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Monday, April 09, 2018

The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham

Book Review
The Hours (1998)
by Michael Cunningham

  I think if I had to nominate a single author for the "least enjoyed" author in the 1001 Books list, I would nominate Virginia Woolf.  Maybe Henry James a close second.  It's no surprise that, were you to poll a group of English professors and graduate students in English from the United States in the past twenty years, those two authors would probably be one, two in terms of favorites.   It can be no coincidence that by the turn of the the last century, contemporary authors were turning to these canonical authors as characters within their newly published books.  Both this book, which features a prominent part for Virginia Woolf herself, and The Master, by Colm Toibin, about Henry James.   This represents an extension of the already well established tactic of re-writing a classic from the perspective of a different character, Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre) or Foe by J.M. Coeteze (Robinson Crusoe.)

   Personal tastes aside, The Hours was a smash hit- as a big a hit can be in terms of literary fiction, which was followed by an Oscar winning movie version.  The Hours, I think, was succesful at making it's readers feel clever.  Also, like all succesful stream-of-consciousness books, there is an extraordinary amount of time spent "inside the heads" of three generations of women:  Virginia Woolf herself, a woman planning a birthday in post-World War II Los Angeles for her military husband, and a woman planning a literary celebration for a long-time friend who is dying from AIDS.

   The Hours starts with a prologue featuring the famous stone-abetted suicide of Woolf herself, and then moves back and forth across the three stories, using Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.   I would recommend reading The Hours either immediately after completing Mrs. Dalloway itself, or having that book in mind, lest the reader miss the sophistication of Cunningham's technique.   I would not recommend the Ebook version of The Hours- for it or any other experimental work of fiction, a printed page is required to generate the requisite attention required. 

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