Monday, 4 April 2011

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

A book that is often compared with Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway is, for me (and insofar as they can actually be compared), by far the better of the two. I appreciate the Joyce, but it sags under its own weight. Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, is seductive because of its apparent lightness.

This is not to say it is lightweight. Far from it, but like all good literature it is easy to read and then stays with you for days and weeks afterwards as you mull over the content, finding yourself delving into deeper and deeper layers of meaning and structure.

The basic idea is simplicity itself. On a June day in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway prepares for one of her renowned parties. During the same day, Septimus Smith, a soldier whose shell-shock has taken him to the edge of madness is taken by his wife to see a specialist.

Through various stylistic techniques – principally stream of consciousness, but also the melding of direct and indirect speech with voiced and unvoiced thought, and the use of cinematic cutting – we follow these characters and those who surround them. Whilst the two principal characters never meet, their lives do make contact. And through the contrasts and the histories of the characters Woolf addresses a number of issues.

It is a subtle book with a dream-like quality: one scene suggests another and time is a fluid medium. We move from inner thoughts to omniscient viewpoint. And the whole thing simmers on a low flame of hysteria. Which makes some events all the more startling. And although there appears to be nothing in the way of commentary about the novel, it is once you go back and start thinking about the undercurrents that the flavour really comes through. Like an Eliot poem where the most banal of events and existences serve to make you wonder about the alternatives and just how inevitable it all is.

A book like this is difficult to sum up in a few short paragraphs. Virginia Woolf is a favourite author of mine (who would have guessed) and I would heartily recommend this to anyone, not just because it is a great novel, but also because of the technique. It is worth studying for that alone.