A City of one’s own: the intersection of urban space and consciousness in novels by Daniela Hodrová and Virginia Woolf

I could wander about the dusky streets in Holborn & Bloomsbury for hours. The things one sees – – & guesses at – the tumult & riot & busyness of it all – Crowded streets are the only places, too, that ever make me what‑in‑the‑case of another‑one‑might‑call think. Virginia Woolf, Diary

The city, just like a literary text, is a polyvalent space, in which numerous possible meanings are present and cross and intertwine; it is a moving game of meanings and references. Daniela Hodrová, A Sensible City

_1 As someone whose teaching career has been focused on modern Russian culture, I long ago developed a fascination with the city in literature, especially St. Petersburg as reflected in the works of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Bely. Now my interest in contemporary Czech women writers enables me to include Daniela Hodrová among my favorite city writers. Readers of both her fiction and scholarly essays are well aware of the central role the city of Prague plays in her oeuvre. On the topic of city writers I have been offered a comprehensive perspective by the American scholar Robert Alter in his insightful recent study, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, devoted to six European authors – Flaubert, Dickens, Bely, Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka (Alter 2005). In his chapter on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Alter alerted me to several characteristics of the celebrated English modernist’s novel that I find reminiscent of Hodrová’s trilogy The Suffering City (Trýznivé město) ._2 In my view, Pupae/Masks, or Kukly,_3 the second novel in the trilogy, is not only the most ‘accessible’, but also offers, as I hope to show, the best points for comparison with Mrs. Dalloway. Rereading Woolf has led me to attempt a concise comparative study of the intersection of urban space and consciousness in the fiction of Hodrová and Woolf. For in the writings of both of them – one a pioneering English modernist author and the other a contemporary Czech postmodernist – the city provides “a context in which to explore the personal, cultural, and literary lives of women” (Squier 1983, p. 7).

Over several decades many English and American scholars have devoted much energy and countless pages to the study of Virginia Woolf and London. Especially perceptive is the work of Susan M. Squier, whose analysis takes a gendered perspective. Squier reminds us:

In Woolf’s development as a writer, the city served as a means of exploring and integrating various areas of experience. London had a specific set of personal meanings related to Woolf’s own memories, from the Kensington Gardens walks of her childhood to the urban rambles of her adulthood. She wrote of London’s personal importance to her throughout her life, in essays, letters, and her diary […] Woolf’s writings reflect the city’s deep significance to her political analysis, the progress of her art, her hope for the future. Yet [her] treatment of the city was more than mimesis: the city she wrote about, particularly in her essays and fiction, was shaped both by early experience and by adult intention. Consciously and unconsciously, Woolf drew on her childhood encounters with the city in order to organize both her later experiences and her writings (Squier 1983, p. 7).

Although we have no published diaries or letters of Hodrová for comparison, the rest of Squier’s characterization of the role London plays in the life and work of Woolf is uncannily similar to that of Prague for Hodrová. In interviews Hodrová herself has emphasized the special significance of the city in her novels:

[…] I view a human being as pars pro toto of the city, for me there is no difference between the city and its inhabitant – a human being carries the city in him or herself, in his or her soul, and vice versa a city carries in its “soul” all its inhabitants – those who are present, but also those who have died (and are buried in its cemeteries), and perhaps future ones too. […] So that means every personal story becomes a part of the Story of the city, its own memory (Macurová a Kasal 1996, p. 4)._4

All of Hodrová’s novels (seven to date) are set very concretely in Prague, primarily in and near the late 19th‑ and early 20th‑century neighborhoods where the author has lived all her life – on the boundary of Vinohrady and Žižkov. As with Woolf, memories of childhood are an essential element in her writing:

If I have admitted that the city and I are essentially one being, then it is natural that the descent into oneself, the search for one’s own identity, for me means descent into the city, the search for its identity. That is precisely how the descent into childhood is intertwined with the descent into the city’s past. […] My personal story and the story of the city permeate one another and to a certain extent are interchangeable (Přádná 1992, p. 111).

