Mrs. Dalloway

The varied effects of reading literary fiction are matters that continue to loom large in my thinking. Writers of fiction are among the most articulate in addressing this issue. Many point to a particular work of fiction that changed their life and led them to try their hand at writing themselves.

In Mentors, Muses and Monsters edited by Elizabeth Benedict, Michael Cunningham describes how Elizabeth Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway did, over time, turn him into a reader and eventually, into a writer.

He says he was not much of a reader before he read Woolf’s novel. He grew up in suburb of Los Angeles in the 1960s and while he did a little writing then, it was mostly about the Doors, Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel.

He describes a conversation in which a well-read student of literature asks him if he had read anything by T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf. He hadn’t but the next day, so as not to disappoint the charming girl who made him feel so stupid, he went to the library and found one book by Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway.

Nothing had prepared him for what was to follow. “I had neither read nor conceived of sentences that complex and muscular and precise and beautiful. I remember thinking, Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.”

The experience clearly altered the rest of his life. “I had, in a sense, seen Paris, and could never quite go home again.”

“…I felt early on, that reading Mrs. Dalloway at a relatively young age had been such a transforming experience for me, had mattered so much that it was literally part of my autobiographical material, every bit as much also as a tragic (fabulous) love affair, the death of a parent, or other such events that inform what and how novelists write.”

Cunningham claims he knew almost immediately that if he ever wrote a serious work of fiction it was going to be called The Hours, which had been Woolf’s original title for Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham’s The Hours was published in 1998 and was followed a few years later by the film of the same name.

Other authors have pointed to a specific book or the works of a single author that have shaped their writing life. Joyce Carol Oates cites Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Sigrid Nunez mentions the writings of Susan Sontag, while Cheryl Strayed speaks reverently of Alice Munro’s short stories.

Cunningham’s account is the one I remember most clearly. Perhaps that’s because of the vitality of his essay and the force of Mrs. Dalloway’s influence on his life. It may also be due to my own experience in reading both Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours, as well as seeing the film version of each. Each of those accounts of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway have stirred me too and given me indelible experiences that make Cunningham’s account all the more memorable.