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BETWEEN THE REAL AND THE FICTIONAL

The hours By Michael Cunnigham, Fourth Estate, £ 6.99

Time plays tricks in Michael Cunningham’s novel, lengthening and shortening the hours of the day, sometimes telescoping the past into one vivid, inconclusive moment by a pond, sometimes lurking in a hallway among endless days, the rising dust, brown light and a chemical smell, spinning in and out of the lives of three women living in different periods at different points of the globe. This is a fun book, especially for the Virginia Woolf cognoscenti, who will not only thrill at the allusions to the movement, spirit, style and theme of Mrs Dalloway, but also at the deft way in which the central concerns of Woolf’s writing and life have been captured in the stories of the three women.

Virginia herself is one of these women, whose lives are linked in a strange meaningfulness. As the novel unfolds, the reader watches her picking her way over mental eggshells, dreading and desiring the luminous headache that forever “lies in wait”, searching fearfully and fiercely for access to that “inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance”. Her own story, intimately bound up in the story she is about to write, is twisted into the stories of two other women who experience the world with the same kind of odd acuity sometime later and somewhere else. Virginia Woolf is “real”, therefore the other two can only be “everywomen”, Woolf’s very own triumph.

The chapters in Cunningham’s novel, each prissily headed “Mrs Woolf”, or “Mrs Brown” or “Mrs Dalloway”, alternate with one another, the headings quietly disguising the explosive inner lives that reflect and refract through the prism of time. The suggestion of reincarnation and the rapid shifts in time from woman to woman call up shades of Orlando. The story of that novel’s genesis seems to brood over the shy uncertainty of the women’s sexuality and their encounters with erotic love beyond sex. But sexuality is just part of the women’s experience of insecure adjustment with social norms and expectations. A sense of untapped power imprisoned within the necessary actions of everyday, the oscillations between inexplicable joy and desolation, the effort to be ordinary while the overwhelming sense of the extraordinary engulfs the being, are all parts of the women’s knowledge of daily life. They are all more or less disoriented; they feel, without being able to formulate, the hollowness of the received ideas of duty, creativity, mental health and the logic of suicide.

But it is not a heavy book. Memories of Mrs Dalloway allow Cunningham to get away with a light touch, although his persistently gentle prose, a masterly imitation of one of Woolf’s characteristics, is occasionally tiresome. It is Woolf’s world, certainly, but not Woolf herself. There are moments when the reader may be tempted to think that the novelist’s admiration is tempered with impishness. A hint of parody is inescapable.

But Cunningham reserves the real fun till the end, when all of a sudden the loose ends of the dreamy, drifting, tales are drawn tight together. His ingenuity lies in bringing a plot out of a hat when the reader has long accepted there isn’t any. Of course, it is Woolf who holds the key to the plot, in her imaginary construction of Clarissa Dalloway’s life. She is the source, the non-acting agent. She has one day pulled the strings, so the characters think, dream, love and act, and Cunningham writes. The alienation of the women is wittily replicated by the novelist as he seems to withdraw from the culmination of this highly enjoyable excursion into the world of Virginia’s imagination.

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