Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Book Re-Reviewed:  Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

On Sunday, I mentioned it was the anniversary of The Great Gatsby's first publication.  I've always thought of The Great Gatsby as being a "perfect" novel.  I'm not talking about the story or my affinity for the book.  I'm simply speaking of the construction of the book.  It has nine evenly-spaced chapters full of prose that's been worked over and over again into a simple grace.  It has a building series of events and emotions that lead to the ending, a beautiful little rumintion on the American dream.  It's a book thats form is absolutely faultless, no matter how you feel about the actual story or its characters.

There is only one other book that I feel this confident about in its perfection of form:  Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.  Interestingly enough, this book was published only a month after Gatsby in 1925.  But this is where the similaries end.  If Gatsby is perfect because of its clean lines, then Mrs. Dalloway is the opposite.  The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway a few years ago, I loved it; but it was a love that was hard-earned.  This is a difficult book, where everything is taking place below surfaces and the voice shifts every couple of paragraphs.  The last ten or so pages of the book take place in a cacophony of voice and language.  Yet, this book's construction is perfection.

The novel is centered around the titular, middle-aged Clarissa Dalloway during a single June day in London as she plans a party for that evening.  In the meantime, we also meet Septimus Warren Smith and his wife, Lucrezia.  Septimus has suffered some major emotional trauma from World War I, and he manages to be both Clarissa's foil and her thematic twin.  Throughout these two stories, we also hear from many of the people around Septimus and Clarissa.  Peter Walsh, a man who loved Clarissa when they were young and has since sort of squandered away all his potential, has a fairly major voice throughout the book as well.

The whole thing is told in third person, but when we center in on a single character, we are hearing his or her internal voice.  I'm not quite sure how it is that Woolf manages to pull this off so well.  It's extremely complicated, but it's never messy.  Instead, we get this gorgeous collage of people bumping into each other, affecting one another in ways they cannot understand.  Woolf also relies a lot on memory, particularly in the summers Clarissa spent as a young woman in Bourton, where she met her husband, Richard, and shared a doomed relationship with Peter Walsh.  Bourton remains the place where Clarissa was at her most happy, particularly in her deep friendship with Sally Seton, undoubtedly the love of her life.  The book's final pages, when we see Sally in the present, are wonderful.

I love the hell out of this book.  We had some amazing weather up her last weekend, full of warmth and sunshine.  I think Mrs. Dalloway is an excellent book to read on a nice spring day.  It features some of the best sentences in English, and it's very lush, even though it's less than 200 pages long.  The way the book mixes the past and present gives everything a sort of hazy vive that feels as if you've spent too much time having long conversations under the sun, where you end up feeling slightly overwhelmed even while you enjoy it.  It's a glorious experience.  And while I do think it's a difficult book that definitely won't be everyone's forte, I also think it features some of the most memorable characters in all of literature.  The depth of Clarissa, the tragedy of Septimus and Lucrezia, the boldness of Sally - all of it feels simultaneously familiar and original.  And whenever I read this book, I cringe at the character of Peter Walsh.  I have a theory that everyone knows a Peter Walsh - overly-intelligent, correcting and a bit off-puting, interesting but in the end ruined by his great passions.  I really enjoyed reading this book again.  It's a real treasure.

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