Of Turtlenecks and Roses

One of the things that impresses me most about Virginia Woolf is the way she allows characters to communicate without using words (sort of a strange enterprise for a writer). For me, the big moment when this nonverbal communication or communion occurs in Mrs. Dalloway is in when Clarissa quotes the same lines from Cymbeline as Septimus had some time before:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages

The familiarity with this quote from one of Shakespeare's most obscure works marks Spetimus and Clarissa as people of quality; they are not parroting "To be or not to be", or misusing the word "wherefore" as we could imagine the other guests might. Their shared moment is a more quiet, subtle one that can only shine and exist away from the people around them; for Clarissa, the line first surfaces in silence, in the absence of Lady Bruton's invitation, and for the last time when she is alone, away from her party.

Likewise, in The Mystery Guest, the narrator and his former girlfriend are linked by reading Mrs. Dalloway. This isn't in the excerpt we read in class, but the party they're at is filled with turtleneck-wearing, Dostoyevski-in-the-back-pocket-of-my-skinny-jeans-grade pretentious snots; amid all the windbaggery, the small line from Dalloway, "Roses were the only flower she could bear to see cut", describes a clear path between the two souls.
In neither case is the literary reference reduced to trivia; neither the narrator and his former lover nor Septimus and Clarissa are trying to gain street cred by showing off their knowledge, unlike the others at their parties, like Brierly who has made a career out of bloviating on Milton or the other guys at the fete, one of whom actually and inexcusably mentions Sven Nykvist.

In both cases, the shibboleth is silent or quiet; Clarissa and Septimus never meet, and the narrator in The Mystery Guest barely hears his girlfriend among the white noise of the party. In both of these works, so much of the speech is unnecessary, wrong, or misinterpreted. Holmes speaks a lot, but he doesn't understand much of anything. Jim Hutton can imitate Brierly, unsaddled by understanding, and the narrator's fellow revelers can and do titter away into the night without saying anything original. For the 'heroes' of our two works, literature, operating in silence, becomes the language of the link. 

Hey Neil Simon

I'm aware that Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest alludes heavily to Mrs. Dalloway.  As I read through "The Window" section of To the Lighthouse and got to know Mr. Ramsay, however, the narrator of The Mystery Guest and his sentimentality over the flowers rolled around in the back of my head, and I thought of the contrast between he and Ramsay.  I also inexplicably felt the urge to go on YouTube and watch the opening theme to The Odd Couple.  

The contrast between these two men is stark, to say the least.  In the scene with the bouquet of roses, Bouillier's narrator is caught up in a Woolfian "moment of being."  His language attempts the "purest ecstasy" that Woolf describes in her memoir "Sketches of the Past" (Moments of Being, 75).  In that text, she writes, "I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.  But I should fail" (75).  The protagonist of The Mystery Guest seems to be caught up in the same kind of sublimity:

Yes, suddenly it began to seem as though our separateness was bringing us back together, managing the impossible while we stood in front of that bouquet, in that silence.  And during those freighted seconds everything grew more and more beautiful and harmonious and red and white and orange between us, and I wanted to believe in it...  (78-79)

The beauty of the passage lies in the feeling of its transience, as if the narrator's happiness and comfort lasts only in front of that bouquet of roses.  It reflects a level of observation and keen emotional intuition in him that is lost in most men.  (I feel somewhat confident in the area of dudes and emotional expression.)  In the grand scheme of things, however, the reader should be able to sense a certain melodrama in the narrator's placement of such import on a vase of flowers, as if they could actually "bring us back together."

On this note of constructive cynicism, the dissonant cadence of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison gnaws its way back up my spine as I turn away from Bouillier and back to To the Lighthouse.  In a scene that I find quite poignant, Mrs. Ramsay is watching over James as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, reassuring him that they will try to go to the lighthouse the next day.  Enter Mr. Ramsay.  Ever the pragmatist, he says, "James will have to write his dissertation one of these days," effectively ruining the moment and fueling James' hatred for his father (To the Lighthouse, 31).  "There [isn't] the slightest possible chance that [you] could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow," Ramsay says later (31).  

In terms of masculinity, Bouillier's storyteller and Mr. Ramsay provide a sharp counterpoint to one another.  However, I think there are several reasons for this.  To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and it seems to me that in the character of Mr. Ramsay, the reader is meant to see the fading of the stern Victorian era; he is more of an uninvolved overseer of his family, rather than an affectionate father.  He is also reminiscent of the dour Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father; this opinion is based on the knowledge I have from class, as well as from the reading of Virginia.  Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, on the other hand, was published in 2004.  Based on casual observation, Bouillier's rendition of a man in love makes me think that Zach Braff would be the protagonist of the film version of this novella; he's that guy who's constantly lovesick, and tries to sum up significant portions of his life with sprawling inner-monologues.

The clash between these two men is obvious.  Mr. Ramsay shatters a potential "moment of being" with his practicality, while Bouillier's narrator is grasping for a "moment of being" where it seems one doesn't exist.  It might be entertaining to watch the two of them share an apartment though.