Saturday 27 August 2011

Mrs Dalloway

Earlier this summer I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for the first time. It is – well, during the days I was reading it the world was a slightly different place, experienced more acutely; it’s right up there. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is structured around three women – VW during the early stages of writing Mrs D, a modern-day (1998) Mrs D, a woman in the late 1940s who is reading Mrs D. Early in the novel there’s a glimpse of a film star who may or may not be Meryl Streep. Yesterday, passing a rental store, I took out the film of The Hours (with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore).

Layer upon layer. The Hours (the novel; also the original working title of Mrs D) is good, without reaching the heights of Mrs D, but that would be expecting too much. The Hours (the film) is also good, in a number of ways better than the novel. The extras on the DVD included something called ‘commentary’; usually I don’t bother with the extras, but this one was more than worthwhile: the director Stephen Daldry and the novelist Michael Cunningham talk over what feels to be almost a complete re-screening of the film, much of it with the volume off but with the sound brought up when they want to point to a particular scene. There was some engaging talk about the incidentals: about the visual leitmotifs (the blue cloth of a dressing gown, the breaking of eggs in a bowl); about the reaction shots of a very young child actor (some of them captured by Daldry telling him the story of Jack and the Beanstalk); about the 1920s steam train which appears briefly in a scene with Virginia and Leonard Woolf on the platform of Richmond station (the train was brought over from the Isle of Man; the scene was filmed at Loughborough). More interestingly, there was discussion of the changes the screenwriter (David Hare) had made in bringing the novel into a different medium: a scene added, a scene dropped, dialogue cut when it was found that action or expression could convey the point better, a scene between A and B in which in the novel A breaks down but in which in the film it’s B who breaks down.

Mrs Dalloway is a desert island book. Neither the novel The Hours nor the film The Hours for me make that rank, possibly because of their deference to the original Mrs D, neither being wholly its own thing; and because, for all the intelligence with which they are made, the structural seams show through, you can see how they’ve been put together. But the whole sequence – from Mrs D to contemporary novel to film – is enthralling. And the several versions of Mrs D are of course entirely appropriate to Virginia Woolf’s conception of character as a fluid, unstable thing. (Two sentences from a Yehuda Amichai short story on the stream-of-consciousness thing: ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’)

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