Memory’s strange endurance even against the press of hours, even against death, animates Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning braided novel, The Hours. In it, a book editor, Clarissa Vaughn, recollects a kiss at dusk, an instant she experienced with a poet, whom she did not marry, more than 30 years before, a moment that “had seemed like the beginning of happiness.” She realizes that “it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book.” The poet, Richard, dubs her Mrs. Dalloway, an intimacy that was one of many, yet, against the passage of time,
what lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.
Cunningham’s sentences could produce a kind of claustrophobia with a repeated alveolar d sound, stop consonants that briefly halt the flow of sound in the sentence, trapping air before releasing it. But instead, these sentences build an image of perfection within utter ordinariness, envisioning the very lack of fulfillment as a prerequisite to the ideal. Even as the sound of d repeats, the moment doesn’t. Cunningham hints at Clarissa’s alternate, rejected future with the poet, hours stretching on in a different direction than they actually did.
Against what we might expect, the cascading imagery conjures a quality of limitlessness—our lives are simultaneously more and less than we understand as we live them. A similar recognition of the fleeting nature of our happiest moments slips out in our September California Book Club selection, Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers. Otsuka recognizes the disconnect between one of the swimmers and her past happiness, her love with whom she gathered apples.
Like The Swimmers, The Hours is an exquisite and shattering book, attentive to the everyday and the tragic, the difficulty of living and the beauty of it. Also, like The Swimmers, The Hours is innovative in structure, with three story lines that eventually intersect. In the midst of the bright pleasures of Cunningham’s and Otsuka’s structural inventiveness is a psychological intimacy that is hard for any writer to achieve. And so we’re delighted to introduce Cunningham as our special guest in conversation with Otsuka.
Cunningham grew up in La Cañada, California. The Hours was named Best Book of 1998 by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. Aside from The Hours, Cunningham’s books include A Home at the End of the World, By Nightfall, The Snow Queen, and A Wild Swan. If you have not read Otsuka’s book yet, take a look at the power within its compressed page count. You may also want to read or reread The Hours, or at least return to it on-screen.
While The Hours reminds readers both expressly and implicitly of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it’s interesting to see how Cunningham’s risks might have affected Otsuka’s in The Swimmers. Literature is always indebted to other literature. There is a resemblance in the sort of beauty generated by Otsuka, Cunningham, Woolf, and others. Tug any thread of meaning in literature and you might find the web of its familial books. Consciousness may be darkened by illness and death yet glimmer with bits of joy before, in a visceral shock, it’s gone. It’s a seemingly simple insight, and yet a timeless one that is so often, as we go about our tasks, our gathering of rosebuds or apples or any other sunlit, quotidian pleasure, forgotten.•
Join us on Friday, September 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Otsuka will talk to Cunningham and CBC host John Freeman about The Swimmers. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.
RADICAL, CRAMPED READINGS
Author and UC Berkeley School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky (forthcoming is Worse Than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism) decries the ahistorical ideology of originalism, writing, “Even where original intent can be known, the Framers likely did not want their views to control constitutional interpretation.” —Atlantic
Litquake, which kicks off on October 6 in San Francisco, has released its schedule. Among other writers, the event will feature prior CBC author Elaine Castillo, Jamil Jan Kochai, Andrew Sean Greer, and Alta contributors Julia Flynn Siler, Charlie Jane Anders, and Bonnie Tsui. —Litquake
CRISIS OF FAITH
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