A Very Good Place to Start

So far I’ve danced around the edges of this novel, Mrs. Dalloway, because I like to warm up and I wanted to give you plenty of time to get started reading. I know even the best of intentions go sideways in the best of conditions, let alone right now. So if you haven’t begun, go ahead. Pick it up, read a few pages, and you will soon find yourself immersed.

I’m about 70 pages from the end of Mrs. Dalloway this round. Here’s where I like to start when I’m reading a book, which may seem elementary. I pay attention to the title, study it, and ask myself what I expect from the book based on it. (Titles are important! And when I’m reading a novel, I keep an eye out for the title within its pages or for the fitness of it if I don’t spot it.)

Of course I study the cover; that’s important to me. I want it to pair with the title and make me eager to read the book. It’s okay if the cover displays a painting that only nods at the era of the story. It isn’t designed to actually tell the story, but to give hints. I especially love novels that use paintings. If it draws my eye, it’s a winner.

For a classic, I don’t pay as much attention to the front of the book because it likely has had many covers and so none of them is directly connected with the original, not that every author has the luxury of being involved with cover design the way I was allowed to with Victorine.

I’m someone who reads the synopsis on the back of the book, as well as any blurbs. I read the forward, the dedication. Not that I always read these in that order. It just depends.

Do you read with a pen either in hand or nearby ? I do. I like taking notes in the margins, circling things, asking myself and the author questions. I write tidbits in the front of the book as well. Ever since I was a child I have written notes in books, particularly (you may gasp if you were brought up thinking this wasn’t okay) the Bible. I learned that writing was a two-way street way back then.

But let me turn to this novel. Why did I want to re-read it? To be honest, I read it hurriedly the first time (or two; I believe this is my third reading, but I can’t swear to that) and I thought I owed it better. Because it wasn’t the Woolf book I was most enthralled with (Lighthouse), I must admit to being a bit dismissive about it. Lighthouse was Sgt. Pepper’s; Dalloway was maybe Abbey Road. And yet without Dalloway, there would be no Lighthouse.

Then my writing mother mentioned she believes that Woolf was most successful with Dalloway, though she had long held my opinion of Lighthouse being superior; since obviously I respect her, I was (am) eager to read Dalloway once more to see if I can agree with her. (I’m still forming my opinion.)

Of course this novel was also the basis for a modern-day takeoff Michael Cunningham wrote called The Hours. If that also sounds like a movie title from 2002, you’re correct, it became that as well. The title comes from an alternate title for Mrs. Dalloway that Woolf considered for an awfully long time before using the current title.

While the novel doesn’t have chapters, it does have twelve slight breaks that function as such. (The Hours. Get it?) Anyway, that was another reason I read it to start with.

Why doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway have chapters, you ask?  Ah, my take on it is that she wants to highlight the unbroken nature of life, the interconnectedness: characters weave in and out of one another’s lives and consciousness. Not giving us chapters keeps the stream of consciousness flowing. After all, she is only depicting one day.

Let me share some first (again) impressions of the novel, my sketchy thoughts, and feelings. (Caveat: while I adore Woolf, I am an amateur reader of her work. I don’t know all there is to know about her. I don’t have every date related to her memorized. I may well be “wrong” about her intentions and what she’s done, but I am a passionate reader and I don’t care if I am wrong, because as an author I consider myself of her tribe and therefore qualified to discuss any damned thing I like about her work.)

I also don’t believe there are rights and wrongs when it comes to literature. It’s subjective.

So there. Insert an insolent tongue-sticking-out emoji here. The overly reverent, fearful approach commonly taken with Woolf is why more people don’t read her. But don’t forget that I am someone who wrote notes and questions to God in the margins of my Bible; I’m not likely to be afraid of Woolf. (No nod to Albee intended!)

I will say this: you don’t read her for the plot. Sure, her novels (mostly) have one, but that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to wander in her worlds and see how she’s created them and the immediacy with third person. How she doesn’t over rely on tradition. How she puts forth modern life, domestic life, as fitting subject matter. How she elasticizes language, how she makes writing impressionistic. How she makes a miracle of a meal. And for so much more.

Will you forgive me if I dive into Lighthouse for a moment here? “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s an ecstasy.” It’s a line the painter Lily Briscoe says, and I believe it speaks for itself. If you don’t think that’s a life-changing, gorgeous sentence in all senses, there’s nothing more I can do for you.

I could (and will, later) go on, but that quote has my heart full at the moment.  

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