In the small, pre-furnished apartment where I have been staying for the past month—gîte, in French; also known as a holiday home, though I am not here on holiday—there is one bookshelf. It is very small and also home to a series of tiny, delicate ceramics: faience, probably fired in the town across the river. Half the books are in English and half in French. I imagine that my room’s previous occupants have added and removed from the library at their leisure, or at least that’s what I’d like to think, because I’m stealing my gîte’s copy of The Hours.
It can be said that I live in southern France, but “live” is a vague term for what I am doing. “Work” is far more accurate: I’m currently faculty at an art program, which requires long days that drip into the evening, though at least the sun hardly sets until 10 or 11 p.m. On paper, it’s a dreamlike life: this village is one of the most beautiful in Tarn-et-Garonne. My room has a balcony that overlooks a garden profuse with roses, a small turtle, a large turtle, and a clothesline, upon which all my button-downs have grown starchy and crisp in the sun. Behind the garden is a row of birches, and then an overlook, which frames a river so tranquil it could be made of glass.
Yet I hardly feel alive here, which is why to say I live here feels disingenuous. To live abroad, particularly for work, particularly in isolation, inspires a particular kind of surrealism. I wake up around seven from the church bells clanging across the street; I brush my teeth, walk down the hill to work, spend all day with my colleagues and students. At night I go back to the gîte, smoke a cigarette off my balcony, and fall asleep feeling empty, alone, and strange. It feels rude to say I am sad here: there is nothing to be sad about. I am working a dream job, in a beautiful place. But as it is easy to be lonely in a crowd, so it is easy to be depressed in southern France.
In The Hours, Cunningham layers the stories of Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughan (a late ’90s Mrs. Dalloway), and Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife slowly dissolving in a protracted depression. I picked up the book on a whim, more or less; though he teaches at my alma mater, I had never read any Cunningham. I have never read Virginia Woolf, either, but it almost didn’t matter. I had to rely on the magic of The Hours alone—and what magic.
I did my duty as a young woman and read The Bell Jar when I was eighteen, and it was in Esther Greenwood that I first caught a reflection of my own complicated self. Yet I don’t frequently encounter books like that or like The Hours, in which depression is accorded the full length of its gray skein, its malady and tension: Virginia, trying to write, wondering if it will be a bad day, trying desperately to preserve her mental clarity before it sours, as she knows it will; Laura Brown and her failed cake—the sound it makes falling, the smudge of icing it leaves on the inside of trashcan.
Depression has a peculiar texture: sometimes, rather than sadness, it is an emotional flatline; the sneaking suspicion that you are play-acting. As though you have exited any kind of human form but are suddenly, in your daily life, forced to be a person again. Reading The Hours—in the sun, at the beach, chain-smoking menthol Royales—I felt, suddenly, less alone. Cunningham has a way of writing like threading glass beads along a string. Each sentence is taken to its furthest point, its poetic and occasionally overwrought conclusion. There is a freshness to it; it’s as though he is grasping for the beauty of very small things, plundering both memory and literary sentiment, folding the pang of shared emotion upon itself again.
The role of woman often carries the duty of generosity, of being the one who is good and giving. You must be the writer, the teacher, the good wife, the generous lover who does not ask for anything. To be anything less feels like a cruel joke, as though one is suddenly undeserving of her woman- and person-hood. But The Hours presents clear and flawed women, who are generous sometimes, and are written with the crispness of a young spring or a mica-speckled sidewalk: Clarissa Vaughan on Spring Street outside a movie star’s trailer (seeing New York City reflected in literature makes me peculiarly homesick, though I have never lived in Manhattan); Laura Brown reading in her hotel room; Virginia and the dying thrush on a bed of roses. These characters are all complicated women. And there is always a party, which is shorthand, in life as in literature, for potential. The party is not the party it is meant to be, or the party it was hoping to be. When I write “party,” I am writing about parties, but also about the grand con of life: its failures and its capitulations. In Cunningham’s Hours, the grand con is accepted and honestly portrayed: a clear, unlabored understanding of depression and its shadow.
Here in France I feel as though life has thrown me a party but I am not sure who will come. Sometimes I cry in the office for no reason. I have the inexplicable feeling that everyone I have ever loved hates me and that I will never feel at home again. I feel I am wearing the wrong costume, or I have the wrong flowers, or something. And I find an earnest and witty reflection in Virginia, in Laura Brown. Depression exists but the protagonist may not always overcome it. It is not easily overcome. To live on the gray edge of it is not the end of the world but a delicate and hazardous feeling, and it is okay, maybe impossibly so. The table is set. There are hours left.