Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reading group: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Three parallel narratives, featuring respectively Virginia Woolf struggling with her demons, a young woman, Laura Brown, trapped in suburban motherhood in the nineteen-forties and longing to escape and read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, and a middle-aged woman Clarissa arranging a party in the nineteen-nineties for an old lover who is dying of Aids and who once nicknamed her Mrs Dalloway after that fictional Clarissa.

Ann, who had suggested this novel, said that in the event she wasn't sure what she thought of it, as she didn't feel that the perspectives of the three women were sufficiently differentiated and in particular she couldn't get to grips with the Laura Brown character: she understood the trap Laura was in but couldn't see how such a strong-willed character could have got into such a trap in the first place.

This caused some surprise: others felt on the contrary that the characters were very well differentiated, and those who had grown up in sixties suburbia in Britain had found Laura Brown and her position entirely recognizable. Indeed, everyone else thought this book was wonderful - even Jenny. Initially Jenny had resisted the idea of this book as she didn't like parallel narratives, but even though the connections between the different strands had seemed superficial she had found it absorbing, and in any case at the end it is revealed that they are not separate stories at all.

We had quite some discussion about this last. Trevor said that when he suddenly realized the connections so near the end he wondered if he had been really thick in not guessing them before. I said I didn't think so: I thought it had been deliberate structural strategy on Cunningham's part to spring a surprise. I thought that there was nothing so moving as to discover that an old woman you were despising along with one character was in fact the same person as a young woman you'd been identifying with, and Hans strongly agreed.

On the other hand, I couldn't help questioning this strategy, since had we known the connections as we were reading there would have been resonances which inevitably we missed - though as Jenny said, the thing about great literaure is that it makes you want to read it again, and on a second reading we would experience them.

I think we were in no doubt that this was great literature. John had been seriously ill while I had been reading it, and the book's overriding theme of death had at times made it quite difficult for me to read, yet I had always gone back to it: it had seeped into my consciousness the way great literature does. The only other quibble was Doug's: he wondered about the occasional breaches of the novel's convention when we are given the viewpoint of minor characters; yet Doug was perhaps one of the greatest admirers of this book.

It wasn't overall a long discussion. It was the kind of occasion, I think, where a book hits you in the gut, and intellectual discussion seems not quite the point.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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