The Hours based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. Film was directed by Stephen Daldry. The article below is about novel.
NEWYORK TIMES, BOOK REVIEW | November 22, 1998
By Michael Wood
'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham
On a morning in June, a woman in her early 50's steps out into the bright, busy city that she loves. She needs to buy flowers for a party she is giving later in the day. She bumps into an old acquaintance, remembers moments from her earlier life. Along with a number of other people, she catches a glimpse of a celebrity, but isn't sure who it is. She buys the flowers, goes home and her day continues.
Where are we? We could, of course, be in any one of a number of days and cities, and the possibility itself is part of the answer to the question. But we are quite definitely, recognizably, in two novels: ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' by Virginia Woolf, and ''The Hours,'' by Michael Cunningham.
There are differences. The city is London in one case and New York in the other. The time is the 1920's; it is the 1990's. The unknown celebrity is a prince, a queen or a prime minister in a car; she is a movie star in a trailer. The woman in both novels is called Clarissa, but in the later work Mrs. Dalloway is a nickname. The chief difference, perhaps, is that no one in the first novel can have read the second, whereas almost everyone in the second seems to have read the first.
There are eerie consequences of this impression. When ''The Hours'' begins to repeat some of the darker events from ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' is this a literary parallel, a hint at the limitations of human plots and chances -- or a suggestion that the first novel has caused the events in the second? When someone dies quoting from Virginia Woolf's own suicide note, you think there must be even further options. What's clear is that the relationship between the two novels goes beyond allusion, and even beyond the modernist habit of borrowing previous literary structures, which T. S. Eliot called ''the mythical method.'' ''The Hours'' is haunted by ''Mrs. Dalloway'' -- appropriately, because its theme is the haunting of present lives by memories and books, by distant pasts and missed futures, by novels and poems to be read and written.
But so far I have described only one of Cunningham's story lines, and there are three. Their final intersection is a thing of such beauty and surprise that I can't reveal it here, but I can sketch out the lines before their meeting. After the New York Clarissa, we encounter a (fictional but entirely plausible) version of Woolf herself in 1923. She and her husband, Leonard, are living in Richmond, just outside London. The quiet is good for her health, but she longs to get back to the city. She is writing ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' at this point still called ''The Hours.'' Her sister, Vanessa, arrives with her children. Virginia slips away, almost takes a train to London, meets Leonard while she is waiting, goes home. Somewhere along the way, she decides that Clarissa Dalloway will not die in her novel; someone else will.
This story is told in seven episodes, interspersed with eight episodes of the New York day and with seven episodes evoking another time and place and person. A young woman called Laura Brown, pregnant for a second time, mother of a small boy, is married to an amiable veteran of World War II -- the date is 1949 -- and lives a slightly bewildered life in a suburb of Los Angeles. She has a moment of sudden, surprising sexual excitement with another woman and takes off into a little fugue rather like Woolf's projected one. She drives into the city, finds a room in a hotel and reads -- ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' of course. Then she goes home to her son and husband and a birthday celebration and sex. Goes home this time, the implication is.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Clarissa thinks about her party. It is for her friend Richard, an AIDS-stricken poet who is about to receive an award. Clarissa lives with her lover, Sally, and has for many years. An old gay friend drops by, aging, weeping. Clarissa's beautiful daughter, involved with an older woman whom Clarissa hates, also appears, apparently unfazed by the raging hostility between her friend and her mother. Clarissa visits Richard to see if he's ready for the party.
After a brief prologue, the stories alternate in an intricate sequence, rather like a rhyme scheme. The prologue recounts, mainly from Woolf's point of view, the writer's stepping into an English river to her death. The time of that event is 1941. I thought, until I was a good way into the book, that this beginning was a mistake: too heavy, quite apart from the stylistic risk. But what happens to Cunningham's characters fully justifies this move. He needs the shadow cast by Woolf's death, because it represents the condition under which we find whatever light there is. The whole book does sound a little fussy in description, an exercise in echoes, but it doesn't read that way. Do we need to know ''Mrs. Dalloway'' to get the gist of ''The Hours''? No, but ''need'' is perhaps not the right word.
We don't have to read ''Mrs. Dalloway'' before we can read ''The Hours,'' and no amount of pedantic comparison-hunting will help us understand it if we don't understand it already. But the connections between the two books, after the initial, perhaps overelaborate laying out of repetitions and divergences, are so rich and subtle and offbeat that not to read ''Mrs. Dalloway'' after we've read ''The Hours'' seems like a horrible denial of a readily available pleasure -- as if we were to leave a concert just when the variations were getting interesting.
Cunningham's two earlier novels, ''A Home at the End of the World'' and ''Flesh and Blood,'' are remarkable for the intensity with which their characters experience their own strangeness -- as if to be ordinary were an accomplishment, only rarely within reach. From such a perspective, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway seems to be waiting, like an older sister: ''She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.''
There are times in ''The Hours'' when Cunningham follows Woolf's cadences too closely: ''Here she is then, Clarissa thinks''; ''Here, then, is the party.'' The effect is one of pastiche rather than of being haunted. There are moments too when the writing doesn't rise to its own challenges, merely gesturing toward the feelings on offer: ''She is sad for him, and strangely moved. She manages an ironic smile.'' But the overall impression is that of a delicate, triumphant glance, an acknowledgment of Woolf that takes her into Cunningham's own territory, a place of late-century danger but also of treasurable hours.
Here is a mother both understanding of and unnerved by her son's love for her: ''He knows. He must know. . . . He is devoted, entirely, to the observation and deciphering of her, because without her there is no world at all. . . . He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.'' It is only on reflection that we realize that the mother's fear is also a legacy, a gift to the child, something he will always know. But reflection is where many of our chances for happiness lie, in the memory not of what happened but of what was promised.
''It had seemed like the beginning of happiness,'' the New York Clarissa thinks of her early relationship with Richard, ''and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than 30 years later, to realize that it was happiness. . . . There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.''