Serendipitous events: I went to a Q&A with author Michael Cunningham (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) not long before my daughter began reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, not long before I found a copy of Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (1998)—an homage to Virginia Woolf—at the lodge where I am now staying in Jackson, Wyoming.
So it seemed like fate: I was meant to reread The Hours.
This was a novel that everyone read and raved about, as I recall—it was The Goldfinch of 1998-99. But all I really remembered was that Virginia Woolf was a character. I’d forgotten why she was a character; I’d forgotten everything, in fact. Until I started reading, and I began to remember. One of the main characters is Cunningham’s version of Clarissa Dalloway, who, in the first chapter, is going off to buy flowers for a party. Later Woolf herself sits down to write the famous first line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she’d get the flowers herself.”
It’s one of few first lines I have never forgotten in all the years since reading Mrs. Dalloway in high school. It’s so simple, and at the same time so distinctive and yes, unforgettable.
In a very funny article Cunningham wrote in the New York Times in 2003 after The Hours was turned into a movie (remember Nicole Kidman with the fake honker, playing Woolf? And then winning the Oscar?), he describes talks about Mrs. Dalloway this way: “Woolf’s novel takes place in one day, during which Clarissa Dalloway, a 52-year-old London society hostess, shops, sees the man she might have married but did not, takes a nap, and gives a rather dull party. However, because it is an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary person as rendered by a genius, by the book’s end we understand that Mrs. Dalloway not only stands with the heroes of world literature but, by extension, that every one of us might stand so, if only a brilliant writer would look at us with sufficient depth and penetration.”
Cunningham makes me think I should be going back to his source of inspiration, but I’m happy to have The Hours in front of me. When his Clarissa centers herself in the moment, in her life, it seems like just right thing to be reading, as the spring we’re all longing for teeters on the edge of being.
“Outside the narrow kitchen window the city sails and rumbles. Lovers argue; cashiers ring up; young men and women shop for new clothes as the woman standing under the Washington Square Arch sings iiiii and you snip the end off a rose and put it in a vase full of hot water. You try to hold the moment, just here, in the kitchen with the flowers. You try to inhabit it, to love it, because it is yours….”