This week, I interviewed Mariel from Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. . . Here’s what she had to say:
1. Why did you choose to read The Hours? Were you a Cunningham fan? A Woolf fan? Some other reason?
I chose to read The Hours after watching the film, as I did not realise is was an adaptation. I loved the film, and managed to stumble across the book in a second hand bookshop. I had not heard of Michael Cunningham before. Woolf has always held a fascination for me, and I have read about her before, but have yet to read her work.
2. What do you think of the narrative structure? Do you like that it’s told in three parts? Why or why not?
The narrative structure of The Hours was essential. The book is three separate stories all interweaving within the connection these three women have, Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. Their stories are all told, flitting between Woolf in 1920s England, Laura Brown in 1950s Los Angeles, and Clarissa Vaughn (“Mrs Dalloway”) in 1990s New York, but emphasis is on Woolf and Clarissa and the parallels between their lives and the characters in Mrs Dalloway. If these three stories were mixed any more, the structure would have been far more disorganised and confusing. I struggled when reading The English Patient several years ago, for this very reason. Cunningham wrote this novel using Woolf’s own stream of consciousness narrative style, and it works, allowing the reader to delve into the mind and emotions of each of the three protagonists.
3. What do you think of the controversy over the depiction of Woolf?
Virginia Woolf was a complicated woman. Aside from her mental instability, suffering dark periods of depression and suicidal tendencies, she had a fiery temperament and a passionate creativity as a writer. Cunningham allows Woolf’s condition to be seen as a way of life, rather than an illness to be studied and understood. Taken from the heart of London and placed in seclusion in the Surrey countryside, Woolf felt that her creativity was being stifled. For her, death was an escape from her life, which had grown to difficult to bear. Despite her genius and her ability to love and see the beauty of thing, Woolf also bore a terrible sadness. This comes across in Cunningham’s novel, and one truly sees the depth of her pain. The frankness of Cunningham’s writing really comes across in his depiction of her suicide, but is important to remember that this is a novel. The author is taking facts about Woolf’s life and creating a fiction.
Another point of controversy was Cunningham’s brief explorations into his characters’ lesbian and bisexual tendencies, not only with Woolf, who is known to have had a relationship with a female friend, but with Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn. This could be seen, however, as an indication of Laura’s desire for an escape from her life, and to show how society has changed, allowing homo- and bisexuality to be far more accepted in the 1990s.
4. Have you read Mrs. Dalloway? How does that compare with Cunningham’s book?
I have not yet completely read Mrs Dalloway, having only flicked through the book, though I am drawn to the book an awful lot these days, and will be definitely be reading it over the next few months. Cunningham does not delve into the fine points of Mrs Dalloway, only the parallels in Clarissa and Richards lives and in Woolf’s struggle to complete the novel against her growing mental instability. Mrs Dalloway is the underlying story throughout The Hours, only peeking out through Clarissa’s life and in the structure of the story itself. I am certain that I will appreciate The Hours in a new light once I have read Mrs Dalloway, and am looking forward to rereading it.
5. How do you feel about Virginia Woolf as a person? As a writer?
I am very drawn to Virginia Woolf. Perhaps as a woman, who has also experienced dark periods in my life, though nothing in comparison to Woolf herself, or perhaps someone who is also inspired to create stories and become completely absorbed in their creation. I have several of her books waiting to be read, along with a highly acclaimed biography, though I will leave the latter until I have read more of her work. Woolf intrigues me, both as a person and a writer, and perhaps that is why I found this novel so powerful.
6. Of the three women in the book, which character to you most prefer and why?
It’s interesting how upon reading the book, and watching the film, each several times, I am drawn to a different character more and am struck by something unique each time. I have found that I am most drawn to Virginia Woolf herself and Clarissa Vaughn. I identify with both of them, one struggling for the freedom to be the person she wants to be, freedom from her own demons more than society; the other struggling to hide her fragility and desire for approval, pouring all her efforts into throwing a party for a close friend. Who doesn’t wonder at times at the triviality of our daily lives?
7. What do you think of Cunningham’s writing style?
I found Cunningham’s writing style to be bold and fresh. His descriptions, especially of Woolf’s suicide, are so factual and precise, I could almost feel the process as characters make their decisions and carry out their actions. His description of Laura Brown’s depression is so evocative; the darkness surrounding her is palpable, and her daily struggle is painfully sad. And the description of Richard, the dying poet are heartbreaking, yet so tangible.