Both Woolf and Hodrová, despite the differences in the contexts of their writing, search “to connect ‘the small personal voice’ with the collective human experience” (Waugh 1989, p. 77). In their works the private (family and home) merges with the public in the contemporary culture of the city that is dense with the past.

At first, one might be struck by the apparent cultural and literary differences of the contexts in which these two women writers lived and created. More than half a century separates the appearance of their works. Woolf (1882–1941) published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925; Hodrová (b. 1946), who was not even born until several years after Woolf’s death, wrote Kukly at the beginning of the 1980s, but was able to publish it only in 1991. Woolf had the luxury of the Hogarth Press, which she ran together with her husband Leonard Woolf. Hodrová, unfortunately, had to wait for the demise of the Czech communist regime to see her fiction in print. Yet, these two writers share the commonality of having been raised in families with strong connections to the cultural life of their respective cities – for Woolf it was London’s literary world and for Hodrová the theatrical milieu of Prague._5 And they both may be described as famous ‘flaneuses’, whose joy of wandering through the streets of their beloved cities is captured not only in their novels, but in non‑fictional essays as well._6 Above all, the outstanding fact remains: they both created texts that aesthetically explore the relationship of women and the city. More specifically, in very clearly delineated urban settings, each of the two novels I have chosen for consideration has a central female character, as well as an important focus on family relations; they also reflect a similar fascination with time and memory, conveyed through aesthetically innovative, even experimental style.

* * *

If viewed objectively, the setting of Mrs. Dalloway – imperial, patriarchal London in the aftermath of World War I – would appear to be distant from the Prague of Kukly – Hodrová’s “suffering city” – which intermingles allusions to several stages of troubled Czech history, from the 17th‑century defeat at White Mountain to the more recent tragedies of the Second World War and the 1968 Soviet‑led invasion. Nonetheless, in both novels the city is intimately linked with the lives of the characters, most importantly the main female protagonists, Clarissa Dalloway and Sylvie Syslová, who each in her own way undergoes a vital process of moving towards self‑understanding. Of course, the relationship of characters and setting in each novel is marked by the cultural era in which it was written; therefore we will note significant differences between a modernist and postmodernist perspective. In London of the 1920s Woolf consciously wrote in reaction to the older tradition of realism; half a century later in post‑’ 68 Prague, Hodrová was writing against the grain of an official culture in which socialist realism was at least nominally the expected norm. Furthermore, the rich intertextuality of Hodrová’s fiction clearly owes an important debt to her vast knowledge as a literary scholar with a specialty in theory of the novel.

Before turning to a comparative analysis of the two novels, I would like briefly to consider Woolf and Hodrová in the broader context of women and writing. Woolf’s interest in the special nature of women’s writing over the course of her literary career is well known. In fact, some of her observations on this topic have achieved canonical status in the development of feminist literary theory in the last decades of the 20th century. Already in her 1923 reviews of Dorothy Richardson’s novels, Woolf is astutely sensitive to what she considers the special gendered qualities of that author’s style:

She has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes (Woolf 1980, p. 191).

Woolf’s description of Richardson’s style is not only reminiscent of her own writing, but, as I hope to show, bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Hodrová’s prose as well:

The reader is not provided with a story; he is invited to embed himself in Miriam Henderson’s consciousness, to register one after another, and one on top of another, words, cries, shouts, notes of a violin, fragments of lectures to follow these impressions as they flicker through Miriam’s mind, waking incongruously other thoughts, and plaiting incessantly the many‑coloured and innumerable threads of life (Woolf 1980, p. 189).

