This is the first installment of my new ‘book of the week’ feature, in which I will post about a book that has made an impact on me at some point in my life. On the top right of my blog, there will be a link to the Amazon page for the book for those who’d like to check it out. I will only be choosing books I feel to be of the highest order. I will not be limiting my choices to any one genre or type of book. This week’s choice is a book that I only recently finished, and it blew me the hell away.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, released in 1925, was way ahead of its time. It is a brilliantly crafted work of staggering complexity that deals with issues such as mental illness, and society’s views and treatment of mental illness, the trauma of war, class and gender inequality, and homosexuality, as well as countless other themes. It is a short book at under 200 pages, but one could write a thousand pages on it and still leave some of its themes and ideas unexamined. At the same time, it is so beautifully crafted, that even a superficial reading will enrich the reader’s life as he or she turns every page, waiting to see what happens next.
The book is written in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style, most notably employed by James Joyce in his unrivaled masterpiece, Ulysses. Woolf comes as close as anyone apart from Joyce himself in capturing the true scope of what this style can offer a reader. Here, we are offered rare glimpses into the inner workings of the minds of over 20 distinct and highly developed characters, most notably the title character, a bored socialite wife whose thoughts shift between regret over what could have been (Peter Walsh, a lover from her past who is a much more exciting man than her husband), or what she wants to have (a woman named Sally Seton, who Clarissa is clearly in love with), and her role as the socialite’s wife who has to take care of the laborious job of throwing a party, which we sense she realizes is excruciatingly pointless.
The book wanders through the minds of various other characters. The most important and compelling character, in my view, is the traumatized war veteran, Septimus Smith. Wrought with hallucinations and increasingly distant from those around him, including his loving life, Septimus is one of the most fascinating characters in all of literature, and one of its most troubling. Here we see the deleterious effects of war on the psyche. This man has been through a lot. He is troubled, but he has strength to persist, and yet, he is essentially ignored by a medical establishment who do not care to understand his plight. Woolf’s critique of the way mentally ill people are treated in her society is as pointed as ever here in 2014. We really have not come a long way at all.
Woolf’s ability to craft elegantly complex sentences makes this classic literary masterpiece an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read, full of complex themes, but yet devoid of any pretense. This is truly one of the greatest works of fiction ever set to print. I could write so much more, notably about the way she plays with notions of time and memory, but I don’t want to spoil it for you too much. I strongly suggest that, despite its relatively short length, you really take your time and think about what’s going on. This is a fun read, to be sure, but if you really sink your teeth in, your life will be truly enriched. If you have read it, please feel free to leave a comment below, as I always enjoy hearing what others have to say about the works of art that I cherish.