The Hours by Michael Cunningham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”We throw our parties; 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’ve very fortunate, by time itself.”
It’s about the hours right? Those few precious hours over a lifetime when we feel we have a chance to do something special, to prove that we can do something that will forever immortalize us as someone exceptional.
It was Charlotte who pressed this book upon me. We were at a party conducted by a Mrs. Clarissa Galloway.
“I hear you are on a reading binge.” She’d leaned in close, as she had a tendency to do with me. Her lips mere millimeters away from my ear. It made me shiver somewhere in the core of me.
When I was between assignments, which was all too frequent, I would read book after book; usually I would be in the middle of at least three at any one time. I was getting about four hours of sleep a night which right now was making me a cheap drunk. One martini was going to be more than enough.
“The Hours by Michael Cunningham, didn’t they make a film out of it with Kidman?”
She nodded. She leaned in close again. I often wondered if she knew what she did to me. “The book won a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine told me you just finished reading Mrs. Dalloway. This is a terrific follow-up.“
You couldn’t really be involved with one without being involved with the other. Catherine, my girlfriend, was writing a novel. It was brilliant in fact, but now was somewhat weighed down with its own brilliance. She was happy with the beginning and the ending, but the middle was not living up to the standards of the rest. Charlotte designed book covers for publishing companies. She had a gift for it, but frequently had to endure someone further up the chain asking for modifications, her masterpieces often becoming something more commercially appealing and soulless. When I was doing research on Virginia Woolf, before reading Mrs. Dalloway, I couldn’t help thinking of Catherine as Virginia and Charlotte as Vanessa.
”Vanessa laughs. Vanessa is firm of face, her skin a brilliant, scalded pink. Although she is three years older, she looks younger than Virginia, and both of them know it. If Virginia has the austere, parched beauty of a Giotto fresco, Vanessa is more like a figure sculpted in rosy marble by a skilled but minor artist of the late Baroque. She is distinctly earthly and even decorative figure, all billows and scrolls….”
As usual, I wasn’t really sure why I was at this party. I thought with remorse of the lost pages of reading the party had already cost me. I could see the books strategically scattered around the room of the flat. A book by each of my favorite reading places. This party was bad for me, and if it was not good for me, it had to be an absolute torture for Catherine.
I looked past Charlotte’s large, attentive eyes and could see that Catherine was pale. Her complexion was always pale, but there were various shades of pale that would tell me exactly what was going on with her. She closed her eyes and took too long to open them. I could tell it was time to go.
I leaned in and kissed Charlotte’s ear, raising the stakes, and then muttered in the sea shell of her ear that I was going to take Catherine home. Charlotte always smelled so good, but I was never able to quite identify the scent, something old, something new. Somehow it would be breaking the rules of the game to ask her. I walked over to Catherine and put my arm around her and kissed her on the side of her mouth. She looked at me with surprise. I could see the slender flutes of her nose flutter as she took me in. Could it be that she could sense her sister’s scent even among the mingling fragrances of flowers that filled Mrs. Galloway’s party?
She put her slender, fluted fingers on my shoulder. “I can feel one coming on.”
“I’m here to take you home.”
”She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck. She stiffens. No, it’s the memory of the headache, it’s her fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at least briefly indistinguishable from the onset of the headache itself.”
I went to see Robert the next day. I’d read most of The Hours last night. Charlotte had been right. It was the perfect followup to Mrs. Dalloway. Robert had been my friend almost my entire life or at least for the segment of my life that I still wished to claim. He’d had a good career on the stage, had mother issues of course, and had always been unapologetically gay. The young nurse from Hospice was taking a vial of blood from him when I arrived. There was something so intimate about blood letting. I averted my eyes as if I’d just caught her furtively giving him a hand job.
“I’m so weak. This is it, my friend.” His voice, the voice that had boomed out to theaters full of people, had been reduced to a whisper.
I patted his hand. He weakly grasped it. I left my fingers there surrounded by the parchment of his hand. “You’ve rallied before.” I’d meant to put exuberance into that sentence, but somehow it all went wrong. My voice cracked and tears sprang to my eyes.
“Oh, come on now. Tears now? You should have wept with joy when I looked like a young Marlon Brando. Not now, not over this decrepit body. If you were a true friend, you’d pick me up and hurl me out that window.”
I thought of Septimus from Mrs. Dalloway and Richard from The Hours. It was almost too much.
“Don’t say that.” My voice was still shaking. I freed my hand from his grasp to wipe my eyes. When I put my hand back on the bed, his hand was gone.
“Do you think six floors would be enough to kill me? God, what a tragedy if it only breaks my bones, and leaves me somehow alive with fresh sources of pain. I was thinking about it the other day. I wouldn’t want to fall on the concrete. I want to land on a car. I want to explode through the top like they show in the movies. You own a car, don’t you? Couldn’t you park it beneath my window?”
“You are hurting me, Robert.”
He sighed. Closing those magnificent blue eyes that had mesmerized women and men in equal numbers, “That is the last thing that I want to do to you, my friend.”
When I got back to the flat, they must not have heard me. Catherine was leaning over Charlotte. ”Virginia leaned forward and kisses Vanessa on the mouth. It is an innocent kiss, innocent enough, but just now,...it feels like the most delicious and forbidden of pleasures. Vanessa returns the kiss.” I wanted to wrap my arms around both of them and nudge them across the room to the bed. I wondered if Leonard Woolf had ever had such desires? They might have willingly went, but then what? By trying to hold them closer, I’d only lose them both.
I cleared my throat and hung up my jacket. When I turned around, they were both looking at me with clear, intelligent eyes. Two sisters, so different, but so much alike as to be indistinguishable when standing in the same space.
It was hard not to think about the big stone. ”She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig’s skull. The one that took her down to the depths of the river. The one that would not let her escape the embrace of the water even if her natural desire for self-preservation had kicked in. The stone was too real to be denied.
Catherine had read Mrs. Dalloway and was now reading The Hours. She had needed a break from her own writing anyway. Reading sometimes gave her a fresh source of inspiration. I wasn’t sure about her reading either book, but both together could enhance her already acute suicidal tendencies. I’d seen her more than once raking a butter knife across her wrists as if testing how it would feel. I’d had the gas oven taken out and replaced it with an electric one.
I read her diary.
She wasn’t particularly careful with it. She left it out all the time, rarely tucking it back under the mattress on our bed. I don’t know if she trusted me not to read it or she, being a writer, always wanted an audience for her writing. ”Everything she sees feels as if it’s pinned to the day the way etherized butterflies are pinned to the board.” She was obviously feeling trapped. Like Leonard Woolf decided to do with Virginia, I arranged to take Catherine to the country for a month. She was being overstimulated in the city.
Robert threw himself out the window.
He asked the nurse to open the window to give him some air. The stubborn bastard crawled across the floor, pulled himself up the wall, and threw himself out the window. Though he would have preferred a Rolls Royce, he landed on a Mercedes.
Six floors, as it turned out, was enough.
Two days after we reached the country Catherine disappeared. As I walked the river, along with every other able body in the county, I kept thinking about a stone the size of a pig’s skull.
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