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.Michael Cunningham, The Hours
It’s 9 pm on Thursday evening, and I’ve just done something I haven’t done for a very long time. I read an entire book today. I woke up, having finished reading Call the Midwife last night, and sat down at the foot of my bed to pick another book. I reached for The Hours, opened it, and looked up 30 pages later like I had just awoken from a dream. My own surroundings seemed strange, because I had been so completely invested in what this book laid out before me that the story seemed, momentarily, more real than my own existence.
As I read through my meals and every spare minute between classes, I was alternately absorbed, completely taken out of myself, and startlingly self-aware, surprised to find my own thoughts and emotions laid bare on the page. Even the passage I’ve quoted above seems to eerily echo my post from this past Thursday. Lately, I find myself bouncing between feeling foggy and disconnected, despite being mostly aware of what’s going on around me, and feeling deeply, wholly satisfied with what’s happening right now, in the moment.
There truly is beauty in what’s right in front of us. Realizing that is one of life’s greatest pleasure. Sometimes, being disconnected from it for a little while makes the pleasure of realizing that beauty even greater, just as feelings of sadness and dissatisfaction heighten eventual feelings of happiness and contentment. Strangely, periods of apathy can make even sorrow seem like sweet relief. These contrasts account for the bittersweet nature of life’s richness and variety.
If any of this hits home for you, I can’t recommend reading Cunningham’s book enough. It will also appeal to fans of Virginia Woolf. The plot, characters, and themes draw heavily on Woolf’s life and writing, specifically her book Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf herself is one of the main characters, and she is writing Mrs. Dalloway in Cunningham’s novel. Another character, named Clarissa and nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, leads a life that parallels her namesake. A third character, Laura, is reading Mrs. Dalloway. The lives of Cunningham’s characters are consciously shaped by the lives of Woolf’s. The Hours is a love letter to Woolf, and a love letter to life.
I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway two or three times, and listened to the audiobook recently. I love it for the same reasons I love The Hours: it looks unflinchingly at the unsavory thoughts and emotions that permeate daily existence. That is, these things play a part in my daily life. I’m amazed by how poetically both novels capture that reality through plot and structure. They immerse the reader in hundreds of pages of raw thoughts and emotions, with a weight that no poem could. They provide an experience like an underwater exploration into the nature of human existence.
Take the plunge. You won’t regret it. I swear I felt the searing sensation of oxygen re-entering my body when I came back up for air. Or maybe that was just mental exhaustion from a day’s worth of non-stop reading?