Mrs. Dalloway is the book that, in words often misused in the media, changed the rules of the game for me. Edmund Wilson’s dictum “No two people read the same book” was meant for this one. I reached for the book after watching Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, a heart-wrenching portrayal of loneliness and grief. The Hours is a book written by Michael Cunnigham, and in its opening, he pays tribute to the narrative style that Virginia Woolf employed. He tries it himself in The Hours, but never quite reaches the finesse of Woolf. Richard in the novel accepts as much when he tells Clarissa on the day of his suicide,
I wanted to write about it all, everything that happens in a moment. Way the flowers looked when you carried them in your arms. This towel, how it smells, how it feels, this thread, all our feelings, yours and mine. The history of it. Who we once were, everything in the world, everything all mixed up. Like it's all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed... no matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less... terrifying pride, stupidity. Oh we wanted everything, don't we?
The same evening, Clarissa is throwing a party in his honour for he has won a major literary prize for his collections of poetry. But like Brenda Chenowith in Six Feet Under, that is not reason enough to go on living. Worldly success matters little to Richard. He sees his life as a failure because he has not been able to capture the sanctity of gestures too inchoate to quantify. What he wishes for is a chain of events: a gesture, a thought, a way of resting; anything and everything that may inspire a sudden gladness, taking him back to reminiscences that sustain him and also, in the end, take him.
The book and the movie are almost similar. Daldry has adapted the film scene-to-scene. Who deserved to be knighted the best actress among Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore is a tough nut to crack. My vote goes to Streep for her haunting portrayal of Clarissa Vaughn. Her face, the details of gesture, the grief surrounding her persona, her sighs of relief against the cruelty of life: only a veteran like Streep could bring Clarissa’s existential angst to life. Years pass and the reminder of her love for Richard carries her along. One day in her youth sets the stage for the motions of her entire life. One day.
The beauty of books like Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours is that they honour the respectability of grief. Not the banal kind, but the sadness that lingers through life’s regrets and missed chances. Love, passion, silence are evoked in their most realizable element. They transport you to a horizon where grief is accepted as a part of life and arguably as something that lends dignity to it.
In the pic, Streep and Ed Harris.