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‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham *****

I first read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours several years ago, and of late have been itching to reread it – partly, I think, because I am focusing upon Woolf in my PhD thesis.  Although The Hours is (sadly) not thesis applicable, it still felt as though I was researching by picking up my beautiful Harper Perennial copy – always a bonus.  Whilst I very much enjoyed it the first time around, I got so much more out of it during my 2017 reread; so much so that it is now firmly nestled amongst my favourite novels.

Beautifully written from the very beginning, The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Virginia Woolf herself, as she nears the end of her mortality; young wife Laura Brown, living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1940s, who is yearning to be able to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway away from her motherhood duties; and Clarissa Vaughan, residing in the New York of the 1990s, who steps into the city in order to buy some flowers for a party which she is hosting, thus echoing Woolf’s eponymous character.  These stories are at once separate and connected; a clever technique which gives a marvellous flow to the whole. michael_cunningham_the_hours

Cunningham’s writing is sublime, and the imagery which he presents is immediately vivid, particularly in those instances where he portrays movement: ‘It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its vibrancy; its endless life’.  The characters which he presents are vibrant and realistic; his embodiment of Woolf herself as a character has been sensitively and cleverly wrought.  In the single following description, for instance, an ageing Woolf is brought to life: ‘She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful’.  Cunningham captures some continuation of Woolf’s breathtaking prose too, particularly with regard to his presentation of characters: ‘This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked.  At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead.  Her mind hums’.  When discussing lost housewife Laura, too, Cunningham shows the utmost understanding of her, and her place in the world: ‘… and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked above the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation’.

Everything in The Hours loops around Mrs Dalloway; Cunningham’s approach is startlingly simple, yet remarkably clever.  The Hours is, in fact, nothing short of phenomenal.  The prose throughout is exquisite, the characters fully formed, and the sense of place as real as if one was standing in it themselves.  The singular diurnal structure, reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, is a clever touch.  Cunningham handles everything marvellously, and the flow to the whole is flawless.  Indeed, much of his writing is rather profound: ‘She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing.  Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest’.

In The Hours, Cunningham essentially presents a love letter to the utterly splendid novel that is Mrs Dalloway.  At times, it is rendered almost painfully vivid, for instance in those passages which describe the suicide of Woolf.  I shall leave you, dear reader, with Cunningham’s musings upon death: ‘It might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow.  It could be dreadful and wonderful.’

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The Book Trail: From Hours to Ours

I reread Michael Cunningham’s phenomenal novel, The Hours, back in February, and thought it would be a good place to start for a Book Trail.  As ever, all of these books have been found via Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature.

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham 3076525
Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, “The Hours” is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write “Mrs. Dalloway.” By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunnningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

 

8059692. The Collected Stories by Jean Stafford
These Pulitzer Prize-winning stories represent the major short works of fiction by one of the most distinctively American stylists of her day. Jean Stafford communicates the small details of loneliness and connection, the search for freedom and the desire to belong, that not only illuminate whole lives but also convey with an elegant economy of words the sense of the place and time in which her protagonists find themselves. This volume also includes the acclaimed story “An Influx of Poets,” which has never before appeared in book form.

 

3. Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (another of my favourites!) 27908523
Brilliant, evocative, poetic, savage, this Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel (1934) written when Josephine Winslow Johnson was only 24, depicts a white, middle-class urban family that is turned into dirt-poor farmers by the Depression and the great drought of the thirties. The novel moves through a single year and, at the same time, a decade of years, from the spring arrival of the family at their mortgaged farm to the winter 10 years later, when the ravages of drought, fire, and personal anguish have led to the deaths of two of the five. Like Ethan Frome, the relatively brief, intense story evokes the torment possible among people isolated and driven by strong feelings of love and hate that, unexpressed, lead inevitably to doom. Reviewers in the thirties praised the novel, calling its prose “profoundly moving music,” expressing incredulity “that this mature style and this mature point of view are those of a young women in her twenties,” comparing the book to “the luminous work of Willa Cather,” and, with prescience, suggesting that it “has that rare quality of timelessness which is the mark of first-rate fiction.”

 

2669784. The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, The Keepers of the House is Shirley Ann Grau’s masterwork, a many-layered indictment of racism and rage that is as terrifying as it is wise.  Entrenched on the same land since the early 1800s, the Howlands have, for seven generations, been pillars of their Southern community. Extraordinary family lore has been passed down to Abigail Howland, but not all of it. When shocking facts come to light about her late grandfather William’s relationship with Margaret Carmichael, a black housekeeper, the community is outraged, and quickly gathers to vent its fury on Abigail. Alone in the house the Howlands built, she is at once shaken by those who have betrayed her, and determined to punish the town that has persecuted her and her kin.   Morally intricate, graceful and suspenseful, The Keepers of the House has become a modern classic.

 

5. A Fable by William Faulkner 2010541
This novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1955. An allegorical story of World War I, set in the trenches in France and dealing ostensibly with a mutiny in a French regiment, it was originally considered a sharp departure for Faulkner. Recently it has come to be recognized as one of his major works and an essential part of the Faulkner oeuvre. Faulkner himself fought in the war, and his descriptions of it “rise to magnificence,” according to The New York Times, and include, in Malcolm Cowley’s words, “some of the most powerful scenes he ever conceived.”

 

2213276. Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
Bromfield takes a close look at the Pentlands- a fictional rich family in New England- exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance behind their luxurious facade. Bromfield’s eloquence when describing both his characters and their surroundings is breathtaking, and his accuracy in describing the characters’ complicated emotions makes it apparent that he knows human nature very well. A fascinating study on the struggle of one woman to escape the stifling influence of her husband and in-laws.

 

7. Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington 2634040
Alice Adams, the daughter of middle-class parents, wants desperately to belong with the people of “high society” who live in her town. Ultimately, her ambitions are tempered by the realities of her situation, which she learns to accept with grace and style. Alice’s resiliency of spirit makes her one of Booth Tarkington’s most compelling characters. A fascinating story that won the Pulitzer Prize. This publication from Boomer Books is specially designed and typeset for comfortable reading.

 

8197098. One of Ours by Willa Cather
One of Ours is Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the making of an American soldier. Claude Wheeler, the sensitive but aspiring protagonist, has ready access to his family’s fortune but refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his uncaring father and pious mother, and rejected by a wife whose only love is missionary work, Claude is an idealist without ideals to cling to. Only when his country enters the Great War does he find the meaning of his life.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books have piqued your interest?

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