Thursday, May 10, 2007

Life is not a series of gig lamps

I recently read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). I love the modernists, and especially Virginia Woolf, but somehow I had gotten through 30 years of my life without reading this book. I'm not sure why. Now I want to go back and re-read all her other books. Modernism is for me!

In the introduction to my copy of the book, the editor quotes from Woolf's essay "Modern Fiction" (1919):

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions -- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpest of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there, so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon feeling and not upon conviction, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it... Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

That really gets at the heart of what Woolf is doing with Mrs. Dalloway. In this book, we follow the title character through one day of her life as she prepares for and hosts a party at her house. While not really stream of consciousness, the narrative is very loose and free (sometimes almost poetic) and follows the thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway and the people with whom she interacts. We easily transfer from one person to another and then back again, learning about their present and their past, and their relationships with one another. The end result is a truly engrossing and descriptive book of a life, as told through the lens of one day of it. One thing that I love is when giant things are crammed into tiny artistic containers, and the restraints of setting a book in one day really appeal to me.

Has any one read The Hours? I kind of want to now and (eventually) also see the movie. I've heard better things about the book than the movie, but both sound interesting.


steiger said...

i read the hours a few years ago before i saw the movie. i loved the book, and liked the movie okay, too. i just not too long ago purchased a very cheap remaindered hardcover copy of the mrs. dalloway reader, which has a bunch of essays and diary entries along with the short story mrs. dalloway's party and the novel itself. you can borrow it if you want.

TheAnxiousLife said...

Great quote!
To the Lighthouse is excellent. Jacob's Room is quite good, too.