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Hours (Cunningham)

The Hours
Michael Cunningham, 1998
Macmillan Picador
240 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312243029


Summary 
Winner, 1999 Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours tells the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his language. (From the publisher.)

More
In this remarkable book, Cunningham draws inventively on the life and work of Virginia Woolf to tell the story of a group of characters struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, life and death, creation and destruction. The novel moves along three separate but parallel stories, each focusing on the experiences of a particular woman during the course of one apparently unremarkable but in fact pivotal day.

Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor in present-day Greenwich Village, is organizing a party for her oldest friend, Richard, an AIDS-stricken poet who has just won a major literary prize. Laura Brown, a young wife and mother in 1949 Los Angeles, cares for her toddler and prepares a birthday cake for her husband as she tries to resist increasing waves of panic and feelings of alienation from her humdrum yet demanding life. And Virginia Woolf herself, the third woman, works on her new novel, Mrs. Dalloway, chats with her husband and sister, bickers with her cook, and attempts to come to terms with her deep, ungovernable longings for escape and even for death. As the novel jump-cuts through the century, the lives and stories of the three women converge, stunningly and unexpectedly, the night of Clarissa's party for Richard. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—November 06, 1952
Where—Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., Stanford; M.F.A., University of Iowa
Awards—Pulitzer Prize; PEN/Faulkner Award; Whiting
   Writers Award 
Currently—New York City


Michael Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World was published to acclaim in 1990; an excerpt, entitled "White Angel" and published in The New Yorker, was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989. His novel Flesh and Blood was published in 1995, and that year he won a Whiting Writer's Award. The Hours, Cunningham's third novel, received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. (From the publisher.)

More
By the time he finished Virginia Woolf's classic Mrs. Dalloway at the age of fifteen to impress a crush who tauntingly suggested he "try and be less stupid" and do so, Michael Cunningham knew that he was destined to become a writer. While his debut novel wouldn't come until decades later, he would win the Pulitzer for Fiction with his third — fittingly, an homage to the very book that launched both his love of literature and his life's work.

After growing up Cincinnati, Ohio, Cunningham fled to the west coast to study literature at Stanford University, but later returned to the heartland, where he received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1980. A writer recognized early on for his promising talent, Cunningham was awarded several grants toward his work, including a Michener Fellowship from the University of Iowa in 1982, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988.

In 1984, Cunningham's debut novel, Golden States, was published. While generally well-received by the critics, the book — a narrative chronicling a few weeks in the life of a 12-year-old-boy — is often dismissed by Cunningham. In an interview with Other Voices, he explains: "I'm so much more interested in some kind of grand ambitious failure than I am in someone's modest little success that achieves its modest little aims. I felt that I had written a book like that, and I wasn't happy about it. My publisher very generously allowed me to turn down a paperback offer and it has really gone away."

With a new decade came Cunningham's stirring novel, A Home at the End of the World, in 1990. The story of a heartbreakingly lopsided love triangle between two gay men and their mutual female friend, the novel was a groundbreaking take on the ‘90s phenomenon of the nontraditional family. While not exactly released with fanfare, the work drew impressive reviews that instantly recognized Cunningham's gift for using language to define his characters' voices and outline their motives. David Kaufman of The Nation noted Cunningham's "exquisite way with words and...his uncanny felicity in conveying both his characters and their story," and remarked that "this is quite simply one of those rare novel imbued with graceful insights on every page."

The critical acclaim of A Home at the End of the World no doubt helped Cunningham win the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 — and two years later, his domestic epic Flesh and Blood was released. Chronicling the dysfunctional Stassos family from their suburban present back through to the parents' roots and looking toward the children's uncertain futures, the sprawling saga was praised for its complexity and heart. The New York Times Book Review noted that "Mr. Cunningham gets all the little things right.... Mr. Cunningham gets the big stuff right, too. For the heart of the story lies not in the nostalgic references but in the complex relationships between parents and children, between siblings, friends and lovers."

While the new decade ushered in his impressive debut, the close of the decade brought with it Cunningham's inarguable opus, The Hours (1998). A tribute to that seminal work that was the author's first inspiration — Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway — the book reworks the events and ideas of the classic and sets them alternately in 1980s Greenwich Village, 1940s Los Angeles, and Woolf's London. Of Cunningham's ambitious project, USA Today raved, "The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing literary tour-de-force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse." The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was adapted into a major motion picture starring the powerhouse trio of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman in December 2002.

