The hours, p.18
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       The Hours, p.18

           Michael Cunningham
 
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  wiches on brown bread, and endive leaves touched at their stem ends with discrete smears of goat cheese and chopped walnuts. There are shallow bowls full of raw vegetables. And there is, in its earthenware dish, the crab casserole Clarissa made herself, for Richard, because it was his favorite.

  ‘‘My god,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘Look at all this.’’

  ‘‘We were expecting fifty people,’’ Sally says.

  They stand for a moment, the three of them, before the plates heaped with food. The food feels pristine, untouchable; it could be a display of relics. It seems, briefly, to Clarissa, that the food—that most perishable of entities—will remain here after she and the others have disappeared; after all of them, even Julia, have died. Clarissa imagines the food still here, still fresh somehow, untouched, as she and the others leave these rooms, one by one, forever.

  Sally takes Clarissa’s head in her hands. She kisses Clarissa’s forehead firmly and competently, in a way that reminds Clarissa of putting a stamp on a letter.

  ‘‘Let’s feed everybody and go to bed,’’ she says softly, close to Clarissa’s ear. ‘‘It’s time for this day to be over.’’

  Clarissa squeezes Sally’s shoulder. She would say, ‘‘I love you,’’ but of course Sally knows. Sally returns the pressure on Clarissa’s upper arm.

  ‘‘Yes,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘It’s time.’’

  It seems, at that moment, that Richard begins truly to leave the world. To Clarissa it is an almost physical sensation, a gentle but irreversible pulling-away, like a blade of grass being drawn out of the ground. Soon Clarissa will sleep, soon everyone who

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  knew him will be asleep, and they’ll all wake up tomorrow morning to find that he’s joined the realm of the dead. She wonders if tomorrow morning will mark not only the end of Richard’s earthly life but the beginning of the end of his poetry, too. There are, after all, so many books. Some of them, a handful, are good, and of that handful, only a few survive. It’s possible that the citizens of the future, people not yet born, will want to read Richard’s elegies, his beautifully cadenced laments, his rigorously unsentimental offerings of love and fury, but it’s far more likely that his books will vanish along with almost everything else. Clarissa, the figure in a novel, will vanish, as will Laura Brown, the lost mother, the martyr and fiend.

  Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

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  Heaven only knows why we love it so.

  Here, then, is the party, still laid; here are the flowers, still fresh; everything ready for the guests, who have turned out to be only four. Forgive us, Richard. It is, in fact, a party, after all. It is a party for the not-yet-dead; for the relatively undamaged; for those who for mysterious reasons have the fortune to be alive.

  It is, in fact, great good fortune.

  Julia says, ‘‘Do you think I should make a plate for Richard’s mother?’’ ‘‘No,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘I’ll go get her.’’ She returns to the living room, to Laura Brown. Laura smiles

  wanly at Clarissa—who could possibly know what she thinks or feels? Here she is, then; the woman of wrath and sorrow, of pathos, of dazzling charm; the woman in love with death; the victim and torturer who haunted Richard’s work. Here, right here in this room, is the beloved; the traitor. Here is an old woman, a retired librarian from Toronto, wearing old woman’s shoes.

  And here she is, herself, Clarissa, not Mrs. Dalloway anymore; there is no one now to call her that. Here she is with another hour before her.

  ‘‘Come in, Mrs. Brown,’’ she says. ‘‘Everything’s ready.’’

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  Ack nowl edg ment s

  I was helped enormously in the revising of this book by Jill Ciment, Judy Clain, Joel Conarroe, Stacey D’Erasmo, Bonnie Friedman, Marie Howe, and Adam Moss. Research, technical advice, and other forms of aid were generously provided by Dennis Dermody, Paul Elie, Carmen Gomezplata, Bill Hamilton, Ladd Spiegel, John Waters, and Wendy Welker. My agent, Gail Hochman, and my editor, Jonathan Galassi, are secular saints. Tracy O’Dwyer and Patrick Giles have provided more in the way of general inspiration than they may know, by reading as widely, discerningly, and voluptuously as they do. My parents and sister are great readers too, though that does not begin to account for their contributions. Donna Lee and Cristina Thorson remain essential in more ways than I can enumerate here.

  Three Lives and Company, a bookstore owned and operated

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  by Jill Dunbar and Jenny Feder, is a sanctuary and, to me, the center of the civilized universe. It has for some time been the most reliable place to go when I need to remember why novels are still worth the trouble they take to write.

  I received a residency from the Engelhard Foundation and a grant from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, both of which mattered considerably.

  I am deeply grateful to all.

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  A Note on So ur ces

  While Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Nelly Boxall, and other people who actually lived appear in this book as fictional characters, I have tried to render as accurately as possible the outward particulars of their lives as they would have been on a day I’ve invented for them in 1923. I depended for information on a number of sources, most prominently two magnificently balanced and insightful biographies: Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell, and Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. Also essential were Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work by Louise de Salvo, Virginia Woolf by James King, Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell edited by Regina Marler, Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf by Phyllis Rose, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf by George Spater and Ian Parsons, and Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the

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  Years 1911 to 1918 and Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919 to 1939, by Leonard Woolf. A chapter on Mrs. Dalloway in Joseph Boone’s book Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism was illuminating, as was an article by Janet Malcolm, ‘‘A House of One’s Own,’’ which appeared in The New Yorker in 1995. I also learned a great deal from the introductions to various editions of Mrs. Dalloway: Maureen Howard’s in the Harcourt Brace & Co. edition, Elaine Showalter’s in the Penguin, and Claire Tomalin’s in the Oxford. I am indebted to Anne Olivier Bell for collecting and editing Woolf ’s diaries, to Andrew McNeillie for assisting her, and to Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann for collecting and editing Woolf ’s letters. When I visited Monk’s House in Rodmell, Joan Jones was gracious and informative. To all these people, I offer my thanks.

 


 

  Michael Cunningham, The Hours

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