The Hours (true, sad, beautiful, perfect.)

book cover for the HoursI never re-read books. Not on principle or anything, it’s just I always have a collection of I’ve-bought-but-not-yet-read books sitting patiently next to me, so it seems… how do you say… irresponsible (insensitive?) (brutish?) to read the same book twice, right in front of them like that.

Recently I’ve been reading A Stranger in Olondria, which has won all sorts of awards and is beautifully written but sort of a challenge to get through (will explain later). Last night I needed a break and was feeling in the mood for something commenting on the human condition (you know the mood). I remembered how much I loved The Hours when I read it back in 2008. Fast forward about 24 hours and I’ll recommit: The Hours may just be my very favorite book ever. The way it describes life (to constantly be seeking the Perfect as if it could finally be, after valiant searching, found in a fixed form. And once found, merged with; in some sense, annihilated by), relationships (of all sorts), the effects of mental illness in and on a family, love (of all sorts). It’s just that I’ve still never read anything I’ve found to speak more truthfully to the occasional intensity of life’s smallest, most fleeting, moments.

A few favorite passages

“Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturizes others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be – capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you’ve ever imagined – it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities (not all of which are necessarily flattering – a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures.” (NB: once you read about his mom this will break your heart)

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book. The dinner is by now forgotten; Lessing has been long over-shadowed by other writers; and even the sex, once she and Richard reached that point, was ardent but awkward, unsatisfying, more kindly than passionate. What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”

“What if that moment at dinner – that equipoise, that small perfection – were enough? What if you decided to want no more?”

“There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.  Heaven only knows why we love it so.”

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