So Mrs. Dalloway is walking through the park, and we are hearing the thoughts in her head about her marriage and her former lover who has just returned from India; she passes a young couple sitting on the park bench, and suddenly we are in their heads. Sometimes it took me half a paragraph to realize that the point-of-view had shifted.  Everything is very interior -- the thoughts, memories, revelations of the various characters, major and minor.  One of the reasons I loved Mrs. Dalloway is that its stream-of-consciousness interiority mirrored very much what it feels like to be inside my head sometimes.  All of the stories woven throughout the day converge at Clarissa's party that evening, a remarkably choreographed scene that is both biting and humorous in its social commentary.  Mrs. Dalloway is about many things -- love, marriage, war, mental illness, social class -- but I think I loved it especially because it is so much about youth and middle age and especially what it means to look back on youth -- ones own and ones children's -- from the vantage point of middle age.  Clarissa; her former lover, the adventurous philanderer Peter Walsh; and her former passionate friend, Sally Seton, are brought together for the first time in years, and are all confronted with the memories of what they imagined their lives would be, and with the choices that have brought them to their lives as they actually are.  I could identify so much with  the sense of confusion they all feel at finding themselves and each with such different lives than they had imagined, but also with the sense of passion and possibility they still feel in their middle age.  I think it is just as well that I am only now finding Virginia Woolf's fiction, because all of that would have been lost on me a couple of decades ago.  Now I am intrigued not only to read more of her fiction, but her letters and diaries as well.  She seems to have lived quite a remarkable life.

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