Welcome to the ‘Literary Blog Hop’, a meme hosted by The Blue Bookcase for book bloggers who focus on reviewing literary fiction. This weeks’ hop comes with the question:
What is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult?
The most difficult book I’ve ever read has to be ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf. Going into it is like being hit with a literary sledgehammer. Seriously. If you reckon you know ‘stream-of-consciousness’, then think again! ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is probably SoC perfection what with its mercurial ideas and shifting narrators.
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself… it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows, white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!”
The story of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is set in post World War I England and is about one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a married middle-class woman who is preparing to throw a party later that evening. The novel works on a number of different themes including mental illness, existential issues, feminism and homosexuality. People who know a bit about Woolf will probably have heard about her own mental problems and her suicide. She was known to have been bisexual and a strong champion of feminist thought. All of these issues find voice in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ making it an excellent study of her life and her ideals.
The special thing about the novel is that even though it takes place over 24 hours, the story constantly shifts backwards and forwards in time. In reality, this is Woolf’s way of mimicking one day in the life of anyone’s mind, as she makes it clear that even though we are living in a constant ‘present’, our thoughts rarely ever do. The novel also has a very strong element of ‘voyeurism’ to it, as Woolf’s narrative switches from character to the next without warning, often delving into the world of private, often embarrassing thoughts. This also seems to show that people are never what they seem to be. Clarissa, a respectably married housewife entertains thoughts of suppressed love for her childhood friend Sally Bourton. Similarly, Septimus (a shell-shocked war hero) is still haunted by his commanding officer Evans. The story of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is essentially about the secret lives people live within themselves, and the things that go without saying which is rather, the omitted subtext of everyday existence.
All I can really say about this novel is that it has no ‘walls’. Yes, there is nothing to separate the thoughts of the characters or the characters themselves for that matter, because Woolf’s complete focus is on ‘memory’ and the organic behaviour of thought. Many writers have toyed with the idea of writing a novel that mimics the theatre of the mind, but few have ever got so close as to actually emulating that on paper. One of those successes being James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ gets a mention here, only because it is probably up there on the number one spot for the most difficult SoC book to read (both famous and infamous for it in equal measure!). In fact, it’s hailed as the most difficult book period, but since I haven’t read it yet, Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ takes first place for now.
When I first picked this up eight years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was already a fan of Woolf, having read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and some other essays of hers, but I never counted on experiencing anything quite as modern and intuitive as the complex style she exhibits here. In fact, before reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ I realised I had a pretty rigid view on what makes a successful novel. Normally, a book is constructed from a number of ‘building blocks’ like themes, symbolism, etc, and the way those blocks fit into each other (much like lego) depends on the way an author structures her narrative. Woolf however completely blew my theory to pieces; how she did it I still don’t know, but one thing is certain, her writing is as fine as gossamer and as strong as steel-wool. ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is hardly a conventional novel. I see it as a gross concentration of memories, an intense saturation of isolated, fleeting feelings and thoughts that seem to be plucked from the mind and laid directly onto paper. The ebb and flow of the story may seem erratic at first, but like a 3D picture, once you adjust yourself to the pace and the multiple story strands, it becomes a very fulfilling read.
Project Gutenburg Australia has a number of free ebooks in it’s archives that cannot be found in the normal Project Gutenburg website, so check it out when you have the time!