Following from Pete’s comment to my first post on Mrs Dalloway, this week we started off our discussion of Woolf’s text with a key question: do writers read book differently?
Are we, as writers, robbed of the pleasure of losing ourselves in the fictional worlds of our favourite books, as we try too hard to dissect characters, map out the plots, querying the position of a comma and the structure of a paragraph? Many writers, like Betsy, certainly recognised that one could be easily overwhelmed by the task. Pete suggested that as a writer you become more aware of certain technical details. You look out for the balance between dialogue and description, for example. As a ‘writer reader’, you absorb details in a much more conscious fashion than you would as a ‘reader reader’; you simply get more out of it, Crystal added. This is, of course, particularly true when we consider the relationship that exists between a book and the space it represents. As a ‘writer reader’ living and working in London, the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway may turn into an involuntary (?) process of mapping out the places visited by Woolf’s characters in June 1923. It is hardly surprising, as Ben noted, that various maps and itineraries have been drawn to follow Clarissa, Peter Walsh and Septimus around theirLondon.
So reading Mrs Dalloway prompts us to become flaneurs, strolling, lingering, dwelling spectators of the city space, whose patterns we map, and re-map continuously. The city becomes text, Anne observed of the intertextual structure of Woolf’s novel, a text that is constantly being reinscribed by new journeys and, of course, new incomers. As Naji pointed out, the city is a different space to those who have just arrived – we think of Maisie Johnson, for instance, in Mrs Dalloway – and whose London is – temporarily, at least – a point of arrival. To the newly-arrived foreign visitor, London appears, strangely perhaps, like a network of unknown trajectories, invisible, like the fine line of a spider’s cobweb, as Martin Amis intriguingly puts it, in another classic London novel, London Fields. To Peter Walsh, who has just returned from India, London is, as Jude noted, certainly a different city, a place, where, for instance, young women ostentatiously put their make-up on in public. In a sense, other readers have suggested, Woolf’s novel produces a ‘homeopathic’ view of London (Brian). Rather than focusing, overwhelmingly, on the British capital, Wool’f London becomes the more universal embodiment of the modern metropolis, pointing to the dramatic social changes, and their impact on the people who lived, worked and travelled to the largest city in Europe, to find it, as Maisie claims, rather queer.
The public space, too, is juxtaposed to the private space, which, to readers such as Anete, reveals the much more intimate emotional space occupied by a character: such is the moment when Clarissa retires to her bedroom, alone, at last, and focusing on her present condition, undistracted by the flood of memories which the other, more public spaces she occupies, triggers. And this is the real power of a writer such as Woolf, who sucks the reader into the worlds of her characters, whose repressed desires and longing hopes we become part of: as Crystal observed, her narrative style allows the reader to bounce off each character, multiplying the perspectives, layering the spaces these characters shape through the patterns of elliptical repetitions, Brian noted, which expose the tricks of her trade to the ‘writer reader’. Such, for example, is Clarissa’s (apparently random) memory of her throwing a shilling in the Serpentine, evocatively placed toward the beginning and the end of the novel.
To finish off, the group focused on humour, which a writer like Woolf is not always associated with. Yet the book does make us smile, hinting to the distance that the writer can establish with the subject matter of her writing. Being able to laugh with our characters, even when writing of serious matters, may be rather refreshing, as Woolf does, at the expense, perhaps, of Hugh Whitbread:
here was dear Hugh driving up and spending an hour talking of the past, remembering trifles, praising the home-made cake, though Hugh might eat cake with a Duchess any day of his life, and, to look at him, probably did spend a good deal of time in that agreeable occupation.
Our next book is Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December (2009), and we look forward to reading posts by our next guest blogger, Jon Kearnes, sometimes next week!