Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What I Read: Mrs. Dalloway

I originally read Mrs. Dalloway for my freshman year course on the history of the novel. That was ten years ago now -- well over my threshold for "reread material." Good news, because this was the selection for my Facebook book club! I also forgot I already featured this at the beginning of the month but I don't care. I took a lot of time to write these words, so I'm going to keep 'em!

That said, I also realized that I never touched on the first thing I read for this book club: We. It was somewhat obscure and bizarre Soviet dystopian sci-fi, so it's worth going into detail over it. But another day!

I will open with this: Mrs. Dalloway was definitely a contentious piece in our group. A lot of people ragequit it, and I can't blame them. Woolf's style can be rambling, difficult, and disjointed. But give the woman some credit: she was trying to fashion a whole new way of writing novels! So was James Joyce, and all due respect, but I think Dalloway ends up being the better novel.

So that was my first encounter with Dalloway: presented in the larger context of the evolution of the novel as a genre. It's really strange to think about, but we didn't always have novels. Sure, we had mythology, epics, and folk tales, but we didn't have much of a purely written tradition until around the 1600s. (In English, anyway.) People had to spend maybe a hundred and fifty years to figure out just what the hell a novel was or could be—the idea of  writing about a thing that happened to somebody one time was just a completely foreign concept. Not only that, but novels were long regarded as wastes of time at best (or gateway drugs into sinful debauchery and sloth) that were only suitable guessed it, women.

Then we got the general gist of things in terms of structure and expectations, but they were on the whole quite rigid. The novel was, with a few notable exceptions, a very external thing. We understood characters from their actions, their words; if we were reading a journalistic or epistolary novel, there was a little more privileged insight into the narrator, but not much more than anyone else. I think this is why a lot of people find it hard to enjoy so many classics: novels today all offer an immediacy and intimacy with character, which makes them easier to read and makes them feel more real. By comparison, characters in Edwardian and Victorian novels can feel stiff and distant.

This is the mold that Woolf and her contemporaries were struggling against. Stream-of-consciousness was the Modernist tool for loosening up and enlivening their characters, for allowing the reader to get to know them the same way they would a person in real life.

Knowing that can maybe make you appreciate Woolf all the more, but it doesn't make it any easier to read. (For that, I would recommend reading some of the greats chronologically up to Mrs. Dalloway: Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, any Dickens you like, and then Dalloway.)

With that out of the way, did I like reading it again? Generally, though I was not as blown away as I remember being in college. I think this is because I read Dalloway  fresh off the heels of Nightwood and holy shit anything is amazing after Nightwood! But I still liked it, and once I let myself relax and just go with the flow instead of trying to speed read it I really got lost in everything. This is a book that you really need to slow down and to really focus to be able to enjoy. You also need to be chill with semi-colons, because Woolf uses a lot of them. ;)

The other thing that makes Mrs. Dalloway notable is Clarissa Dalloway herself,  our protagonist (or one of them). As a woman well into her 50s, this kind of character is tremendously underrepresented in the canon. If you're invested in diversity and representation in the literature, this a book you've probably read already (and should if you haven't!).

So, with snowmaggedon coming up in a lot of parts of the US, now may be the time to check this out of the library to keep you busy for the next day or two.

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