8. Would you read more of his work? Why or why not?
I have seen Cunningham’s other work, and would consider reading more, though the main draw of The Hours for me was that I had enjoyed the film and was interested to read more about Virginia Woolf.
9. Who would you recommend read this book? Would you recommend not read this book?
I would highly recommend this book, and have already given copies to my mother and best friend! Obviously this book is a must read for fans of Virginia Woolf or fans of her work, but no exclusively so. The Hours also works well as a stand-alone novel, though one’s understanding of the depth of the story is enhanced for those who do know more about the background, of Mrs Dalloway and of Virginia Woolf herself. I would perhaps not recommend the book for readers who find themselves impatient, demanding action from their stories. The Hours is a slow burner, but no less powerful.
10. Overall, on a scale of 1-10, what score would you give the book and why?
I would give The Hours a very bold 8 out of 10! I loved Cunningham’s style of writing and the way the story weaves between the lives of these three women.
And here are Mariel’s great questions for me about The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
1. What made you choose to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant?
Once I was bashing science fiction, saying it was formulaic and trite (I was fresh out of college with my English degree, so forgive my pride) and Tim, this guy I worked with, told me that he could give me science fiction books that I would adore. So he brought in The Chronicles, and he was right . . I read the whole series in a matter of days.
2. Can you give us a quick introduction to this series?
I don’t want to give too much away, but the basic gist is that Thomas Covenant is a very flawed man who believes himself unworthy of much, partially because he has been abandoned by his wife and son (when he was diagnosed with leprosy) but also because that is the nature of humanity. He is transported to the Land, an illdylic alternate earth, where he becomes, unwittingly, the key to saving the planet.
3. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were first written back in the 1970s, followed by the Second Chronicles in the 1980s and the Last Chronicles which were started in 2004. Have you found that these stories have aged well for modern readers or do the original stories seem somewhat outdated in comparison to the newer ones?
To be honest, I haven’t read the newer ones. . . I started to, but I found the story didn’t grip me as much as it did in the originals. I read the first series in the late 1990s and found them every bit as compelling as books written most recently. While I still hold Tolkien as the epitome of the writer who can create an alternate world, I found Stephen Donaldson an admirable contender for that title.
4. It is not often that the main character in a fantasy series has a disability or illness. Without giving any of the story away, what is the significance of the lead character’s leprosy? Does it add to or detract from the story in any way?
I hinted at this above, but given Donaldson’s religious upbringing and the Biblical references to leprosy – therein meaning any illness that was contagious – Covenant carries with him a physical manifestation of the loneliness and self-doubt that we all feel. I think this bit of the story builds it up tremendously, pulling in the world of Biblical allusions and adding depth.
5. As a fantasy series, the “Land” has a large number of creatures and peoples. Do you have a favourite?
I love Saltheart Foamfollower, the giant with the gorgeous name.
6. In your opinion, what is the most creative aspect of the “Land”?
I like that this Land can be healed. . . I think this piece of these books is particularly telling of when Donaldson wrote these books because in the 1970s we were just beginning to understand the impact that humanity was having on our planet. I would what, in this last series, Donaldson will say about this possibility.
7. If you have them, who are your favourite and least favourite characters?
I actually liked – as characters if not as creatures I would like to meet – all of the characters in the books. While some fall into almost allegorical figures or archetypes, I feel like they all work well to further the books.
8. Would you recommend this series? Since reading the first trilogy, have you read or are you inspired to read the Second Chronicles trilogy and the planned Last Chronicles tetralogy?
I would definitely recommend the series to anyone who likes sci fi /fantasy and to those of us who understand the world to be sometimes a battle of good and evil, even if the good isn’t always clear . . .
9. Fantasy is quite a wide-ranging genre of writing. What kind of story would you describe Thomas Covenant as? What type of readership will it appeal to?
I think it’s the story of a world, much – as I noted before – like Middle Earth . . . but here we’re dealing with a more contemporary story that seems a bit more timeless than even Tolkien. I also think these books might appeal to folks who like the work of Ursula LeGuin since Donaldson’s writing is, on some level, political and in an activist bent.
10. Have you read any other work by Stephen Donaldson?
I have not read anything else by Donaldson, but I will definitely try to read more of the Covenant books now that I’ve been reminded about how great they are.
Mariel, Dewey, Thanks for this opportunity.
Tomorrow, look for a slew of reviews, including my thoughts on Meyer’s Breaking Dawn.