Dancing with Woolf: Author Michael Cunningham Discusses His New Novel and Its Inspiration, Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

As literary passions go, Michael Cunningham's crush on Virginia Woolf is a whopper. In high school, when all the other pencil-heads were reading Steinbeck, Michener, and The Red Badge of Courage, Cunningham discovered the brilliant Mrs. Dalloway and felt the top of his head come off.

"It just burrowed into me," the handsome 45-year-old author recalls of Woolf's innovative portrait of a genteel British matron. "Have you ever had a book like that--that just gets into you and sort of animates you and just won't quit? That's what Mrs. Dalloway was for me."

Nearly 30 years later Cunningham, the much-lauded gay author of A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995) has delivered his fourth novel, an homage to Woolf that he calls The Hours. At once lush, complex, and deliciously readable, The Hours is a stunning effort that combines three novellas--each told in the frame of one day, each from a woman's point of view--that mirror, spark, and illuminate each other.

One stow looks at Woolf herself on a day in 1923 when she had started to write Mrs. Dalloway; another concerns Mrs. Brown, a Los Angeles housewife who in 1949 is on the verge of suicide and is reading Mrs. Dalloway; the third and most compelling involves Clarissa, a 52-year-old lesbian living in New York and caring for a lifelong friend, the novelist-poet Richard, who is dying of AIDS. The latter is clearly Cunningham's update on the rifle character in Mrs. Dalloway: a generous woman who worries that she's become "conventional, a meager spirit."

For Cunningham, who fashioned a love triangle among a gay man, a straight woman, and a sexually ambiguous male in A Home at the End of the World--and hadn't experimented with narrative conventions in previous works--the delicate triptych of The Hours was a big departure. …