I start the 2011 reading year with a book that isn't really my usual fare. So perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. Last year I read Michael Cunningham's lovely, art-world novel By Nightfall. I liked the novel enough to consider other books by Cunningham. I decided to read his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hours, a story that reflects on Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway. I thought it might be smart to read Woolf's book before I moved onto The Hours, which will be book two in 2011.
I've never read anything by Virginia Woolf until now, largely shying away from her writings due to all the literary rumors I'd heard about her stream-of-consciousness style and highly-experimental constructs. So I was pleasantly surprised at how readable Woolf is. Don't get me wrong, this was a tough book but not to the level I expected.
The story follows Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa) as she plans and hosts a party. At the beginning of the book Clarissa is a vision of happy kindness, an interesting character that's easy to love. And in classic Woolf style, she even has a sexually ambiguous relationship in her youth, falling for a female friend. She's very different from Septimus Warren Smith, a working-class veteran newly returned from World War I; he's depressed, annoying, and not an character I'd want to know. But as the novel unfolds, Clarrisa becomes less and less likable as her shallowness is revealed. All this as sympathy builds for Septimus, climaxing just as he throws himself out a window and ends it all.
Woolf writes engaging characters, that is when you can tell who she's talking about. The frequent meandering passages involving a cavalcade of characters can be confusing, particularly since you can read for pages without ever encountering a name, only an endless collection of pronouns.
Mrs. Dalloway is a challenging read. But it's also a reminder that it might not hurt to read the classics every now and then. Here's to more classics in 2011.