I’ve been retyping MRS. DALLOWAY

9780156628709_p0_v3_s260x420One learning technique that writers sometimes recommend is the practice of retyping a work that you really admire. The point is to make yourself slow down and think about this work on a word by word level, and also to get your fingers used to idea of typing complex and interesting sentences. I think this is particularly useful for me, since I’m so prone to getting caught up in the living dream of a novel and forgetting that it’s made of actual words. Anyway, about four years ago, I did this for my favorite short story of all time–F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon, Revisited”–and learned quite a bit about how sparing it is possible to be. For instance, F. Scott draws scenes that feels much fuller and longer than they actually are: most of his dialogues aren’t really longer than ten lines, but they feel like entire conversations. He’s also (at least in “Babylon…”) very sparing with physical descriptions. It really taught me that it’s possible to be very vivid without spending pages and pages on things.

Since then, I’ve often wanted to try retyping a longer work. However, I’ve been torn about what it should be. For awhile, I was considering Cather’s My Ántonia. However, I wondered if that might not be too singular of a structure to really learn from (the novel is told in five parts that all deal with fairly different parts of life in turn-of-the-century Nebraska). And then I considered retyping Nabokov’s Lolita, but again I thought that maybe it wasn’t quite right: there was too much wordplay, and the prose style felt too singular.

Now that I have this month where I don’t have any projects and where I’m going to be driving around, I figured that it might be a good time to get underway on this task. And eventually I settled on Mrs. Dalloway. It might seem an odd choice: few novels are as singular and inimitable as Woolf’s masterpiece. However, the thing that I really wanted to learn from is the prose style. To me, Woolf feels like she has the prose style that seems closest to real life. When she writes, I feel like I am actually there, seeing things and experiencing what it is like to be that person.

I’ve been doing it for three days now, and I’m about 25% of the way through (although I’ve slowed down lately because my wrists have been hurting). And I’ve learned quite a bit. For instance, Woolf writes a lot of short clauses that are joined by semi-colons. Many of her descriptions are just lists of things. She often has big similes that overpower the thing that’s being described in a way that, in another writer’s hands, would seem pretty comical. She uses lots of exclamation marks in her dialogue. She uses way more adverbs and adjectives than any writing instructor says you should. And she doesn’t describe the way that things look; it’s more like she describes the impression that they give. There’s also a lot of repetition in Woolf, both repetition of individual words and phrases, and repetition in terms of including multiple clauses or adjectives that describe the same aspect of the same thing. For instance, take this sentence:

She had a right to his arm, though it was without feeling. He would give her, who was so simple, so impulsive, only twenty-four, without friends in England, who had left Italy for his sake, a piece of bone.

Look at the way that the bolded clauses build, giving us a gradually escalating picture of both her helplessness and her bravery. Also look at the description of his hand as “a piece of bone.” It’s not a visual description. It’s very impressionist, very much a description of what it feels like when she holds it.

In terms of how she describes important moments, I was surprised by how little actual description there is. Take for instance, this section, which is one of the mini-climaxes of the novel (it describes Mrs. Dalloway’s first kiss a childhood friend, Sally Seton):

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, teh religious feeling!–when old Joseph and Peter faced them:

As you can see, the kiss is stated baldly. And then there’s an immediate retreat inwards, into metaphorical language.

I’m enjoying the exercise immensely. I already feel like my own prose style has improved immensely. Part of that is illusory, for sure, but I’m also thinking about things that I never thought about before (and thinking about them in a way that I never thought about them before), and that’s surely going to have some effect.

Just finished Mrs. Dalloway, it was one of the most engrossing reading experiences of my life

Mrs._Dalloway_cover            Three years ago, I got my first Kindle and I almost immediately loaded a whole bunch of classic novels onto it. One of those novels was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I’d just finished reading To The Lighthouse, and I really wanted to read more Woolf.

