Saturday, September 16, 2017

Books and Time Travelling

When I think about the first two weeks of September 2017, I'm sure that it is Hurricane Irma that will loom large for me.  But I also want to remember my father-in-law's 80th birthday, which I've already covered in earlier blog posts just after Labor Day.  I also want to remember the reading I've done--an unintended treat that comes with air travel (Labor Day week-end) and loss of power (Hurricane Irma).

Before leaving on our Labor Day Surprise Birthday Party adventure, I didn't have time to get to the library.  Happily, I have a huge library of my own, with plenty of books that I've meant to read.  I first read The Hours when I was commuting back and forth to the University of Miami on public transit.  I read it weeks after reading Mrs. Dalloway for my Brit Lit survey class, and my English major reading self loved that experience.  I've wanted to do it again--what better opportunity than on a plane?

Two weeks ago I read most of Mrs. Dalloway on the plane to Memphis.  I made an audible gasp when I got to the part of the novel that tells us that Mrs. Dalloway is 52 years old.  In my head, I thought of her as 32 or so--probably because when I first read the novel, I was in my early 20's, and she didn't seem like a woman at midlife.  Of course, when I first read it, how would I know?

Now, viewing the novel through that very different lens--characters at midlife wrestling with decisions they've made--it was very different for me.  When I last read it, I was planning to teach it as a hallmark of literary British modernism, and when I read it in grad school, I was viewing it through that lens, along with my eagerness to see Virginia Woolf as my creative grandmother.

Once I finished Mrs. Dalloway, it was on to The Hours.  It was phenomenal--amazingly phenomenal--to read the two back to back.  I am in awe of the skill of both writers, but especially with Michael Cunningham's ability to take many of Woolf's elements and make them his own.  As a woman at midlife, considering all the roads I've taken and not taken, both books spoke to me.

Of course, both books are dealing with great loves of one's youth, but loves that didn't result in lifelong partnering in a sexual/marriage way.  Would the insights be different if these characters had fully committed to the great love only to find themselves at midlife with that person?  Some of that longing and wistfulness comes from that memory of the highpoint of youth--when one thinks one is at the threshold of a great future, only to realize looking back that the moment of the kiss was in fact the primary moment, not the opening.

It was fascinating to read these novels about time and the strange way that time passes in its folding, wrinkling way as I travelled with my spouse--the love of my younger life, when I was as young as the two characters named Clarissa.  But reader, I married him.  And I read those books as I travelled to Memphis for a family reunion of sorts--and it was interesting to read those novels surrounded by these people whom I've been seeing periodically through all of my adult life.

At one point, on our way back, reading my way through a delay at the Memphis airport, I looked up and caught sight of myself in a window.  In that wavering reflection, I thought that I looked very similar to that young girl who first arrived at the Memphis airport to see her college boyfriend, much to her parents' dismay.  And here I am, journeying with him still.

Those two books are the highlight of my month of great books--and perhaps will be the highlight of the whole year.  I am in awe of the writing of both Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham--it makes me want to return to my own writing desk again.  Hopefully my power will be restored soon, and I will pick up my pen/pixels.

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