viernes, 15 de enero de 2010

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway (Harcourt, 2005)
by Virginia Woolf
England, 1925

With so many mainstream classics really only representing the literary equivalent of elevator music, I'm relieved to report that Mrs. Dalloway is every bit as edgy and ambitious as I'd been led to believe.  Although I went into this, my first encounter with Woolf, not really knowing what to expect, I was pretty much wowed from the start by her narrative audacity and the immediacy of her imagery.  The plot, as many of you will no doubt know, pivots around the interlocking stories of aristocratic party hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shellshocked war hero Septimus Smith.  Although the fact that one of these two characters is about to end up as a suicide lends an extra measure of gravitas to the fiction considering Woolf's own life story, perhaps what's most chilling here is the insinuation that taking one's life could be a natural response to the meaninglessness of the modern age itself.  Fuck love.  Fuck poetry.  Fuck all tomorrow's parties.  What makes this bleak point of view engaging from the reader's perspective, of course, is that it's just one of many possible vantage points in terms of the characters involved.  For in telling us about what Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith and Peter Walsh all have in common, Woolf is positively brilliant at putting us into the minds of the characters themselves.  What they think.  How they feel.  What they might have gained and lost since the innocence of their youth. Both the style (compelling interior monologues that feel real, organic narratorial changes that take place in the blink of an eye) and the language (the observational detail, the ability to capture a fleeting moment in a passing comment) are bracing, in fact--quite a feat, wouldn't you agree, for a novel confronting mental illness, postwar malaise, and, possibly most depressing of all, the inability of love to heal certain wounds, with such profound and arresting intimacy?  (
La señora Dalloway
por Virginia Woolf
Inglaterra, 1925

Con tantos clásicos del canon sólo siendo los equivalentes de la música cursi al estilo Céline Dion, es un verdadero placer decir que La señora Dalloway sea tan arriesgada y ambiciosa como su reputación.  Aunque éste fue mi primer encuentro con Woolf y por eso no lo sabía qué me esperaba, casi inmediatemente la novelista me hizo una impresión bastante buena con su audacia narrativa y la inmediatez de sus imágenes.  El argumento, como muchos de ustedes sabrán, gira sobre las historias entrelazadas de Clarissa Dalloway, la anfitriona aristócrata de una fiesta, y Septimus Smith, un héroe de la Primera Guerra Mundial que padece neurosis de guerra.  Aunque el hecho de que uno de estos dos personajes va a suicidarse dentro de poco la da a la ficción una medida extra de gravitas a causa de la trayectoría personal de Woolf, quizá el asunto lo más escalofriante acá sea la sugerencia que el acto de despedirse a la vida es una respuesta natural a la insensatez de la época moderna.  ¿El amor?  ¡Andate a la mierda!  ¿La poesía?  ¡Andate a la mierda!  ¿Todas las fiestas de mañana?  ¡Andate a la mierda!  Con respecto a esta perspectiva nada halagüeña, lo interesante acerca de la novela es que es sólo un punto de vista entre muchos otros.  Porque, al decirnos todo lo que la señora Dalloway y Septimus Smith y Peter Walsh tienen en común, Woolf es realmente maravillosa al ponernos al corriente en cuanto al mundo de sus personajes desde los puntos de vista de los personajes mismos.  Lo que piensan.  Cómo se sientan.  Lo que han perdido durante la marcha de los años desde la inocencia de su juventud.  De hecho, ambos el estilo (los monólogos interiores, la rapidez con cual se nota el cambio de narradores) y el lenguaje (los cuidadosos detalles de observación,  la capacidad de capturar un momento con un comentario hecho de paso) son vigorizantes--una proeza, ¿no?, en una novela que trata de la salud mental, el malestar de postguerra, y quizá lo más deprimente de todo, el fracaso del amor para curar nos dolores, de manera tan profunda e íntima por parte de la autora.

Virginia Woolf

"Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy's business of the intoxication of language--Antony and Cleopatra--had shrivelled utterly.  How Shakespeare loathed humanity--the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly!  This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words.  The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair.  Dante the same.  Aeschylus (translated) the same.  There Rezia sat at the table trimming hats.  She trimmed hats for Mrs. Filmer's friends; she trimmed hats by the hour.  She looked pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water, he thought.

'The English are so serious,' she would say, putting her arms round Septimus, her cheek against his."  (Mrs. Dalloway, pp. 86-87)

P.S. Thanks to Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate for hosting the Mrs. Dalloway portion of Woolf in Winter.

17 comentarios:

  1. YAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!! Ahem. I mean, I'm glad you liked it, Richard.

    I totally agree with everything you say, and I'm glad that you bring up the intensity of what the Septimus plotline implies - or at least, one way of interpreting it. I've been thinking about Woolf's own death as people bring up all the water imagery in Mrs. Dalloway - chilling, indeed. I also noticed more on this reading than on others her insistence (during the initial section on William Bradshaw's tyranny) that the choice to die should reside with the individual, and her depiction of a person coming to that realization in the wake of cultural catastrophe like WWI.