To come down from the frenetic success of The Hours, Cunningham took on a quieter project, 2002's tribute/travelogue Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown. The first installment in Crown's new "Crown Journeys" series, the book is a loving tour through the eccentric little town at the tip of Cape Cod beloved by so many artists and authors, Cunningham included. A haven for literary legends from Eugene O'Neill to Norman Mailer, Cunningham is — rightfully — at home there.

Extras
• Cunningham's short story "White Angel" was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989 — the year before his acclaimed novel A Home at the End of the World was published.

• When asked about any other names he goes by, Cunningham's list included the monikers Bree Daniels, Mickey Fingers, Jethro, Old Yeller, Gaucho, Cowboy Ed, Tim-Bob, Mister Lies, Erin The Red, Miss Kitty, and Squeegee. ("More" and "Extras" from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours is that rare combination: a smashing lliterary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse.
Anne Prichard - USA Today


[W]hen a novelist has the right stuff, he can endow literally any subject with truth, poetry, and intelligence....The Hours is a meditation on age and decay, on sanity and insanity, on the nature of the creative act, on the ineradicable love for life that continues even in the face of a longing for death.
The New Criterion


What, he essentially asks in The Hours, is it like to grow up and be older, to succeed and fail, to have friends and lovers and children and parents who delight and disappoint, provide joy and sorrow?.... Aficionados will undoubtedly relish the countless parallels between a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway and a day in the life of Clarissa Vaughan.
Vogue


Michael Cunningham's new novel, The Hours, is neither an homage nor a sequel to Mrs. Dalloway. It is, rather, an attempt at osmosis with the spirit of Virginia Woolf. Cunningham, the author of such well-received novels as A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995), has even borrowed the title that Woolf had originally intended for her elegant story about a single June day in 1923 when Clarissa Dalloway gives a party and World War I veteran Septimus Smith cracks up. The Hours, is a feat of literary acrobatics, yet in the end does not affect us as profoundly as Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours is a variation on a theme, and it's the original melody rather than the contemporary arrangement that's most memorable.

In Woolf's original, the setting is London and many of the characters are members of the British upper-middle class, just a rung below the aristocracy. Septimus' madness reflects the primary social ill of the day — the debilitated physical and mental state of many World War I veterans. Woolf's characters follow the sexual codes of the 1920s bourgeoisie. Clarissa's first passion is her friend Sally Seton, but the question of a committed lesbian relationship would never enter her mind. She rejects her more ardent suitor, Peter Walsh, in favor of a bloodless marriage to the loving but staid Richard Dalloway. Now Peter, still struck by her, turns up after years in India, just in time to attend her party.

Curiously, Cunningham opens The Hours with a chilling description of Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941. It doesn't feel like a part of the novel that follows, which consists of three distinct narratives that overlap one another. The third takes place at the end of the 20th century. The setting is Manhattan, and the contemporary social ill is AIDS. The characters, rather than bourgeois, are members of America's artistic and academic elite. They may be rich by the world's standards, but hardly "New York rich."

Richard Brown is an award-winning novelist and poet, physically and mentally ravaged by AIDS. (He may put some readers in mind of Harold Brodkey.) Clarissa Vaughan, whose first passion was for the bisexual Richard years earlier, has settled down with the woman she loves — Sally, a public television producer. Louis, the Peter Walsh stand-in and once part of a ménage à trois with Richard and Clarissa, is back in New York just in time for the party Clarissa is throwing for Richard, to celebrate a literary award he has won.

Cunningham's writing has a luminous quality. One can easily imagine Woolf describing her sister's world as "the carnival wagon that bears Vanessa — the whole gaudy party of her, that vast life, the children and paints and lovers, the brilliantly cluttered house — [that] has passed on into the night." He reinterprets characters, gives them his own spin. Religious fanatic Miss Kilman becomes Mary Krull, a politically hardcore lesbian, as much a party pooper (of the whole human parade as well as Clarissa's little celebration) as the original. Pulling off this clever literary accomplishment shows us that the talented Michael Cunningham isn't at all afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Georgia Jones-Davis - Salon