In the 1929 essay Women and Fiction, Woolf makes her famous statement on the woman writer and the sentence: “The very form of the sentence does not fit her. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use” (Woolf, p. 48). She concludes that “a woman’s book is not written as a man would write it” (Woolf, p. 50). Note Woolf’s use of textile metaphors – “elastic fibre” and “plaiting…threads of life”, for we will encounter similar terms in Hodrová’s observations on women’s writing._7

In her highly productive career as a literary scholar, Hodrová’s work for many years was gender neutral. Of course, as a specialist in the theory of the novel, she has long been familiar with French feminist literary theory. Therefore, when I first asked her about women’s writing, she readily referred to écriture féminine, emphasizing “writing with the body”:

If we speak of male rationality as writing with the head, woman’s corporeality asserts itself [in her writing]; the task of woman as mother in some way enters even into this kind of writing; I sometimes compare it to live weaving, sometimes to weaving and spinning. And sometimes in the physiological sense writing is a kind of spinning of spider webs, for it is a physiological act, [which] is absolutely essential for women’s writing, and in my case is utterly valid (Hodrová, 1996).

More recently, Hodrová has added a gendered dimension to her own theoretical understanding of literary texts in her scholarly study of the city as text and the city‑text, the substantial volume The Sensible City /Essays from mythopoetics (Citlivé město /eseje z mytopoetiky, 2006). In the essay Text as Flow and Inter‑weaving – ‘Herakleitos’ and ‘Arachne’ (Text‑proud a text tkaný – ‘hérakleitos’ a ‘arachné’) she applies the ancient Chinese concepts of yin and yang, producing a fascinating study of masculine and feminine texts (not, however, to be absolutely equated with men’s and women’s writing).

Already in the article The Text of the City as a Network and Field (Text města jako síť a pole, 2004), Hodrová uses the traditional image of the weaver as a metaphor for the author of a feminine text:

The woman weaver weaves not only according to familiar visible patterns (here conscious intertextuality is at work), but also according to patterns that she “does not know” or rather hardly senses (here we are moving in the area of unconscious intertextuality). I am deliberately speaking about the woman weaver, for it is precisely in “feminine texts” that the act of weaving is very prominent, and those texts connect more easily with the unconscious of the city than masculine texts (Hodrová 2004, p. 544).

In her own fiction Hodrová creates such “woven” feminine texts. Let us take, for example, a passage from Kukly, where we can follow the meanderings of Sofie’s consciousness:

And Sofie Syslová is already nearing Bezovka. She’s still thinking about Grandmother Mlynářová, the one who returned from the peat spa after many years (Daddy, what in the world is a spa where someone stays for ages?). What did Grandmother Mlynářová say about the ball at Bezovka and about a certain Marie who was hiding under a bearskin and about the tail coat in the wardrobe (why, from time immemorial it was just Grandfather Sysel’s ‚Sokol‘ costume hanging in the wardrobe)? Most likely again, it was another of the tableaux vivants that grandmother assembled from memories, dreams, and stories told in Great‑grandfather Kukla’s books. And then Sofie found her old skipping rope on the rug near the wardrobe. When she grew up, the skipping rope disappeared somewhere and resurfaced only today. Wasn’t that somehow connected with her remembering Wing, how he used to skip in the courtyard?

(A už se Sofie Syslová blíží k Bezovce. Ještě myslí na babičku Mlýnářovou, na tu, která se po letech vrátila z rašelinových lázní (Copak, tatínku, jsou lázně, v kterých je člověk celá léta?). Co to babička Mlynářová říkala o bále na Bezovce a o nějaké Marii, která se schovávala pod medvědí kůží, a potom o fraku ve skříni (ve skříni přece odjakživa visel jen sokolský kroj dědečka Sysla)? Nejspíš to byl zase jeden z živých obrazů, babička si ty obrazy skládá ze vzpomínek, snů a příběhů, o kterých se vypráví v knihách pradědečka Kukly. A potom našla Sofie na koberci u skříně svoje staré švihadlo. Když dospěla, někam se to švihadlo podělo, a zrovna dnes se odkudsi vynořilo. Nesouvisí to nějak s tím, že si vzpomněla na Křídla, jak na dvoře skákal přes švihadlo?) (Hodrová 1999, p. 157).

