Monday, July 26, 2010

It's not just a cigar.

Current book: Mrs. Dalloway
Pages read: 11 - 65

Stream-of-consciousness, this book, like lily pads in the water of a dark pond, like Monet's pond would be if you went to Giverny, all shadows and impressions in the greened sunlight of a French summer, reminding you of art but also of thinking at the same time, reproducing the echoes of memories in the memories of the story itself, like a painting and not like a painting, the way a day is like a painting and not like one, the way it can change and be something different from one moment to the next.

So, that's what the writing is like. Well, at least it's my attempt at approximating Woolf's style in the novel. Honestly, it's masterful prose; it does more to capture the way someone thinks than I would have thought possible. It's not surprising that Virginia Woolf is as remarked upon as she is, but it is surprising that more people don't like her. Sure, the prose has its moments of opacity, but it's so easy to read, most of the time, that I would expect it to be more popular than it is. It's so fluid and captivating, and it takes you along with the thought processes of the people you meet so completely, that it's almost impossible not to be drawn into their existences the way you're drawn into your own experience: it simply happens.

Anyway. Clarissa Dalloway is an older, well-off woman preparing for a party in London. She is insecure about being accepted by her society and is uncertain and almost regretful about the choices she's made in her life that have brought her to this day. She has a daughter, Elizabeth, with whom she feels very little kinship, and who is currently in the thrall of an older tutor, Ms. Kilman, who is a born-again Christian and activist. Clarissa once had a love affair with Peter Walsh, who now lives and works in India, and very nearly married him, though she chose Richard Dalloway instead. Peter visits her in London and asks her if she's happy, to which she gives no answer before they are interrupted by a servant coming into the room. She does, however, invite him to her party that evening. Clarissa also once had a love affair, or something very close to it, with a girlfriend named Sally Seton, a friend of Peter's.

Unconnected, as of yet, to this group is Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran of the first world war who is suffering from a pretty intense case of post-traumatic stress disorder (referred to in the book, of course, as shell shock). Septimus has auditory and visual hallucinations and paranoid delusions, mostly revolving around parts of the world changing suddenly and people chasing and conspiring against him. Septimus is married to Lucrezia (Rezia), a young woman from Italy, who feels very alone in London, especially since the doctors keep insisting that her husband is really all right, but just needs attention and comfort.

There we are. The entire book takes place within the span of a day, so don't look for a lot of exciting plot action (though there is some). There's a scene in this part, which I'd forgotten since the last time I read it, in which Clarissa and Peter are discussing their past and the present and each is preoccupied with his or her own thoughts. Peter plays with a pocketknife constantly during the scene, and Clarissa keeps toying with a pair of sewing scissors. Oh, man, the overtly aggressive sexual imagery. I don't usually get into Freudian analysis, but seriously? The guy's handing a penetrative blade used for hunting and skinning, and the woman is handling a receptive pair of blades used for sewing and household duties, and they're discussing a love affair that they once had that might have been more but has since been subsumed by Clarissa's duty to society and Peter's to British colonialism. I mean, really.

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