Friday, June 30, 2006

Reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham

"[...] she is fascinated by the idea of a woman like that, a woman of such brilliance, such strangeness, such immeasurable sorrow; a woman who had genius but still filled her pocket with a stone and waded out into a river. She, Laura, likes to imagine (it's one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, it the other women aren't all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty."

A USA Today reviewer said of The Hours: "If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse." and I completely agree with his words. The Hours is that one, rare book, which has marked me, has opened my eyes to the invisible essence, invisible truth, has felt special from the very first page onwards.

It is a story about three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan. The three stories feel almost like a single story, they're so similar, so interwoven, dealing with the same issues of life. They're about one day in the lives of the women: in 1923 Virginia is beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway and is recuperating from her illness in the suburbs of London. In 1949 Laura is a pregnant woman with a three-year old son, Richie, and is planning her husband's birthday and baking him a cake. In 1999 Clarissa is planning a party for her beloved friend, who is dying from AIDS. At the end of the book we realize what the connection between the stories was and the women are brought together.

The story is absorbing, the quality with which Cunningham portrays the individual characters is breathtaking, his empathy and understanding of the inner life of his characters is enchanting. He manages to create the illusion that each of the characters has a life of her own, that they're separate entities, that he knows all the little details of their lives, all their opinions and reflections, is privy to their most intimate, most secret thoughts. Also the narration is fluent, superbly lyrical without being overbearing. His skill with dialogues is apparent, but even more than that Cunningham possesses the quality of being able to put into words the most everyday feelings and notions, the silent exchanges that occur in between the lines of a dialogue in such a way as makes you realize that they're your feelings and it could as well be your life.

It is useless to deny that my favourite character was Laura Brown. I identify the most with her, I feel her pain most acutely, I understand (or I think I do) how the silent, almost invisible, but none the less present demands to be a perfect mother and wife in a perfect household begin to constrain her, how they begin to eat her from the inside. How it pains her that she doesn't seem to be a natural at raising children and baking cakes. How she feels that what her life has become is a day from the life of some other person wholly unconnected to herself. The following excerpt best describes her pain.

"It seems suddenly easy to bake a cake, to raise a child. She loves her son purely, as mothers do - she does not resent him, does not wish to leave. She loves her husband and is glad to be married. It seems possible (it does not seem impossible) that she's slipped across an invisible line line, the line that has always separated her from what she would prefer to feel, who she would prefer to be. It does not seem impossible that she has undergone a subtle but profound transformation, here in this kitchen, at this most ordinary of moments: She has caught up with herself. [...] It seems she will be fine. She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents (what if she has no talents at all?). She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, all her gifts. She will want this second child."

Laura's pain at being unable to be really happy in an "ideal" marriage, with a lovely child, a nice house in a respectable neighbourhood and a good income is a frustration we all feel at times. There are other people who'd kill to be in our places and yet we want more or want it different or don't want it at all. Hers is the story about a woman who wants something else from her life than is desirable, than is expected of her. She is a woman, living in a time, not quite unlike today, when what is expected shapes you more than what you want from yourself. She is a woman who wants to fight the norms, but without going into the street and tearing her bra.

She wants to please, desperately, because she has little self-esteem, but simultaneously she wants to be herself, even if it is the strange, foreign-looking woman, the woman of sorrow and pathos, the woman who deserts everything to be what she thinks she is. Taken in the light of 1950s, her decision is not only brave but almost revolutionary. And it is a decision that carves deep wounds into all members of her family. Here is a woman who did right and wrong at the same time. Here is the everyperson - who does right and who does wrong in the same moment. Who hurts and who is unbearably kind in the same blink of the eye.

The Hours is a book I reread frequently. It is a time when I meditate while reading. I dive into this river of words, I swim with the current and sometimes against it, I taste the water and ask myself whether the sheer act of diving into the river was right. I like that the book is short, but to the point, and that the story is told with such mastery of language. I might be wrong, but then again you're always prejudiced about your favourite books. I recommend this little wonder to you, especially as we have a Slovenian translation, too. (Although I will venture to say that the original is much better.)

P.S. I'm still interested in your opinions regarding the new design of my blog.


posted by Nadezhda | 16:22


Blogger Nadezhda said...

P.P.S. I'm going away for the weekend (will be back online Sunday evening), but that shouldn't refrain you from posting.

Blogger jin said...

I think it is good you got rid of your old template, because there are many blogs with the exactly same look out there. Now you are unique :)
Personally I don't like the blue colors, but you should keep it if you like it.

Regarding the book. I saw the film before I read it and it didn't do any damage :) Usualy films are not as good as books. In this case I think the film was great.

Anyway, I found that perfectnes (Laura), that perfect marriage, smiles, the house, a bit strange, almost crazy. I liked Virgina better.

I didn't read the Slovenian translation. Is it any good? I am of opinion that one should always read originals, if it is possible.

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Yes, I like this shade of blue. I'm keeping it. :)

I saw the film before I read the book, too. Having seen the film made me want to read the book. And I just love Meryl Streep, how then could I dislike the film? :) But, seriously, it was a superb film. Moved me to tears. A powerfully expressive film with superb acting and wonderful cinematography.

What I liked (=what moved me with regard to her) about Laura is exactly the thing you mention. This perfection, she has everything and yet it's not what she wants. She fights in herself long and hard to justify her need for another life, a different life. She feels it is stupid and mean (especially towards her children, but also towards her husband who loves her so much) to leave behind what she has. (And taking into consideration that she had almost everything a middle of the norm housewife of 1950s wanted.) I was very moved by how she tries to be a good mother, how she tries to be what she was "born to be" (= a good wife and mother) and knows everytime she's failing her mission.

Unfortunatelly, I can't elaborate on the subject of the Slovenian translation as I have never read it. I own the original. But I know the book was translated. I try to read as many originals as possible, as I agree with you on the subject.

Has anyone read the translation? What it is like?

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Oh, and by the way, Jin, what did you like most about the film/book? Why was it special for you? Why Virginia?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my, I cannot believe I'm a year late :)

I googled up the book and found this very (if I may say) cute blog.

Well, as for the Slovene translation ... a very faithful adaptation of the original (with some little 'errors') but ... there is a certain something, a bit of magic missing.

Blogger Nadezhda said...

First of: welcome! You're not a year late. We can still discuss the book. The beauty of blogging is that what you write stays there. You can return to it at any point.

I'm glad to hear the translation is all right. The flow of the book is very hard to translate. I thought The Hours was like reading poetry.

Thanks for the compliments and do come back!

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