Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Review : Mrs Dalloway

In a remote region of my mind there exists a bookcase. It’s labeled “authors I really should read more of”, and it is – as you might imagine – gigantic. There’s a philosophy corner, where Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein, among others, are engaged in a bull session for the ages. A.S. Byatt, and Grace Paley share a shelf with Turgenev, Chekhov, and Gogol, right next door to China Mieville, Roberto Bolano, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. Up on one of the higher shelves there’s the Nobel niche – Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz are hanging out with Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Becket has a spot there, but he usually prefers the French quarter, boozing it up with Balzac, Rabelais, Dumas, Hugo, and Colette. And that’s not even the half of it.

Let's be clear. This is a virtual bookcase. It exists only in my mind. Which is a good thing - because it's so completely chock-a-block that, if it existed physically, it would immediately collapse under its own weight. Even thinking about it triggers all kinds of guilt-related synapses. How can I consider myself a true reader when I haven’t read Rabelais? When my acquaintance with Dumas and Hugo is based solely on Saturday morning cartoons and heartwarming Broadway musicals? All the hip kids have read Bolano – why haven’t I?

Sporadically, as some kind of vague gesture in the fight against entropy, I try to tidy things up a little by removing a few authors. This requires me to actually read at least one work by the authors in question, to determine whether they merit transfer to the “authors I want to read more of” shelf or get consigned to the “a little goes a long way” depository. Last month, against all expectations, Henry James made the transition from the “should read more” to the “want to read more” shelf, on the basis of “The Ambassadors”.

Recently, I came across a bargain copy of “Mrs Dalloway”, so I figured it was time to give Virginia Woolf a try. I’d tried “To the Lighthouse” a few times, but never managed to get through it. I’m glad to report that “Mrs Dalloway” was a treat from start to finish – I loved this book. Which is a little unusual, because normally I tend to prefer novels where the plotting is strong, and there is no plot to speak of in “Mrs D”. It was written in 1924, just two years after the publication of “Ulysses”. Joyce may have been the first to use stream-of-consciousness, but it’s hard to argue that he did so successfully – large chunks of "Ulysses" are essentially unreadable, and for much of the book he seems primarily concerned with showing off his own cleverness.

In “Mrs Dalloway”, Woolf gets stream-of-consciousness right. In a deliberate break from established literary tradition, the structure of the book is unorthodox. The action is minimal: the book simply tracks the progress of the main characters across a single day in post World War I London. The narrative changes point of view continuously throughout the book, presenting the different characters’ thoughts and reactions. What amazed me about the book is its richness – though it seems as if we learn very little about a given character in any particular episode in the story, by the end we realize that Woolf’s characterization is brilliant. None of the main characters in the story is particularly likeable, but they are all completely credible and vividly realized. I’m not sure how exactly Woolf pulls this off – some kind of combination of presenting just the salient detail and inviting the reader inside the characters’ heads. Maybe it’s just alchemy. But she certainly manages to make the (often mundane) details of the characters’ lives interesting.

The other aspect of the book that delighted me was the writing. Although the “stream-of-consciousness” narrative entails occasionally complex sentence structure, it’s fairly easy to read, and there are many passages that are simply terrific.

I’m really not explaining this very coherently. I don’t quite know why I liked “Mrs Dalloway” as much as I did. I’ve never read anything else like it. In the end, maybe that’s reason enough for you to consider giving it a shot.

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