In the course of these few lines the perspective shifts from an ‘objective’ view of Sofie walking down a Prague street, thinking about her grandmother’s past, to a subjective monological question (presented parenthetically) she had once apparently asked her father, then the two views seem to merge in a free flowing representation of her consciousness, relating more about her family’s past (and its connection to Czech historical culture) and then to a recollection of an object (the skipping rope) from her own childhood, which leads to another recollection set in the courtyard, a central space in the novel’s personal urban grid (with which the novel in fact opens). The narrative of associations continues in third‑person, but is clearly from Sofie’s point of view. In such a woven (yin) text Hodrová helps create links between consciousness and the city._8

Despite the historically and culturally disparate contexts in which Woolf and Hodrová wrote their novels, even a brief comparative reading of these texts reveals significant commonalities in style and theme. It is not only that the plots and characters of both writers’ novels are inextricably linked to a concretely drawn urban setting; plots and characters are permeated by an authorial consciousness in which perception and memory are intertwined. The intermingling of past and present and occasionally even reflections of the future typically interrupt linear time in such a yin (or feminine) text. A characterization of Woolf’s style by Martin Hilský thus calls to mind Hodrová’s writing as well:

This rhythm, the rhythm of human consciousness and the unconscious, determines the structure of her sentences and paragraphs and the overall composition of her prose. The time and space of human thought for her are not just an interesting external phenomenon to be viewed and commented upon, but determine the very tissue of her prose (Hilský 1995, p. 15).

A fragmentary method of composition is not unique to Woolf’s celebrated modernist narrative; comparable techniques can be found in Hodrová’s own rich postmodern style. Both writers place serious demands on the reader in their attempt to bring aesthetic order to what for each of them is the complex relationship of the individual, above all woman, to the contemporary world. Not surprisingly, however, Hodrová’s late 20th‑century text is noticeably denser than Woolf’s text of the mid‑1920s.

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Now let me turn to a more specific, albeit brief, comparative analysis of Mrs. Dalloway and Kukly. For those not familiar with Woolf’s novel, the underlying storyline takes place in the course of a single day in June 1923, beginning with the middle‑aged Clarissa Dalloway, a politician’s wife and society hostess, setting off to buy flowers for the special party she is giving at her home that evening. Her story is paralleled by and intertwined with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a young, shell‑shocked war veteran, who commits suicide near the end of the novel. The text is comprised of twelve sections, separated only by spaces, not chapter headings. The narrative includes the points of view of several characters, mediated by their interior monologue while the narrator’s distinct voice at times intervenes, sometimes with a greater distance from characters, or “objectivity”, sometimes close to their points of view or merging into them.

Time in Kukly is more diffuse than in Mrs. Dalloway, nor does Hodrová’s narrative have such a clear underlying linear thrust as that of Woolf. Kukly is subtitled „living pictures“ (or tableaux vivants), suggesting a mixed genre between visual art and theatre, especially popular in the 19th century. While I concur with Vladimir Macura’s observation that this text „does not offer a story that is easy to paraphrase“ (Macura 1991, p. 5), I will attempt at least to provide some toeholds. Structured as 126 very short sections, the novel interweaves the story of the young woman Sofie Syslová, her relatives and friends, with numerous tales mirrored in the history of Prague. It is a novel of transformations or metamorphoses, repeating characters and motifs that are linked with Hodrová’s first novel, In Both Kinds, and all her subsequent ones. Kukly conveys “countless human fates, full of suffering, longing, love, searching, and self‑betrayal, [who may] find redemption precisely because they never come to an end, they continue once and forever in the space given by the horizon of Prague” (Macura, ibid.). Much of Hodrová’s novel is ostensibly narrated in the present tense from the point of view of Sofie Syslová, 49 studie – studies essentially conveying both recent and more distant memories. One critic has described the narrative as “a kind of lyrical timelessness, with the nature of the text approaching a poem in prose” (Ryšavý 1993, p.18). Many critics have called Mrs. Dalloway a prose poem too. Robert Alter refers to it as a “poetic meditation” (Alter 2005, p.120).