    But I still can't resist being swept along by the exhilarating prose, and the fleeting moments of connection and beauty.

  2. Wow, really great post Richard! I've been struck over and over today by the variety of reactions to this book, made so clear by the sudden outpouring of opinions. It's not something you get to see very often. Your bleak impression is spot on, and I can both agree with you 100 per cent, and yet find myself still holding to my own experience. It's really quite amazing.

  3. He querido leer esta obra desde hace años, Richard, pero por alguna razón no lo he hecho.
    Con tu reseña has renovado mis intenciones de hacerlo (¡me parece que te entusiasmó!).

  4. I hadn't thought about the idea behind love not healing all wounds etc. See I her everyone elses thoughts and the book grows on me. I think this will definately have to get a second read from me in a few years. Glad you enjoyed it so much and what a fantastic review.

  5. *Emily: Ha ha, I'm glad that you're glad that I liked it and I'm glad that I liked it, too! I know I've already mentioned this to you elsewhere, but that scene in the park where Peter Walsh crosses paths with Septimus and his wife was just devastating to me. The back and forth between their narrative points of view and Walsh's misreading of what's going on as just a lovers' spat between two young people was a defining moment in the book for me--uniting Woolf's storytelling verve and concerns (one of them at least) in high style. No need to take sides about our interpretations, though, because there are definitely plenty of fleeting moments of connection and a novel's worth of exhilarating prose!

    *Sarah: Wow, thanks! I think Woolf wrote the book with such richness that you could see it either as a bleak or a hopeful affair as Emily also touches on above. In this regard, it also has a perfect last line, which I neglected to mention during the course of my post. Thought the ending was Savage Detectives-worthy, in fact, which is high praise coming from me!

    *Andrómeda: ¡Hola y gracias por tu comentario! Sí, me entusiasmó la obra y ahorita anticipo poder leer 3 libros más de Woolf dentro de poco como parte del proyecto Woolf in Winter. Suerte con tus intenciones renovadas. ¡Un abrazo!

    *Simon: I'd have to reread Mrs. Dalloway to argue anything much beyond what I put in the post, but I thought Woolf was very cagey about her feelings on love. Put out the "good" and the "bad" sides of love's effect on us and then walked away for us to sort it out on our own. I love when authors respect their readers enough to do this. And since the book grew on me quite a bit as I thought about it, I can completely understand your reaction to feeling more enamored with the prose than the characters. It's an interesting novel in that regard. P.S. Thanks for the super kind words about the review!

  6. Can you hear the collective sigh of relief from the ladies, Richard? Aghh, Richard liked it. Oh, to command such power.

    Edgy and ambitious it is, and yet the first descriptor there not often enough attributed to near one hundred year old work. I am again astounded at the display of craft here. Been dipping back into the diaries, and have blown away by the process behind this novel. Deliberate. Every gorgeous detail, the attention to form - new form.

    And bleak. Yes. But does not leave me weighted down by the read's end. Odd. And "the inability of love to heal certain wounds." Much like Woolf's life. I think it was Claire (??) that said she saw Woolf more in Septimus than in Clarissa. And reading your thoughts here, I do for a moment as well.

    Freakin' fantastic post as usual. Can't wait to read your thoughts on To the Lighthouse.

  7. Richard - this is a wonderful post! I didn't join this read a long but think I will have to join for at least one of the books - nervously that is! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Whew. Another sigh of relief here, Richard. Haha. As usual, your insights are so enlightening. As you know, this was my first foray into Woolf as well, and was also wowed by the narrative.. but maybe so much so that I missed a lot of the nuances, and have only been gathering them from everyone's posts. I agree this was a bleak book, but in such a way that encourages and, like Sarah said, uplifts us. Somber yet not at all depressing. Joyous, even.

    That scene in the park with Peter looking on to Septimus and Rezia also made such a deep impression on me. Probably not devastating, but still sad.

    Are you reading To the Lighthouse as well?? :)

  9. "With so many mainstream classics really only representing the literary equivalent of elevator music. . ."

    Oh my. That's a wonderful sentence.

    You made a great point here that everyone else (including me) seems to have missed: that, considering Woolf's own story, she seems to be toying with the idea that suicide is the only solution to the meaninglessness and violence of modernity. I didn't get it before - how she could have committed suicide and yet have written such life-affirming prose - but now I do. Darn, my post feels so shallow now.

    I get the impression, from having read many other post-WW1 Modernist works as well - from "The Waste Land," The Sun Also Rises, Steppenwolf, The Great Gatsby and so forth - that these people were weirdly in love with their own post-war despair. Like Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper: he's so bleak and pessimistic and yet so eloquent in describing how spiritually bankrupt the modern age is. It's a very strange juxtaposition. Kind of Romantic - like Poe going on and on about the lost Lenore and the late Ligeia.

