mrs. dalloway, by virginia woolf

August 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In which, very beautifully, nothing happens.

The back cover calls Mrs. Dalloway the first novel to split the atom. Congrats, Harcourt. That’s a ingenuous way of marketing what would for most people be utterly unreadable, unbearably stuffy drek. Did I just say that aloud? Whoops. Well, no surprise: there’s a threshold between you and liking this book. If you have an ear for rhythm in language, if you like artless, offhand, china-boned meditations on life and living, if all of this set to the tune of roughly six ongoing and interpenetrating levels of leitmotifs and symmetries and Big Ben striking hour upon hour upon hour to the end of your life, you are much more likely to bear through two hundred pages of Mrs. Dalloway nattering breathlessly about flowers.

Do I sound mildly disgusted? I don’t mean to. Mrs. Dalloway is an extraordinarily beautiful book. I just don’t want to oversell it. I could say stuff here about living tapestries of words and beautiful breathable metaphors and prose that radiates, like, unremitting showers of priceless gold coins. And I suppose that I just did. But, honestly. I read this for an undergrad survey course when I was nineteen and came away indifferent. Now it’s like a hearing aid has switched on in my ear. The meter is masterful. There are sentences that read like they were so carefully sewn. I can just feel Woolf briskly snapping off the thread with her teeth and knotting it tight.

I’ve come to realize that I read so much because books are music to my ears. Language ripples, is musical, scales worlds in a jump. Sentences ring like singing through my head. Literally, if you were to take an MRI of my brain while I read Lolita or James Baldwin the areas that’d glow neon on the x-ray would probably be the same ones that’d flare up, with my brain on Chopin. So in many respects, this was eye-popping stuff. Certainly Woolf is in complete command of her writing, and her knack for pinning the kicking verb, for netting bagfuls of lively flopping characters, is I’m sure unsurpassed.

Still, this book really illustrates for me the irritating and apparently omnipresent tension between “beauty of writing” and “something fucking happen before I put my foot through my computer screen”. It’s a rare combo platter that features both. Natalie is supposed to be writing me The Perfect Novel that does just that — in other words, the greatest, loveliest, most moving novel you could ever dream of, about organic vampires — yes, please harass her with me, I’m amassing signatures for a petition — but who knows when that’ll come out? And in the meantime, I’m lost. There’s only so much Dorothy Dunnett in this world.


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