“Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Savers Thrift Store in Berkeley has an ugly, disorganized corner on the second floor lovingly reserved for books. Besides indisputable crap, there are far more classics than anything else, which is a bit alarming, as these are the books that people are ridding of their lives. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert marked the first time I read a book and thought, I like this more than anything I’ve ever read. It is forevermore in the canon of my all-time favorites, which entails buying any and all editions that I come across. This particular one cost me just 50 cents, thanks to the cashier who picked it up, shrugged, and charged me for a children’s book.
An introductory note from the publisher ends this way: “All Flaubert’s scorn for conventional society, its lack of intelligence and insensitivity to beauty, are embodied in his greatest novel, Madame Bovary.” Scorn and society are frequent costars, but Madame Bovary’s very own intelligence and beauty inspires a new kind of understanding, one focused on a woman who suffocates within the confines of conservative society. It is a dense classic better left read, like I imagine all of them are. Until the next re-read, may it sit on my bookshelf as a reminder to read the countless classics I have yet to read, because any one of them may be the next addition to the list of perennial favorites.
“As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.”
Mrs. Dalloway, pp. 73-4
By Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf weaves together the minds of countless characters to portray life in post-WWI England. Though the book is often described as a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the characters and their life stories are so varied and numerous that together, a much larger story involving feminism, class, suicide, and friendship is told.
Mrs. Dalloway proves that you learn far more about someone through their random and unfiltered thoughts, no matter how brief, than you do learning details like where they were born or what their hobbies are or who they keep company with. While the story spans only one day, and relatively little information is offered of any given character, I was left with such vivid impressions of each of them simply because I heard snippets of their innermost thoughts. It is often not he said, she said, but rather he thought, she thought. The emphasis on each character’s own stream of consciousness gives vibrancy, almost legitimacy, to one’s inner life; it is as real as what goes on outside of one’s self.
There are characters whom I do want to learn more about, and their stories feel incomplete only because of the sheer interest they raise. One of these characters is Sally Seton, the woman that inspires Clarissa to quote Shakespeare: “If it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” Woolf magically pins down that feeling of infatuation when she has Clarissa exclaim to herself, “She is beneath this roof…she is beneath this roof!” It is the most appropriate expression in the fewest words, like poetry.
The most tragic of characters is Septimus Warren Smith, a young WWI veteran who is suicidal and unknowingly suffering from severe PTSD. He is going mad, hearing things, seeing things, and the way Woolf depicts his mind is brilliant. As you read through passages of his thoughts, you become convinced that writing with sense and purpose is almost easy, while conveying the unpredictable and broken, Septimus’ mind, serves the challenge. Two lines summarize the story of Septimus and perhaps many others due to the war:
“Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square” (p. 130).
Then after the war, the look in his eyes: “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (p. 20).
The copy of Mrs. Dalloway that I own is impressively annotated by one of its previous owners. I wish that the notes were legible, because the few words that I can decipher include heavyweights like “trap of consciousness” and “death of soul.” Mrs. Dallowaysurfaced in my mind on International Women’s Day (March 8) with its infamous first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” and I thought it was about time that I read the classic. While the story follows a single day in the post-WWI life of Clarissa Dalloway, readers weave in and out of the minds of several characters, abruptly dropping into each one’s stream of consciousness. Not only are there sudden shifts in person, place, and time, but there are also no chapters or paragraph breaks to delineate where it is appropriate to pause, so sharp attention is required. The book is a shining example of modernist literature, with its unconventional and lyrical flair: “Life; London; this moment of June” (p. 5).
Though the case with every book that I read, I am particularly aware that there is absolutely nothing new that I can say about Virginia Woolf or Mrs. Dalloway. Anything and everything critical, brilliant, subtle, funny, and beyond has already been said, and most likely by someone far smarter than I am. Author Anna Quindlen brings up a similar idea in her oft-quoted commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College:
“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel.”
Don’t worry, she then counters herself: “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice.”
With that in mind, I continue Mrs. Dalloway (I’m halfway through) with the hope that I will indeed have something unique to share. May has begun, the perfect month for finishing those lingering to-read books before summer inspires a brand new list. I’m happy to consider Mrs. Dalloway the first book of May, and to discover its influence on the month’s remaining book selections.