At first blush, the structural and thematic conceits of this novel — three interwoven novellas in varying degrees connected to Virginia Woolf — seem like the stuff of a graduate student's pipe dream: a great idea in the dorm room that betrays a lack of originality. But as soon as one dips into Cunningham's prologue, in which Woolf's suicide is rendered with a precise yet harrowing matter-of-factness ("She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa."), the reader becomes completely entranced. This book more than fulfills the promise of Cunningham's 1990 debut, A Home at the End of the World, while showing that sweep does not necessarily require the sprawl of his second book, Flesh and Blood. In alternating chapters, the three stories unfold: "Mrs. Woolf," about Virginia's own struggle to find an opening for Mrs. Dalloway in 1923; "Mrs. Brown," about one Laura Brown's efforts to escape, somehow, an airless marriage in California in 1949 while, coincidentally, reading Mrs. Dalloway; and "Mrs. Dalloway," which is set in 1990s Greenwich Village and concerns Clarissa Vaughan's preparations for a party for her gay — and dying — friend, Richard, who has nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's insightful use of the historical record concerning Woolf in her household outside London in the 1920s is matched by his audacious imagining of her inner life and his equally impressive plunges into the lives of Laura and Clarissa.

The book would have been altogether absorbing had it been linked only thematically. However, Cunningham cleverly manages to pull the stories even more intimately togther in the closing pages. Along the way, rich and beautifully nuanced scenes follow one upon the other: Virginia, tired and weak, irked by the early arrival of headstrong sister Vanessa, her three children and the dead bird they bury in the backyard; Laura's afternoon escape to an L.A. hotel to read for a few hours; Clarissa's anguished witnessing of her friend's suicidal jump down an airshaft, rendered with unforgettable detail. The overall effect of this book is twofold. First, it makes a reader hunger to know all about Woolf, again; readers may be spooked at times, as Woolf's spirit emerges in unexpected ways, but hers is an abiding presence, more about living than dying. Second, and this is the gargantuan accomplishment of this small book, it makes a reader believe in the possibility and depth of a communality based on great literature, literature that has shown people how to live and what to ask of life.
Publishers Weekly


Clarissa Dalloway certainly is a popular lady nowadays, with a recent movie and now a new book based on her life. She is, of course, the heroine of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel about a day in the life of a proper but uninspired wife and the tragic event that changes her. In this new work by Cunningham (Flesh and Blood, LJ 4/15/95), that day's events are reflected and reinterpreted in the interwoven stories of three women: Laura, a reluctant mother and housewife of the 1940s; Clarissa, an editor in the 1990s and caretaker of her best friend, an AIDS patient; and Woolf herself, on the verge of writing the aforementioned novel. Certain themes flow from story to story: paths not taken, the need for independence, meditations on mortality. Woolf fans will enjoy identifying these scenes in a different context, but it's only at the end that the author engages more than just devoted followers with a surprisingly touching coda that stresses the common bonds the characters share. Given Woolf's popularity, this is a book all libraries should consider, with an exhortation to visit Mrs. Dalloway as well. —Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA
Library Journal


Steeped in the work and life of Virginia Woolf, Cunningham (Flesh and Blood) offers up a sequel to the work of the great author, complete with her own pathos and brilliance. Cunningham tells three tales, interweaving them in cunning ways and, after the model of Mrs. Dalloway itself, allowing each only a day in the life of its central character. First comes Woolf herself, in June of 1923 (after a prologue describing her 1941 suicide). In Woolf's day (as in her writings), little "happens," though the profundities are great: Virginia works (on Mrs. Dalloway); her sister Vanessa visits; Virginia holds her madness at bay (just barely); and, over dinner, she convinces husband Leonard to move back to London from suburban Richmond. In the "Mrs. Brown" sections, a young woman named Sally Brown reads the novel Mrs. Dalloway, this in suburban L.A. (in 1949), where Sally has a three-year-old son, is pregnant again, and, preparing her husband's birthday celebration, fights off her own powerful despair.

Finally, and at greatest length, is the present-time day in June of Mrs. Dalloway, this being one Clarissa Vaughan of West 10th Street, New York City, years ago nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her then-lover and now-AIDS-victim Richard Brown — who, on this day in June, is to receive a major prize for poetry. Like the original Mrs. Dalloway, this Clarissa is planning a party (for Richard), goes out for flowers, observes the day, sees someone famous, thinks about life, time, the past, and love ("Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other"). Much in fact does happen; much is lost, hoped for, feared, sometimes recovered ("It will serve as this afternoon's manifestation of the central mystery itself"), all in gorgeous, Woolfian, shimmering, perfectly-observed prose. Hardly a false note in an extraordinary carrying on of a true greatness that doubted itself.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Clarissa Vaughan is described several times as an "ordinary" woman. Do you accept this valuation? If so, what does it imply about the ordinary, about being ordinary? What makes someone, by contrast, extraordinary?

