An Attempt at Something

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Mrs. Dalloway, his Mrs. Dalloway, buys the flowers herself.

But the writer Richard Brown (Ed Harris), beset by “black fire,” is certain that his life’s labor has been all for naught, the sum of it still a mere shade of Virginia Woolf’s singular opening sentence. “I wanted to write about it all, everything that happens in a moment,” he explains to longtime friend and former lover Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in director Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. “Everything in the world. Everything all mixed up, like it’s all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less.”

I understand the sentiment: I recently spent the whole of a gorgeous spring Saturday, one as bright and as crisp as a starched shirt, attempting to shape this essay into a form resembling Woolf’s — only to find that the pileup of thoughts I’d mimicked in high school and college has begun to elude me, my “voice,” such as it is, having long since hardened into something else, something slighter, tinnier. If I am honest with myself, I have lost more niceties of inflection, more unimpeachable sentences, to the space between conception and execution than to any skeptical editor, and The Hours — though set in Richmond, England in 1923; in Los Angeles in 1951; and in New York in 2001 — inhabits this space, interstitial, tending toward imperfection. The cake craters, the train departs, the poet tosses himself from the window. “I seem to be unraveling,” the otherwise impeccable Clarissa confesses, although it must be said that life, like writing, often seems to be one long unraveling, a process of coming to terms with the fact that an idea, once brought into the world, is always already beyond saving. Woolf herself described this entropic transformation in Mrs. Dalloway, referring to Big Ben’s chimes: “First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

That the film should nonetheless endeavor to find a cinematic analogue to Woolf’s flickering, impressionistic language — her controlled skid through memory, history, philosophy, and literature, pitched in the affective terms of family, friendship, marriage, death — is, for me, its most eloquent gesture, and its most moving. At the outset, as Philip Glass’ tumbling, tinkling score gathers momentum, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Clarissa Vaughn, and Richard’s mother, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), all lie in bed, each stirred by the toll, the buzz, the beep of the clock’s morning greeting. First the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. Virginia’s face disappears from a mirror only to emerge, in the future’s far country, as Clarissa’s. Montage turns red flowers yellow and then the deepest violet. By the time the first line of Mrs. Dalloway lashes the trio together, reducing vast chasms of time and place to the width of a sheet of paper, The Hours appears, above all else, to be a tribute to Woolf’s serial semicolons and capacious commas, her ruminations and glancing connections. In Richmond, a servant breaks eggs for an unwanted lamb pie; in New York, decades later, Clarissa separates yolks for a dish that will never be eaten. Laura kisses her neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), in a Los Angeles kitchen, much as Virginia kisses her sister, Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), or Clarissa kisses her partner, Sally (Alison Janney), suddenly impassioned, setting forth the bloom, the blush, of a stricken communion. Streams of consciousness run together, through hotel rooms and the English countryside, through a Manhattan flop and the leaves of a London summer. This is the project of The Hours: to spin the same fragile fabric from which Woolf weaves her grand design, here patterned, there random, slipping from image to image, thought to thought. It falls short, of course: no matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less.

How could it not? Here is an adaptation (by David Hare) of a reinterpretation (by Michael Cunningham) of one of the trickiest, densest, most lyrical works of fiction ever published in English (by Virginia Woolf): the essence is bound to be lost in translation. And yet what I wish to suggest is that The Hours, striving and failing to recreate Woolf’s immaculate cadences, stumbles upon the conviction at the heart of her finest novels, which is that the work of life, of art, is no more and no less than to essay, to try. The next cake succeeds, the capital beckons, the long day comes to a close. That the hours in between winnow what we start with down to so much less is not an argument against the attempt at something, but the foremost reason for it. To pass our time otherwise would be to confront a far greater abyss than failure.

“It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy,” Laura, older now, explains to Clarissa as The Hours reaches its end. “But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret, when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.”

In the decade since I first discovered Woolf, avid for words but incapable of molding them into a fair approximation of my thoughts — thoughts that sparked, burned, dimmed, and dissolved before I could pin them down — I have often wondered at her tenacious influence. You will have understood by now, of course, that I remain under the spell of those bounding, boundless sentences, even as my own attempts at something like them seem to contain so much less, but I cannot say I count this strange allegiance to the impossible as one of my many regrets. I stowed myself away in Woolf’s fugitive phrases at a moment — of coming out, of moving on, of deciding who it was I wanted to be — in which I felt an inexplicable mixture of joy and grief, freedom and constraint, excitement and fear, and those feelings have only intensified: I still catch myself drifting into the ungovernable reveries I once recognized in Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, and my only way to catch them is to commit them to paper, no matter what’s lost in the process.

“She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs,” Woolf writes in Mrs. Dalloway, “of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

You see, I can’t even write this properly. It is, I worry, a faint echo of the art at its center, slighter, tinnier, slipping from image to image, thought to thought, although it is also, undeniably, an attempt at something. As I’ve long since come to understand, to endure the dangers of living—if never exactly to tame them—is to row back to shore, to grab hold, with all one’s strength, of even the slimmest thread of connection, for it’s the act of letting go that is, in The Hours, irrevocable.