My First Great Book – Issue 7

Few books have changed anyone’s life more directly than Mrs Dalloway did for MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, whose Dalloway-inspired novel The Hours went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was Woolf’s novel, he tells us, that opened his eyes to literature’s possibilities.

I read Mrs Dalloway for the first time when I was fifteen. I read it in hope of getting laid.

We come to great literature by any number of routes, and for a wide range of reasons, some more dignified than others.

At fifteen I was small, and practically hairless. I’m sure you get the picture. It was all the more challenging at a public high school in Los Angeles, where blond, surfer-dude muscularity was not the exception, but the norm.

Given the limits of my own flesh, I decided I might do better as a brooding intellectual.

It wasn’t going to work for everybody at my school, but even at that age I knew a thing or two about niche marketing.

I chose Virginia Woolf as my starting point because she was the obsession of a lovely dark-haired senior girl, who was gentle and compassionate and about as far out of my league as Jupiter is from Earth.

She was the Titania of our school. She was the kind of girl who waited every day, after classes, for her older boyfriend to pick her up in his Mustang and take her away to… who knew what marbled halls?

Woolf, then.

I chose Mrs Dalloway because it was the only book by Woolf on the shelves of our modest school library.

Reader, I read it.

OK, I tried to read it.

I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t tell what was going on, couldn’t follow its shifting points of view, its eschewing of the mechanics of plot, its flights of interiority.

I was not, however, too obtuse to appreciate its language. I’d never read sentences like that. I hadn’t imagined it was possible to write sentences like that — sentences of such grace and complexity, sentences that swooped and soared, that were recklessly complex but balanced, structured in subtle ways, cadenced, obedient to their own sense of rhythm.

I remember thinking, as I made my way through the book, ‘Wow, she was doing with language something kind of like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.’

It didn’t turn me overnight into a writer, but it did turn me, more or less overnight, into a reader. It lit a modest light bulb over my dimly illuminated little head.

It would be another thirty-plus years before I wrote The Hours, which is not so much an homage to Mrs Dalloway as it is a riff. An improvisation, if you will.

That made sense to me, because Mrs Dalloway is something of a riff itself, albeit an inspired one.

Among the wonders of Mrs Dalloway is the way in which we can actually see Woolf becoming a great writer, by writing that particular book. It was her fourth novel, and her first immortal one. It has loose ends. It explores the vastness and mystery of the world without attempting, in the more traditional way of novels, to make too much sense of it. It doesn’t insist that its author is smarter than the people and events she writes about.

It would be followed by To the Lighthouse, which is structurally perfect, a masterpiece of another order entirely. If Mrs Dalloway is extemporaneous jazz then To the Lighthouse is a sonata.

I adore To the Lighthouse. I adore many of Woolf’s novels. But nothing — not only Woolf’s other novels but any novel, by any writer — has ever affected me in quite the same way that Mrs Dalloway did at the time when I was a lonely kid in Los Angeles, doing his (unsuccessful) best to conceal his desperation. It affects me just as powerfully now, decades later.

It was, after all, my first great book, and I suspect that for many of us, that first great book is a little like a first kiss. We go on to kiss other people (or anyway, we hope to), but nothing will ever quite equal the moment of lips touching lips for the first time.

Mrs Dalloway is not, of course, the only great book, and it may not be the greatest book ever written. But its strange beauty, its heart and its depths, its insistence on the fact that life is more, always more, than what it appears to be on its surface, has never been surpassed. Not, at least, for me.

I should probably add, in closing, that reading Mrs Dalloway got me nowhere with that high-school goddess, who, though I still don’t question her devotion to Woolf, clearly preferred her boyfriend’s Mustang to my heartfelt disquisitions on the surprising grace of the semicolon, the subversive power inherent in the parenthetical.

Frankly, I don’t blame her, can’t bring myself to. What, really, did I expect of a seventeen-year-old girl, even one precocious enough to be reading Woolf?

I don’t think I’m being sentimental when I say that we both came out ahead, she and I. I embarked on a lifetime of reading, which led, eventually, to writing (there are, of course, days when I’m grateful for the latter, and days when I feel otherwise).

She, for all I know, is still riding in a Mustang, somebody’s Mustang, with an immense continent stretching out ahead and a copy of Mrs Dalloway in her lap.

I think of her that way, though of course she’s old by now. Still, I think of her riding forever in some guy’s hot car, thinking (she’d never say anything about it to him) of the surprising grace of the semicolon, the subversive power inherent in the parenthetical.

I wish her all the happiness she can find.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM is the author of seven novels, including A Home at the End of the World, The Hours (his Mrs Dalloway-inspired winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and By Nightfall, as well as Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown. He lives in New York.

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