Looking over the nominees for any given year's big literary prizes, one wonders, sometimes, what the judges were thinking. Now and then, they get it right and give the nod to the undeniably deserving.
Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel The Hours (Picador, $13) took the PEN/Faulkner Award and the 1998 Pulitzer for fiction, not a bad pair of bookends for any author's shelf. Fitting, then, that the inspiration for the book should be a dual one: Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and the life of the woman who created it.
Her death, rather: The prologue of The Hours follows Woolf down to the bank of an English river on the day she drowns herself. Observant to the end -- stuffing a stone into her pocket, "she can't help noticing [its] cold chalkiness and its color, a milky brown with spots of green" -- Woolf wades into the river. Why? "She is not a writer at all, really, she is merely a gifted eccentric. . . . She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision. . . . The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever she is and replace it with itself."
It's 1941, and Virginia Woolf is committing suicide: "She is borne alone quickly by the current. She appears to be flying, a fantastic figure, arms outstretched, hair streaming, the tail of the fur coat billowing behind. She floats, heavily, through shafts of brown, granular light. She does not travel far. Her feet (the shoes are gone) strike the bottom occasionally, and when they do they summon up a sluggish cloud of muck, filled with the black silhouettes of leaf skeletons . . . Stripes of green-black weed catch in her hair and the fur of her coat, and for a while her eyes are blindfolded by a thick swatch of weed, which finally loosens itself and floats, twisting and untwisting and twisting again."
So does the narrative of The Hours, spooling out from Woolf's fatal swim to late-20th-century New York City, where Clarissa Vaughan -- Mrs. Dalloway, to her old friend Richard -- goes out, like her namesake, to buy flowers for a party she's throwing that evening. Richard's a poet who has won an extravagant literary award -- hence the party -- but his talent and good fortune have been undermined by the AIDS corroding his body and brain. He and Clarissa were lovers, briefly, long years ago, and have remained confidantes well into middle age. Clarissa, big-boned and big-hearted, not unsexy, combines "voluptuous, undisciplined responses" to life with a Woolflike sense of not living up to her promise. "Richard told her, thirty years ago, that under her pirate-girl veneer lay all the makings of a good suburban wife, and now she is revealed to herself as a meager spirit, too conventional, the cause of too much suffering." There are consolations: a stable, long-term relationship, really a marriage, with her partner, Sally; a daughter (who resents her in a manageable way); and Richard -- or did she lose him years ago?
Dropping in and out of Clarissa's day, its questions and tasks, the narrative picks up the life of another character, Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949 Los Angeles, as she reads Mrs. Dalloway and also prepares for a party -- a birthday party for her war-hero husband. Even more than Clarissa, Laura does not comfortably inhabit the skin of her own life. "She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren't all thinking the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty."
Binding these two story lines together is Virginia Woolf, alive, managing to keep her psychological balance long enough to work on Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours balances on that moment, or moments, in every life when the person living it asks, "How did this come to be?" and must decide whether to press on, as Clarissa does, or find some way of ending, as Woolf and Laura Brown do.
The End of the Affair
Also preoccupied with what might have been are the aging men in Amsterdam (Anchor, $12), British novelist Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winner about what happens when the ex-lovers of Molly Lane -- "restaurant critic, gorgeous wit, and photographer, the daring gardener, who had been loved by the foreign secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six" -- reunite at her funeral. Molly has died unexpectedly and perversely, carried off by a loathsome disease: "The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humor, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking."
Stage-managing Molly's last rites is her mostly despised husband, George, "morose, possessive . . . her death had raised him from general contempt. He appeared to have grown an inch or two, his back had straightened, his voice had deepened, a new dignity had narrowed his pleading, greedy eyes." Still, Molly's old flames Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a journalist, can't take him, or each other, seriously. And what about Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary who also enjoyed Molly's favors? Were any of them worthy of her? By the time this dark-humored novel gets its cast to Amsterdam, old rivalries will have turned positively murderous.
Don't Fence Me In
Amsterdam beat out The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills (Scribner, $11) for the Booker -- both books came out in 1998 -- but don't feel too bad for Mills. This sly, dark novel also got shortlisted for the Whitbread and won England's McKitterick Prize (in this country it made some best-of lists), and its author no longer drives London city buses or builds fences for a living.
Fence-building, though, is how his protagonists, two Scottish lads, Tam and Richie, keep body and soul together. They're not very good at what they do, as their new English foreman learns when a farmer, Mr. McCrindle, calls to say the fence they've just put up has gone slack: "The main concern of farmers was that their fences should be tight. Without this the restraint of beasts was impossible."
The team sets off to repair McCrindle's fence; Tam inadvertently beans the client with a wire-gripper. What to do with the body? Bury it, decides the foreman, also the book's narrator. Richie and Tam agree. "Tam rested his hand on the post. `Things like this are bound to happen from time to time,' he said."
As that remark suggests, this is no ordinary working-man's saga, nor is it a simple story of crime and cover-up. Tam, Richie and the foreman have entered an Orwellian world in which every fence they build becomes part of an ever-shrinking series of imprisoning boxes. Michael Dirda, reviewing The Restraint of Beasts for Book World, called it "a triumph of tone, at once funny, eerie, and suspenseful."
Blindness and Insight
More overtly allegorical is Jose Saramago's Blindness (Harcourt Brace, $14), the latest entry in a body of work that earned the Portuguese authorthe 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.
A strange epidemic strikes a nameless European city. The first man afflicted is a motorist waiting at a stoplight: "Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man's eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man's clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights. I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more."
This isn't the usual darkness of the blind: The man can see only white -- "as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea," he tells the eye doctor they take him to. The plague spreads: to the man who drives the blind man home and then steals his car, to the eye doctor, and beyond. Soon the government knows it has a plague on its hands; it declares martial law and begins quarantining the victims.
Blindness follows a small group, all sightless except for one who has faked blindness in order to stay with her husband, as they escape their confinement and venture into a city overwhelmed by anarchy. People loot and rummage for survival; the living stumble over the dead; scavengers are everywhere, feeding off each other: "In a square surrounded by trees, with a statue in the middle, a pack of dogs is devouring a man's corpse." In less skilled hands, this theme -- physical blindness as a stand-in for moral blindness -- could be glaringly obvious; in Saramago's, it shines.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.