2. Flowers and floral imagery play a significant part in The Hours. When and where are flowers described? What significance do they have, and with what events and moods are they associated? How do flowers affect Virginia? Clarissa?

3. Cunningham plays with the notions of sanity and insanity, recognizing that there might be only a very fine line between the two states. What does the novel imply about the nature of insanity? Might it in fact be a heightened sanity, or at least a heightened sense of awareness? Would you classify Richard as insane? How does his mental state compare with that of Virginia? Of Laura as a young wife? Of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway? Does insanity (or the received idea of insanity) appear to be connected with creative gifts?

4. Virginia and Laura are both, in a sense, prisoners of their eras and societies, and both long for freedom from this imprisonment. Clarissa Vaughan, on the other hand, apparently enjoys every liberty: freedom to be a lesbian, to come and go and live as she likes. Yet she has ended up, in spite of her unusual way of life, as a fairly conventional wife and mother. What might this fact indicate about the nature of society and the restrictions it imposes? Does the author imply that character, to a certain extent, is destiny?

5. Each of the novel's three principal women, even the relatively prosaic and down-to-earth Clarissa, occasionally feels a sense of detachment, of playing a role. Laura feels as if she is "about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed" [p. 43]. Clarissa is filled with "a sense of dislocation. This is not her kitchen at all. This is the kitchen of an acquaintance, pretty enough but not her taste, full of foreign smells" [p. 91]. Is this feeling in fact a universal one? Is role-playing an essential part of living in the world, and of behaving "sanely"? Which of the characters refuses to act a role, and what price does he/she pay for this refusal?

6. Who kisses whom in The Hours, and what is the significance of each kiss?

7. The Hours is very much concerned with creativity and the nature of the creative act, and each of its protagonists is absorbed in a particular act of creation. For Virginia and Richard, the object is their writing; for Clarissa Vaughan (and Clarissa Dalloway), it is a party; for Laura Brown, it is another party, or, more generally, "This kitchen, this birthday cake, this conversation. This revived world" [p. 106]. What does the novel tell us about the creative process? How does each character revise and improve his or her creation during the course of the story?

8. How might Richard's childhood experiences have made him the adult he eventually becomes? In what ways has he been wounded, disturbed?

9. Each of the three principal women is acutely conscious of her inner self or soul, slightly separate from the "self" seen by the world. Clarissa's "determined, abiding fascination is what she thinks of as her soul" [p. 12]; Virginia "can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul.... It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance" [pp. 34-35]. Which characters keep these inner selves ruthlessly separate from their outer ones? Why?

10. Each of the novel's characters sees himself or herself, most of the time, as a failure. Virginia Woolf, as she walks to her death, reflects that "She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric" [p. 4]. Richard, disgustedly, admits to Clarissa, "I thought I was a genius. I actually used that word, privately, to myself" [p. 65]. Are the novel's characters unusual, or are such feelings of failure an essential and inevitable part of the human condition?

11. Toward the end of Clarissa's day, she realizes that kissing Richard beside the pond in Wellfleet was the high point, the culmination, of her life. Richard, apparently, feels the same. Are we meant to think, though, that their lives would have been better, more heightened, had they stayed together? Or does Cunningham imply that as we age we inevitably feel regret for some lost chance, and that what we in fact regret is youth itself?

12. The Hours could on one level be said to be a novel about middle age, the final relinquishment of youth and the youthful self. What does middle age mean to these characters? In what essential ways do these middle-aged people — Clarissa, Richard, Louis, Virginia — differ from their youthful selves? Which of them resists the change most strenuously?

13. What does the possibility of death represent to the various characters? Which of them loves the idea of death, as others love life? What makes some of the characters decide to die, others to live? What personality traits separate the "survivors" from the suicides?

14. If you have read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, would you describe The Hours as a modern version of it? A commentary upon it? A dialogue with it? Which characters in The Hours correspond with those of Woolf's novel? In what ways are they similar, and at what point do the similarities cease and the characters become freestanding individuals in their own right?

15. For the most part, the characters in The Hours have either a different gender or a different sexual orientation from their prototypes in Mrs. Dalloway. How much has all this gender-bending affected or changed the situations, the relationships, and the people?

16. Why has Cunningham chosen The Hours for the title of his novel (aside from the fact that it was Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway)? In what ways is the title appropriate, descriptive? What do hours mean to Richard? To Laura? To Clarissa?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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