I've really been enjoying a spate of recent articles that talk about Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, like this one by Jenny Offill in The New Yorker and this one by Michael Cunningham in The New York Times. I think that they're all part of a new edition of Mrs. Dalloway, and I've loved the essays so much that I'm thinking of buying the book, just to make sure I always have the essays. But as I looked, it seems that there might be 2 new editions released in the same year? And yes, I'm such an English major type that I might just buy them all. Or maybe I'll just print these essays and keep them with my battered copy of the novel that I already own.
Reading the essays makes me remember why I wanted to be a writer and why the Modernists talk to me in such specific ways. Offill quotes from Woolf's 1919 essay "Modern Novels": "Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small."
Offill says, "I loved this idea of recording the atoms as they fell, of registering each one, however small a moment it appeared to be. Woolf’s insight seemed sneakily mystical to me. Many mystic traditions teach that the distinctions between the mundane and the sublime are more porous than we imagine: if one is truly awake, these differences cease to be apparent."
Cunningham says, "Woolf was among the first writers to understand that there are no insignificant lives, only inadequate ways of looking at them. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf insists that a single, outwardly ordinary day in the life of a woman named Clarissa Dalloway, an outwardly rather ordinary person, contains just about everything one needs to know about human life, in more or less the way nearly every cell contains the entirety of an organism’s DNA.
Yesterday I took several actions to show my writerly muse that she shouldn't abandon me just yet. I sent my poetry manuscript in for the Wilder Prize competition, and I committed myself to writing 1000 words a week on my apocalyptic novel. I made a pact with a writer friend who was once my student--we will be accountability partners.
Cunningham's final paragraph seems like a fitting manifesto for whatever time period we're entering, as we all do the writing that will need to be done: “'Mrs. Dalloway' would be a book about a London that had been changed forever, superimposed over a London determined to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible. Clarissa would stand in for all those who still believed in flowers and parties; Septimus for those who’d been harmed beyond any powers of recovery. The novel would also mark the early period of a literary career that would change forever the ways in which novels are written, and read. It’s an intricately wrought portrait of a place and a moment, and a stunningly acute depiction of the multifarious experience of living a life, anywhere, at any time."
Our world will bear more than a passing resemblance to the one that emerged after World War I. I wonder what new writing will burst forth to deal with the issues.