Most people know Michael Cunningham as the man that wrote “The Hours.” You know, the novel behind that movie where Nicole Kidman donned an ugly fake nose to look like Virginia Woolf? The book, published in 1998, weaves together the lives of three women affected by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, one of them being Woolf herself.
However, when Cunningham addressed a room full of students, faculty, and community members at the Memorial Chapel on Wednesday night as the 2011 Annie Sonnenblick Lecturer, he did not mention the book during his “five minute” talk on the history of the novel nor after reading from his yet-to-be published novel Sleepless. In fact, the novel, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, was not mentioned until the question and answer session, when an audience member asked why Cunningham chose to base the novel off of Mrs. Dalloway.
Cunningham laughed and then launched, with the quick-paced oratory that had become his signature, into a story of a failed attempt to impress a coolly intellectual girl a few grades ahead of him in high school. After quoting some Leonard Cohen, she apparently asked him, “Have you ever thought of being less stupid?” and suggested that he pick up Mrs. Dalloway if he wanted to improve his mental self.
“I’ve always had a flirtatious relationship—with reality,” he said to explain the experience, which inspired a collective chuckle from the audience.
At 15, Cunningham admitted that he didn’t have the best grasp of Mrs. Dalloway, but was all the same inspired by the muscularity and dynamism of Woolf’s prose.
It was in this simultaneously self-mocking and illustrious manner of speaking that Cunningham delivered his lecture and reading to the Wesleyan community.
Titled off the cuff as, “The Entire History of the English and American Novel in Five Minutes,” he began with a qualifier: “Much of what you’re about to hear is wrong.”
He proceeded in a whirlwind of pithy generalizations to broadly define a contextual chronology of British and American fiction. He explained that the true birth of the novel occurred in the “disreputable” days of serialized tabloid fiction and self-improvement tales; then there were the Brontës and the Victorians, who created novels as “higher” art forms, although they were still confined to a moral universe. Next were Dickens and Eliot, who moved moral fiction into the realm of the political and the philosophical, followed by Henry James, who brought to English literature the idea that morality is individual rather than universal (and introduced the unreliable narrator). Next were the modernists: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce—the writers who most influenced Cunningham and who ended the sense of novels as “told tales” by “immers[ing] us in the minds and souls of [characters], and telling us to find our way out the best we can.” Those were succeeded by the postmodernists.
“Nobody knows what postmodernism is,” he wryly added.
This grouping consisted of the likes of Donald Barthelme, and perhaps Robert Coover’s “period of experimentation,” and the “giant white guys” like Philip Roth. Of course, there are also contemporary greats like Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo, he said. And now there is contemporary fiction’s possible “period of diversity,” filled with contemporary authors who defy classification, such as Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
The lecture actually lasted longer than five minutes.
Directly after, he read from the first chapter of a novel that he has yet to finish, tentatively titled “Sleepless”, which notably has a dead dog, a long, silent drive south, two drug users who drift unmoored through towns, parking lots, and bathrooms.
The following morning, Cunningham led a “master class,” which centered on the discussion of two prizewinning stories respectively written by Emily Kossow ’11 and by an anonymous recent Wesleyan graduate.
“He humorously and somewhat intensively looked at the stories, and spent a decent amount of time on their flaws,” said Dan Nass ’13, who attended the morning class and who serves as a T.A. in Adjunct Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs Anne Greene’s Distinguished Writers, New Voices course. “He was very open about criticizing them.”
His lasting message to the Wesleyan community rested on the novel.
“The novel is our last and best method of producing empathy…” he said. “A novel can take us into the mind and heart of someone very different from ourselves. If we insist on moral judgments, we may not be doing our jobs.”