Michael Cunningham: “The Hours”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

In her fascinating book Virginia Woolf Icon, Brenda Silver examines all the ways Woolf has become a potent international symbol. You can buy a Barnes and Noble canvas bag featuring Woolf’s face, and the British National Portrait Gallery sells thousands of Woolf postcards a month. And of course, the great American playwright Edward Albee famously asked Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

American novelist Michael Cunningham is clearly not afraid of Virginia Woolf. He says of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway:

I suspect any serious reader has a first great book, just the way anybody has a first kiss. For me it was this book. It stayed with me in a way no other book ever has. And it felt like something for me to write about very much the way you might write a novel based on the first time you fell in love.

Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, is a kind of homage to and deep exploration of Mrs. Dalloway, which I discussed in last week’s StoryWeb episode. The Hours is not a rewriting of her 1935 novel per se, but a reimagining, a fractured retelling, both a sequel of sorts to Mrs. Dalloway and a wholly new work on its own. Cunningham says, “I think it’s like the way a jazz musician might do a riff on an older established piece of music. It doesn’t claim or conceal the older piece of music, but it takes that music and turns it into something else.”

The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Laura Brown, an American housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949; Clarissa Vaughn, a late-twentieth century American whose friend Richard, a prominent writer, is dying of AIDS; and Virginia Woolf herself in 1923 as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway. All three women are presented on one key day in their lives. The novel’s prologue, which you can read online, tells the story of Woolf’s suicide in 1941. The women’s stories comment on each other in provocative ways, and the reader is in for some unexpected plot twists.

Though some of have seen The Hours as a derivative knock-off of Woolf’s masterpiece, others see it as a postmodern tour de force, a bold intertextual response to Mrs. Dalloway. As it riffs on one of the most important modernist novels, The Hours is, I believe, a great postmodernist novel.

Wondering just what I mean by postmodern? I won’t go all academic on you, but if you take the time to read Mrs. Dalloway and then The Hours, I think you’ll be fascinated by two key features of postmodernism – intertextuality and palimpsest – and how they apply to Cunningham’s novel.

Intertextuality, says Roland Barthes, recognizes that “[a]ny text is a new tissue of past citations.” A new piece of writing builds on the text of works that have come before. A writer cannot write anything wholly original, and as T.S. Eliot noted in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” even the original work shifts and changes when a new piece of writing comes into the world. Mrs. Dalloway isn’t quite Mrs. Dalloway anymore, now that The Hours has been written.

The notion of palimpsest also applies to The Hours. A palimpsest is “a manuscript on which an earlier text has been effaced and the . . . parchment reused for another [text].” In medieval religious circles, writers would “rub out an earlier piece of writing by . . . washing or scraping the manuscript, in order to prepare it for a new text.” The historical practice of creating palimpsests fascinates postmodernists, who self-consciously write their “new” words on the face of words that have gone before. Michael Cunningham symbolically writes The Hours on the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway.

If you want to dig deeper into what Cunningham was up to in creating this unique homage to a previous novel, check out John Mullan’s pieces in The Guardian: “Imitation” (on Cunningham’s take on Mrs. Dalloway), “Separate Reels” (on the parallel narratives between Woolf’s novel and Cunningham’s novel), and “Who’s Afraid of Rewriting Woolf?” (on intertextuality).

And if you’re ready to learn more about Cunningham, read about his reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours or read the transcript of the PBS Online NewsHour interview with him just after the award was announced.

Of course, Cunningham’s novel was made into an outstanding film, also titled The Hours. It stars Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. Kidman won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

To learn more about the film, check out the New York Times’ excellent resource, “Virginia Woolf and The Hours, which includes a slide show of the film. Be sure to read Matt Wolf’s essay on the film, “Clarissa Dalloway in a Hall of Mirrors.” Carol Iannone’s reflective essay, “Woolf, Women, and The Hours,” is also insightful. You might also want to take a look at the BBC’s web project on the film. Finally, you can check out Cunningham’s reflections on the film. If you just can’t get enough of the film, you can learn about screenplay writer David Hare, director Stephen Daldry, and composer Philip Glass.

Should we be afraid of Virginia Woolf and the darkness she confronts in her writing, the darkness she confronted in herself? Michael Cunningham doesn’t think so. He says:

I can’t imagine wanting to write a novel that wasn’t about darkness in some way. I don’t feel like we need much help with our happiness. The Kodak moments we can manage on our own – I don’t mean to dismiss happiness. We can manage our happiness on our own. I feel like what we need art for is a little bit of solace, a little bit of company in trying to deal with the darker stuff. At the same time, I would never write a pessimistic book. I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.

Or as Clarissa Vaughn asks herself in The Hours, “Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?” Her answer? “[W]e want desperately to live.”

Ultimately, Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours are works of great optimism, strength, and courage – despite Septimus Warren Smith’s profound struggle with shell shock, despite Woolf’s ultimate decision to commit suicide, despite Richard’s AIDS and its outcome. Read these novels, watch these films, and see if you, too, aren’t reaffirmed in the celebration of life, its happiness – and its darkness.

Listen and Watch: Listen to Michael Cunningham read from The Hours. Then watch the opening sequence from The Hours, which depicts Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her depiction of Woolf.


Image Credit: Photograph of Michael Cunningham by David Shankbone, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Cunningham_JB_by_David_Shankbone.jpg.