  10. My what an opening line, and so true. I really enjoyed the insights you brought to the reading of this novel. Reading the group's reviews and opinion's has made me ready to read it again. I missed so much it seems. Yet I have read other work by Woolf. I loved all her non fiction, and had read Jacob's Room and Orlando. This book was so subtle it need a slower reading that I gave it. I believe Woolf's depression shows through her work in the attitudes expressed in the story. Thank you for a great review. i look forward to your thoughts on the other books.
    You have a great blog here. I will be back to look around some more.

  11. I agree that the read-a-longs are a great way to discover new blogs. I am glad the story of Septimus was included, even though it was hard for me to read.

  12. *Frances: Although you and I would probably both reject the idea of literature as a march of progress with newer novels defining the state of the art (whatever that might be), I was astounded by how contemporary Mrs. Dalloway feels. The technical virtuosity you highlight is a huge part of that, sure, but Woolf's storytelling techniques also reminded me quite a bit of contempo film editing: narrators crossing paths in the park as the POV fluidly changes with them, some scenes seeming to take place in extended takes, etc. Hence, the edgy and ambitious tags. I can imagine Woolf in both Clarissa AND Septimus, which maybe explains why Mrs. D can feel bleak and non-bleak simultaneously. In any event, thanks for the blog love, my friend--it means a lot to me coming from you!

    *Tracey: Thank you very much! It'd be great to have you along with the group for one or more of the other books, but no need to feel nervous as all. And the group organizers are the best!

    *Claire: Ha ha, you all are cracking me up with the sighs of relief theme! Were you worried I was going to break out that special Sigrid Undset font in my post?!? All kidding aside, Mrs. Dalloway's such a rich and complex affair that I imagine that there are a lot of nuances to be missed within its pages. And while I found its "message" bleak in many ways, I agree that it's not a "downer" classic in the usual sense. Nor could it be with that exquisitely crafted final line. Thanks so much for your kind words and the visit!

    *E.L. Fay: Thank you, too, for the very kind words and the visit! Although I'm not sure there's always some sort of logic involved in the decision to take one's own life, I do think there's a clear tension in Mrs. Dalloway between toying with suicide as a form of rejection and the "life-affirming prose" that you and others have mentioned. My guess is that Woolf was working that out in her own life, but it's only a guess and it doesn't really matter in the long run anyway as far as our opinions of the novel are concerned. Glad you found the post helpful somehow, though. As for me, I really like the point you make about post-WWI writers being "weirdly in love with their own post-war despair." I'll have to think about it some more, but it kind of reminds me of that syndrome where kidnap victims begin to develop some sort of friendship-type feelings for their captors. Weird.

    *Sandra: Thanks so much for the compliments and for taking the time to drop by the blog! Although I agree that Woolf's depression seems to show through in Mrs. Dalloway, it's interesting to see how many people see the novel as essentially uplifting or life-affirming or hopeful in spite of the pain and suffering that also populate its pages. As a kind of a psychological litmus test, it's certainly a fascinating work in that regard! Anyway, I envy you your history with Woolf and I look forward to visiting your post(s) on her before too long. Cheers!

    *Lindsey: I agree that readalongs are great--both for discovering new blogs and for seeing what makes others prize or reject certain aspects of a work. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I think what I appreciated most about your review is your notice of the way she handles different voices. She's very good at paying attention to what each individual character in her story would think but each has a unique voice that works perfectly within her writing style.

    I'm glad it gets your approval (:

  14. I totally agree with your review, specially when you say "what's most chilling here is the insinuation that taking one's life could be a natural response to the meaninglessness of the modern age itself".

    While this book was quite bleak, I did find surges of hope; specially in the way Clarissa portrayed life. I'm torn as to what made more of an impact on me : life or death... and what I should focus on. Septimus was a more powerful character, but, Mrs. Dalloway is the story!

  15. *Lena: I love what you say here about the unique voices of Woolf's characters. And I loved discovering that about Woolf as I was reading the book myself. If you ever read Bolaño's Savage Detectives, you'll see something similar but on a much grander scale!

    *Anothercookiecrumbles: "Septimus was a more powerful character, but, Mrs. Dalloway is the story!" I like that! I also agree that the novel mixes bleakness and surges of hope in quite a powerful way. Thanks for the visit!

  16. So glad you liked it. I love Mrs. Dalloway. It always gives me the chills thinking about Woolf and her mental illness and suicide when I read it. I find myself wondering if writing about Septimus was terrifying or easy for her.

  17. *Stefanie, I wondered the same thing about Woolf's writing about Septimus. And even if it was easier for her in terms of her familiarity with the subject, it had to have been difficult emotionally at that same time, don't you think? Great book, though, definitely!