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Autumn Sonata

On a morning in 1923, Virginia Woolf awakens with a vision of Clarissa Dalloway shopping for flowers. It will be the first scene of her great novel about the web of genteel English domestic life and the female spirit that struggles within it: consenting and imprisoned in consent.

Woolf is impatient to get to her study for the two hours of writing her frail nerves and solicitous husband, Leonard, will allow. “The work is waiting for her and she is anxious to join it the way she might join a party that had already started downstairs.”

On a morning in 1998, a well-to-do woman shops for flowers in Greenwich Village. They are for a party she is giving to celebrate a literary award to a lifelong friend: a gay poet and novelist who is dying of AIDS. Her first name is Clarissa; the poet, affectionately and pointedly, nicknames her Mrs. Dalloway.

On a morning in 1949, Laura, an unquiet young Los Angeles housewife penned up in domestic quietude, reads the opening pages of Woolf’s novel before getting out of bed to join her husband and 3-year-old son for breakfast.

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“Laura Brown is trying to lose herself. No, that’s not it exactly--she is trying to keep herself by gaining entry into a parallel world. She lays the book face down on her chest. Already her bedroom (no, their bedroom) feels more densely inhabited, more actual, because a character named Mrs. Dalloway is on her way to buy flowers.”

Woolf, Laura and Clarissa alternate through Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” along with a fourth presence--"Mrs. Dalloway” itself--that touches each of them differently. In Woolf it is used to bring out the mystery and pain that art represents for its creator. In Laura it signals art’s transforming power upon the beholder. And in Clarissa, Cunningham employs echoes and contrasts with Woolf’s protagonist to suggest the frontiers, perilously mined, between art and life.

Cunningham, author of an inspired first novel, “A Home at the End of the World,” and an uneven second one, “Flesh and Blood,” has fashioned a fictional instrument of intricacy and remarkable beauty. It is a kaleidoscope whose four shining and utterly unlike pieces--the lives of two fictional characters, of a real writer, and her novel--combine, separate and tumble in continually shifting and startlingly suggestive patterns.

To try to convey “The Hours” in a review of limited length is to play a chess game with checkers pieces. Cunningham’s complexities, his array of possible moves, his undertones and implications border on the intimidating. Their message is somber, yet they are also pure fun: a game that the reader, aware of having played pleasurably but imperfectly, will fret to play again. (And to go read “Mrs. Dalloway,” of course. Two books for the price, maybe not of one, but of one plus a $12 paperback.)

The three alternating narratives feed into and out of each other; all are fed by references to “Dalloway” and quotations from it. This is audacious in several ways, not least because it risks challenging Cunningham’s excellent prose with the immortal qualities of Woolf’s. It doesn’t, any more than playing Bach challenges a wedding: Instead, it enhances it.

First, for summarizing convenience: Clarissa Vaughn’s day. She shops for her party; later she will pay two visits to Richard, the poet, whom she tries to rally and sustain in his dying depression, grubby self-neglect and wandering mind. Like Mrs. Dalloway’s, her errands are told in counterpoint with painful musings about her choice of an orderly life over a risky one.

Cunningham provocatively inverts the risks. Clarissa has settled for a calm life with Sally, a TV producer. Years before she had rejected Richard’s bid to turn a moment of brief, surprising passion into a life together. To transform, in other words, their innate homosexualities into a heterosexual venture. The author, who is gay, does not pose this as a conceivable life choice. He poses it as the equivalent of art’s perilously inconceivable flight above our living nature.

Clarissa’s choice of the practical Sally resembles that of Mrs. Dalloway, who marries a solid, kind man instead of her unstable and visionary suitor, Peter Walsh. For all the convincing realism with which Cunningham portrays her, though, and the moral gravity she wields at the book’s end--astonishing and inevitable at the same time--the author doesn’t manage to give his Clarissa the artistic radiance that Woolf bestows on hers.

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In fact, it is Laura, the Los Angeles housewife, who comes closer to suggesting the quicksilver sentience and pathos of Woolf’s protagonist. Reading about the fictional Mrs. Dalloway, she is abducted by art (Woolf’s and also, of course, Cunningham’s) into taking on something of her numinous quality among the prosaic duties of her life; while eventually, paradoxically, making a flaring and quite opposite choice.

Cunningham’s gift for simultaneity and interconnection, eroding the walls of identity, bears an affinity with Woolf’s. The figures in the Clarissa and Laura sections each have several counterparts. The abducted Laura manages to be Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf herself and Woolf’s mother. Richard, the poet, is Mrs. Dalloway’s wild Peter; he is also, doomed by a death-plague of his times, Mrs. Dalloway’s Septimus--suicidally shellshocked in the Great War. Chiefly he is Virginia Woolf, with the artist’s febrile updrafts and deadly downdrafts. And it is Leonard Woolf’s vainly succoring role that Clarissa now plays with him.

This may sound grindingly schematic, but it is not. The shifting connections are those of a dance, not an edifice. They are unstated; emerging, retreating, re-forming beneath the flow of the narratives. All three of these are accomplished, but two are far more than that.

The story of Laura’s day has the shimmer of a dream. Cunningham writes beautifully and touchingly about her love for her husband and little boy, her effort to find fulfillment preparing a birthday dinner, her attempt to see her life as a work of art. Laura sifting flour into a blue bowl has the backlighting of Mrs. Dalloway imparting order and grace to her party as well as the death-in-life that stirs beneath them.

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Even more remarkable are the Virginia Woolf sections. Cunningham has drawn on her fiction, essays, diaries and letters and the rich store of biographies. These are a foundation; the author’s vital and moving portrait builds above them. With respect and a perfect ear, he has performed the imagination of what is true.

Woolf’s groping to find and protect the incipient visions of “Dalloway,” her wary yet utterly engaged efforts to deal with life, the household and the loving and bossy Leonard--while fending off lurking breakdown--all this is vivid, subtle, even comic.

Emerging from a wrestled balancing between inspiration and madness, Virginia faces up to Nelly, the cook, “always large and red, regal, indignant, as if she’d spent her life in an age of glory and decorum that ended, forever, some 10 minutes before you entered the room.” Virginia placates, knows she should not and compensates by giving Mrs. Dalloway a graceful mastery of her servants, all of whom adore her.

Life and art and, finally, knowing that her illness was about to take her, a heavy stone in her overcoat pocket and the waters of the river Ouse. Cunningham’s description is stoic and final: poetry and poetry withheld.

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It is neither accident nor defect that the sections of “The Hours” most vividly and materially alive--though not necessarily most beautiful or perceptive--are the Woolf chapters. Perhaps it is that Woolf, a precursor of the contemporary polymorphous and the thickening fog between art’s consciousness and external reality, could neither bear nor relinquish her carnal hold on that reality. There was some madness in it, and more genius.

Two generations later, Cunningham writes with desolate sorcery about art and the artist as entities no longer emerging from life and fortifying it but working its enhancement at an impassable distance. Proximity--AIDS comes to mind but so do many other features of our times--would mean mutual destruction.


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