Review – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

‘In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’

I could quote from this novel endlessly. Unbelievably, this was the first time I’d read anything by Virginia Woolf. I’m so glad I waited. I genuinely don’t know how I might have reacted to this when I was younger; I get the feeling I might have gulped it down all at once, and not really let it touch the sides.

Instead, I took it slowly, reading this relatively slim novel in even slimmer chunks. I think you have to – or at least, I had to – to truly appreciate the ‘waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’.

A brief note on plot, although plot really isn’t the point. Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-something bastion of British privilege, is throwing a party. The narrative follows her thoughts, and those of others – mainly her ex-lover Peter, and a shell-shocked veteran Septimus – through the course of a single day in June. During the course of that day, they wander all around central London, occasionally overlapping, although Septimus’s story is broadly independent of the others. Their minds, though, are elsewhere; in Clarissa and Peter’s case, largely in the past, when they were young and things were different.

I have said this about other classics before, but I was surprised by how, well, modern it all felt. This was partly the style (the somewhat breathless stream-of-consciousness style means this novel will definitely be one I go back to; the access to the characters’ most intimate thoughts (and even more so, their thought processes) is familiar to us now, but was still pretty new in the early 1920s). It was also, though, the subject matter. Despite the shadow of World War I, I wasn’t expecting to read about a shell-shocked soldier. His story forms an agonising counterpoint to the main event, and adds depth to a plot which could otherwise – on the surface, at least – have seemed a little frothy.

The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Clarissa. Married to a man who solemnly declares ‘that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides the relationship was not one that he approved)’, she is serene and respectable on the outside, whilst the narrative ranges over a complex and exhausting inner life, from worrying about aging and death, to wishing she could have done everything differently, to being – at times – happy, almost content. I found this complexity and depth wildly exhilarating; like seeing the world with the colours turned up. ‘It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.’ That must have been an easy thing to believe, after the horrors of the Great War; maybe it’s an even easier thing to believe today. The joy of this novel, for me, though, was its demonstration of exactly the opposite: ‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.’ Quite so.

****

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Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

***