Audiobook: Mrs. Dalloway

My only experience with Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is the exquisite 1997 movie. I'd tried listening to this audiobook version three or four times, and could never get past the first 30 minutes.

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For whatever reason -- a quieter mind, a longer commute -- I found the rhythm of it on this go-round, aided by the actress Juliet Stevenson's beautifully measured and performed reading. 

This is the first fiction I've experienced by Virginia Woolf. Listening to the book's numerous stream-of-consciousness passages felt very natural, with Stevenson dipping in and out the stream so elegantly I barely noticed the prose's bracing modernity and technique. 

What surprised me as a first-time reader was how much of the story was told, rather than shown, and, moreover, told through the consciousnesses of 20 or more separate characters. Sliding from one character's viewpoint to another in the course of a scene yielded deftly etched portraits of all the characters. The way Sally, Richard, Elizabeth, Peter, Miss Kilman, Lady Bruton all comment on Clarissa limns both her and them. Hugh Whitbread's shortcomings are funnier when detailed via the successive thoughts and impressions of Richard Dalloway, Lady Bruton, and Lady Bruton's stiff secretary Miss Brush, who despises him.

It's a book in which much is remembered and gone over, pondered and reconsidered, but in which not much happens, at least to the Dalloways and their set. The plot is minimal, there are no "stakes" to speak of. Ursula Le Guin wrote that we need to think of stories as having shapes and structures different and more interesting than the standard pyramidal rising action, climax, falling action. Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful example of that. The individual streams merge to form a splashing river, with turns of phrase, images, and motifs shining out and taking my breath away when least expected.

And when I say "not much happens," that does not apply to the story of Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia. Smith and Mrs. Dalloway were evidently intended as "doubles," according to Woolf, though they never meet and she only overhears the story of his suicide. 

Yet without Smith and Rezia, I think the novel would be only half as good, technically sterling but emotionally limited, as Clarissa and Peter's memories of their youthful summers and the winding down of their joys and possibilities are the sadnesses simply of time passing and growing older. Not insignificant themes yet not lapel-grabbers, either.

But Septimus. Poor Septimus. It's like he wandered in from a different story and refuses to leave until he's said his peace and shared his hallucinatory revelations. He lives in his hallucinations as Clarissa lives in her memories, but the anguish his shell shock causes Rezia, and the blinkered mishandling of his case by well-meaning medical men, brings emotional devastation and tragedy to the story. For me, its importance warps the gravity of the narrative flow. The description of Clarissa's party afterward feels like a dutiful epilogue; life goes on, yes, Clarissa has her epiphany, yes, but something vital has left the book. 

And too: I was surprised at how quickly the scene of Septimus' suicide went, at how little time Woolf spends exploring the aftermath compared to what one might expect today. Rezia sadly accepts that this has happened and is given an unasked-for sedative by the doctor. Peter Walsh, walking to his hotel, hears the sound of an ambulance, and another stream enters the river. It's a breathtaking moment.

Listening to this book became a thrilling experience, in its way, as I sought opportunities to spend more time with this book, its characters, and its world. I'm looking forward to hearing it again. 

Source: Naxos Audiobooks, via Audible.com