Michael Cunningham's new novel, "The Hours," is neither an homage nor a sequel to "Mrs. Dalloway." It is, rather, an attempt at osmosis with the spirit of Virginia Woolf. Cunningham, the author of such well-received novels as "A Home at the End of the World" (1990) and "Flesh and Blood" (1995), has even borrowed the title that Woolf had originally intended for her elegant story about a single June day in 1923 when Clarissa Dalloway gives a party and World War I veteran Septimus Smith cracks up. "The Hours" is a feat of literary acrobatics, yet in the end does not affect us as profoundly as "Mrs. Dalloway." "The Hours" is a variation on a theme, and it's the original melody rather than the contemporary arrangement that's most memorable.
In Woolf's original, the setting is London and many of the characters are members of the British upper-middle class, just a rung below the aristocracy. Septimus' madness reflects the primary social ill of the day -- the debilitated physical and mental state of many World War I veterans. Woolf's characters follow the sexual codes of the 1920s bourgeoisie. Clarissa's first passion is her friend Sally Seton, but the question of a committed lesbian relationship would never enter her mind. She rejects her more ardent suitor, Peter Walsh, in favor of a bloodless marriage to the loving but staid Richard Dalloway. Now Peter, still struck by her, turns up after years in India, just in time to attend her party.
Curiously, Cunningham opens "The Hours" with a chilling description of Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941. It doesn't feel like a part of the novel that follows, which consists of three distinct narratives that overlap one another. The third takes place at the end of the 20th century. The setting is Manhattan, and the contemporary social ill is AIDS. The characters, rather than bourgeois, are members of America's artistic and academic elite. They may be rich by the world's standards, but hardly "New York rich."
Richard Brown is an award-winning novelist and poet, physically and mentally ravaged by AIDS. (He may put some readers in mind of Harold Brodkey.) Clarissa Vaugn, whose first passion was for the bisexual Richard years earlier, has settled down with the woman she loves -- Sally, a public television producer. Louis, the Peter Walsh stand-in and once part of a minage ` trois with Richard and Clarissa, is back in New York just in time for the party Clarissa is throwing for Richard, to celebrate a literary award he has won.
Cunningham's writing has a luminous quality. One can easily imagine Woolf describing her sister's world as "the carnival wagon that bears Vanessa -- the whole gaudy party of her, that vast life, the children and paints and lovers, the brilliantly cluttered house -- [that] has passed on into the night." He reinterprets characters, gives them his own spin. Religious fanatic Miss Kilman becomes Mary Krull, a politically hardcore lesbian, as much a party pooper (of the whole human parade as well as Clarissa's little celebration) as the original. Pulling off this clever literary accomplishment shows us that the talented Michael Cunningham isn't at all afraid of Virginia Woolf.