Monday, 7 January 2008

Short Story Monday - from Fragile Things, and Mrs Dalloway

Short Story Monday,first. I suddenly remembered at 11:20 pm tonight that I had signed up for short Story Monday.....and it is Monday! so I went to my bookshelf to my books set aside for reading this year, and picked at random Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. I picked a story at random, after flipping through his introduction and realizing that I want to read a short story each Monday that grabs my attention. I saw "The Problem of Susan" and seeing it was about Susan from Narnia, and that Neil had been as bothered by her being left out as I had been upon reading the stories, I decided to see what he had to say about it.
"The Problem of Susan" is written from the perspective of Susan as an old lady, a professor of - what else, but children's literature. It is a bittersweet short story, bittersweet because Susan ends up as I always thought she would - unmarried, alone, and cold in her nature, which she must have been to turn her back on Narnia. It is a gruesome story too, discussing the train accident, and especially the lion and the witch - I have to confess I am shocked at the blatant sexuality in the second character Greta's dream, which doesn't fit the tone of the Narnia series (which I have read several times and loved as a child), and yet.......and yet, that is the reason that Susan doesn't go with them to Narnia in that last dreadful train ride, because she has grown up to lipstick and boys. In the ways of opposites, the lion and the witch are opposites that attract.....I won't say any more because I'd rather you read it, Gentle Reader! It is the darkside of fairy tales, it is death and the body the way CS Lewis couldn't write about it, and it fits what became of now if I dream about lions or myself older tonight, I'll know this story did affect me! *for those Gentle Readers who don't know, my name is Susan, so of course I was most insulted when I read Narnia and she, of all the siblings, doesn't return to Narnia. I thought that was most unfair, and i expect I have spent much of my life trying not to be that Susan in the books! Though after reading this story, I can't decide if perhaps she didn't get the better part of the deal after all....or maybe Aslan has been waiting for her all along (as the ending suggests). As always, Neil Gaiman's writing surprises and disturbs, in equal measure.

Now, onto Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I had read her a long time ago in university, To the Lighthouse, which I remember liking, but not enough to read the rest of her work. And, as usual, I am doing things backwards - I have read Michael Cunningham's "The Hours", his award-winning novel based on Mrs Dalloway, and seen the movie The Hours, without ever reading Mrs Dalloway! I didn't like The Hours, I thought it was highly over-rated (as I find many National Book Award winners to be), and the movie was so-so.
So how was Mrs Dalloway? well, Gentle Reader, it was unexpected- unexpectedly interesting in places, and unexpectedly boring in others. I had to force myself to read the whole book, which was an enormous disappointment for me. It is a cold book, about people that I find difficult to care one iota about - spoiled people who are shallow and selfish. I wanted to like the book, and some of the descriptions of how sounds or light or the sun move through London, are brilliant, as is the continuing use of the sea and water. Even though the novel is set in London, there are reoccurring descriptions of the sea, and of water, but knowing as we do that Virginia Woolf took her own life by walking into the water and drowning, the use of the water images I find takes on a subtler resonance. We are not just seeing her writing, we are seeing into recurring themes in Virginia's mind. At the heart of the book are two things: the descriptions of madness for Septimus Warren Smith - which, except for his doctor and a chance observation in the park, have no relation to the characters of the book - his eventual suicide, and the party that Clarissa Dalloway, central figure of the book, is giving. The book occurs over one day, and is made up of the movement of people and accidental/chance connections that occur over that one day. Each of the characters is allowed their own time in the book in a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue that allows us to see the other characters and the setting of London through different eyes and perspectives. It is very cleverly done, and captures the setting of Piccadilly/bloomsbury in London very effectively. I enjoyed this part of the book and the technique very much. I did not enjoy the characters at all, who none of them except for Sally, had many redeeming qualities about them. None of the characters really liked eachother, except for Rezia who is fighting to save her husband from his madness, and Sally, who has a big heart and while honest about everyone, is easily the most friendly and likeable character in the book. We only get to meet her at the end, almost by chance as she is not invited to the party but drops in.
There are interesting ideas in this book, about marriage, love, friendship, society, connections, vanity, roles people play, about youth and middle age. I'm glad I read it. I think, it is an important book in the development of women's writing, of the novel - and especially the 20th century novel - and of showing what London was like for the middle class in London in the early part of this century. I am not so sure the madness part belongs, or if it does, if the author is showing the fracturing of the self when thrown up into the extremes of life and death, in this case, the First World War. The shallowness of the rest of the book - because it really is shallow, the throwing of a party just because Clarissa feels she wants to - the emptiness and vacuousness even she allows in her rare moments to feel, opposite the struggle of Septimus to hold together some rationality and having it all swept away in madness because he can't feel the death of his comrade Evans in the War. The strongest parts of the book are when the characters allow themselves to feel, but most of the book is about their thinking - and this makes the book an interesting view of our split in the 2oth century, of human nature itself - the rules we impose on ourselves because we think we should behave in a certain way (often for others approval, in this book), and the truth of what we actually feel, which in this novel is most often the unpleasant feelings - despair, alienation, anger, hatred.
All in all, I'm glad I read it, but I am still not sure I like Virginia Woolf's writing. I admire her, and agree whole-heartedly with her views in "A Room of One's Own", but her characters are not people I would enjoy knowing. Which does show her skill as a writer!


John Mutford said...

I've only read one Neil Gaiman short story before and while I just thought it was decent, I'm always astounded by his premises when reading reviews such as this.

I read Mrs. Dalloway after reading The Hours too. And I felt the same way about both- only interesting in technique.

Susan said...

Thanks for the comments, John! I've been thinking of both stories since Monday. I feel guilty for not liking Virginia Woolf more, but I don't. I'm glad you had the same reaction I did to both The Hours and Mrs Dalloway; I think the shame is that The Hours got the National Book Award (I think it was that one) when I don't think it deserved it. They are clever books, without being really feeling books. And compare that with how we both - and just about everyone I know - love To Kill a Mockingbird. That is a book written with great feeling - not emotional, but with passion.