Book Simple: The Best Book to Read Before a Dinner Party Feb08

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Book Simple: The Best Book to Read Before a Dinner Party

I’m planning a dinner party, so of course I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway.  There has never been a better dinner party book, not in the history of literature.  It so perfectly captures that dreamy sense of excitement the afternoon before a party as you shop for ingredients and choose your dress.  There is so much space in your head when you plan a party to think of other evenings, other friends, other fun.

I often think of Clarissa Dalloway, into whose head we dove so completely during my college course on the Modern British Novel.  That was a wonderful class, a caricature of itself like something out of a film.  The scene: young literature students sitting in a circle in a drafty room on the top floor of a Gothic stone hall staring out leaded windows into the green quad.  It rained every lecture.  Our professor taught us that World War I and the fall of the British Empire brought about a new kind of literature, one that tried to make sense of a world smashed into pieces.  We read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Howards End. We read The Secret Agent in that class, and every time I opened the cover I heard the Johnny Rivers song.

I’ve always loved this era between the wars – the clothes, the poetry, and the novels – because so many times I’ve felt like my life was disintegrating around me.  Despite my best efforts, l still read sometimes to dress in the roles of characters rather than analyze them.  Feeling other people’s sadness in the place of your own can be so cathartic.  Who hasn’t felt, like Rezia Smith, that agonizing feeling “I am alone; I am alone!” confronted with a lover pulling away?  Septimus Smith has withdrawn through the shell shock of World War I, but his wife’s sadness and shame seem so familiar, so burningly intense in Woolf’s description.

At the time, London formed the center of the world, a city full of lives colliding every day.  “Such fools we are, [Clarissa] thought, crossing Victoria Street.  For heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh…the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”  Big Ben’s chimes are a death knell, a distraction, a stone thrown into a river, “leaden circles dissolved in the air.”  Time is passing, death approaching.  Life is isolating, painful and sharp, but we can redeem it through moments of joy.

Mrs. Dalloway’s party is very different than mine will be – evening clothes and silver in a drawing room in Kensington compared with weekend garb and Target dishes on industrial carpet in northern Virginia – but there’s something about the story that sticks in the mind.  The joy of memories is how we pay for our lives, Mrs. Dalloway explains, “one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments.”

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