However, my reaction to To The Lighthouse (three years ago) was a bit mixed. I was 60% bored and 40% astonished by its brilliance. Still, Mrs. Dalloway is a classic. It’s one of those books that you’ve got to read. So, roughly every two months for the last three years, I’ve opened up that file, read the first thousand words of the book and been like, “No. This is too unfocused and too meandering. I can’t tolerate 70,000 more words of this.”

But on Saturday night (well, morning) at around 2 AM, something changed. I read the next thousand words. And the next thousand. And I got about a tenth of the way through the book and I became really excited by it. There was something in it that wasn’t just interesting; it was intensely gripping.

I read it in about four hours on Saturday afternoon and late night. And it really was one of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences in my life. Even though I was tired and someone headachy and not my best self at all, I was totally absorbed in the novel. For those who don’t know, it’s the story of one day in the life of a Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a member of Parliament. She walks around town a bit, talks to a bunch of people, then gives a party. Of course, the novel doesn’t stay with her: it zips into the heads of her husband, a former lover, and a random shell-shocked WWI veteran. It has no chapters and not even that many section breaks, it’s just one long stream.

And it’s perfect. Like, you know when you read a short story and you think, “Everything fits up exactly right” and you know that there is no way the author could’ve managed to hold all those threads for even a thousand more words? Well, Mrs. Dalloway is 70,000 words of that!

On a sentence level, it’s a joy to read. The mechanics of the novel are brilliant. Woolf eschews all the technology of action: the walking around, the doing things, the opening doors and getting into carriages. Basically, you know what the characters are doing by what they see. If they see something different, then you know they’re walking down the street. If they see the inside of a house, then you know they’ve gone inside. It’s so subtle and so intuitive. It actually feels much more natural than the standard way of doing things: you feel like you’re inside the protagonists’ heads.

Everything in the novel is so vivid and so heightened. At times, I was almost resentful towards the characters: they felt so much more alive and so much more interesting than I am. I wanted to live my life on the level that they were living theirs. They feel things so deeply. An aeroplane passing overhead is a mystical moment. A motorcar stopping in front of a store is a majestic occurrence.

It really didn’t have any dull bits. Every page had its pleasures. Every page had something startling and fascinating. At times, the novel felt like it was touching upon every possible theme: art, religion, war, aging, youth, mental illness, happiness, politics, social stratification, career success, colonialism, feminism, everything! Although it is primarily told through the eyes of this very narrow set of very upper-class people, there are so many characters who walk on for just a moment. And even if they have just a few pages, they feel like people. Like at one point, we spent just a thousand words in the head of Miss Kilham, who is the tutor of Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter. Kilham is very religious and very politically radical, and she desperately wants the daughter to like her. There’s something so palpable about her desperation, but also something very heroic about her.

Honestly, this is the first book I’ve read in a long time where I said to myself, “I wish this book didn’t have to end.”

Reading it was like being a kid again, and reading without any kind of agenda or expected outcome, just for the pure pleasure of tooling around between the lines of the page. Honestly, I am a little astonished that books still have the power to affect me in that way. You know, I’ve often wondered whether modernism was a solution that was in search of a problem. To me, all these new narrative techniques and advanced plotlessness didn’t necessarily seem to offer a better reading experience than Tolstoy or Chekhov.

Now I am a convert. Mrs. Dalloway definitely gave me a type of involvement and a type of pleasure that I’ve never gotten from a conventionally-structured novel.

P.S. Also, yay for lesbian subplots! Every time someone is like, “Oh, of course [some novel] had to be coy about the homosexuality, because it was published in the fifties or in the sixties,” I think about 1920s novelists like Woolf and Proust who were being pretty darned explicit about it. The lesbian subplots were the absolutely best part of Mrs. Dalloway, and they unfold in such a clear way. Mrs. Dalloway is lying in bed (she sleeps separately from her husband), and she’s basically thinking about how she could never please him in bed, because she lacked a certain kind of passion, and then she immediately starts thinking about her childhood friend and how her love for that friend was similar to what a man’s would’ve been. It’s just an aspect of the story, obviously, and Dalloway’s lack of sexual fulfillment isn’t played up as a huge tragedy (the way it would be in a modern novel), but I thought it was nonetheless super interesting.