Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mrs Dalloway

To read Virginia Woolf is to find the subtlest, most ambiguous impressions turned into prose. It is to discover that everyday feelings, which are nonetheless complex or difficult to categorise, can be made into something articulate. Mrs Dalloway presents one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, in an uninterrupted flow of thoughts, memories, reflection and dialogue. Novels without chapters are often challenging because they force their readers to find a suitable place to pause, and this is no exception. However, in this case, the unorthodox structure gives the story a sense of continuing both backwards and forwards in time beyond the covers of the novel.

If Mrs Dalloway simply recounted one day in the life of a 52-year-old woman, it would attract far fewer readers. (This is in spite of the fact that, refreshingly, Clarissa does not feel old and rejoices in having years and years to live.) However, just as in Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie wrote that in order to understand one life you need to ‘swallow the world’, Woolf appreciated that in order to give the events of the day some substance, it would be necessary for the reader to swallow a decent portion of Clarissa’s past.

As its title indicates, Mrs Dalloway is deeply concerned with what it means to be married. How do we choose the person whom we should marry? What happens if the choice turns out to be a poor one? The characters therefore include the friends Clarissa knew before she was married, and who observed and influenced her choice of husband. Their significance to Clarissa is revealed through a series of vivid recollections, and the many threads of this story are ultimately brought loosely together for the party that Clarissa is planning for the evening.

This novel is full of the joys and sadnesses that run through daily life: watching a sky-writer, riding an omnibus, walking in the country, slowly becoming unable to communicate with a loved one, fearing the loss of a friend. It is highly perceptive, elegant and occasionally painful.

‘Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in.’

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.