A striking commonality of these novels is, of course, their geographical specificity. The characters in Mrs. Dalloway walk through well‑known streets and parks of central London neighborhoods – Westminster, Mayfair, Bloomsbury, Regent’s Park. A recent American edition of the novel even includes an annotated map (Woolf 2005, frontispiece). Most important, however, is the relationship of the geography of the city to the consciousness of the characters. We see, for example, Clarissa Dalloway in the morning on her way to buy flowers for her party that evening. She has just crossed St. James Park near her home in Westminster:

She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But everyone remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself (Woolf 2005, p. 9).

From a simple concrete recollection her mind turns to a serious thought of death, followed by „mystical communion with the locale “, in which people and things intertwine (Beker 1972, p. 376)._9

The commonality of rhythmic interjections in Mrs. Dalloway and Kukly is indeed noteworthy. Although we do not find ‘clock time’ in Hodrová’s novel, a certain regularity of beat is provided by the repeated motif of the character Wing jumping over the rug‑beating stand in the courtyard. Singular time in Kukly is denser than in Mrs. Dalloway, due both to the novel’s more numerous historical and mythological allusions and to Hodrová’s use of “magical” imagery.10 In Hodrová’s novel, too, the reader follows characters as they walk through the streets of Prague. After her mother’s death we see the main protagonist returning from the crematorium with the ashes:

Sofie Syslová is carrying in her arms a package from Strašnice. The package is wrapped in pink tissue paper so that anyone might think she is carrying a flower or a big birthday cake. As Sofie Syslová carries the pink package down Černokostelecká Street, passes the Želivský metro station, and continues through the intersection to Vinohradská Avenue, it seems to her that the paper‑covered container has opened and little specks of grey ash are flying out. Some specks are caught in the paper, others escape and are swirling in the air, transformed into grey butterflies; other heavier ones fall to the ground. And from those flakes that Sofie Syslová is strewing on Vinohradská Avenue slowly arises Mrs. Syslová, closely following Sofie, treading very quietly, placing her bare feet into Sofie’s footsteps in the snow that quickly turns into black slush.

(Sofie Syslová nese ze Strašníc v náručí balíček. Balíček je zabalen v růžovém hedvábném papíře, takže si někdo může myslet, že nese květinu nebo vysoký dort někomu k narozeninám. Jak Sofie Syslová ten růžový balíček nese ulicí Černokosteleckou, mine stanici Želivského a pokračuje za křižovatkou Vinohradskou třídou, zdá se jí, že se nádoba pod papírem otevřela a vylétají z ní zrnka šedavého popílku. Některá zrnka uvízla v papíru, jiná unikla ven a krouží vzduchem proměněná v šedé motýlky, jiní, těžší, se snášejí na zem. A z těch zrnek, kterými Sofie Syslová posýpá Vinohradskou třídu, pomalu vstává paní Syslová a pak jde těsně za Sofií, našlapuje docela tiše, bosé nohy klade do Sofiiných stop ve sněhu, který se rychle mění v černou břečku.) (Hodrová 1999, p. 294).

As frequently occurs in Hodrová’s prose, here a realistic situation in a concrete urban setting soon acquires non‑realistic qualities, with the living and dead intertwined. If in Woolf’s text such an intermingling occurs explicitly in Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness, in Hodrová the representation of Sofie Syslová’s consciousness gains a somewhat fantastic dimension. More so than this passage, many sections of the novel are reminiscent of the carnivalesque as characterized by Bakhtin._11 As observed by the scholar Rajendra Chitnis, “Hodrová presents the formation of the self as an essentially carnivalistic process, in which identities are constantly acquired and shed, like the renewal of skin or the life cycle of insects” (Chitnis 2005, p. 105). In Kukly passages with „magical“ elements are interspersed with apparently realistic ones. Occasional passages are so concrete that they prompt me to reach for my city map of Prague.

Urban space in these literary works is conceived more broadly than the exterior network of streets, parks, and public places. Interior space also plays an important role, as Hodrová and Alter both acknowledge (see Hodrová 2006 p. 283; Alter p. 113–114). Windows, and views from windows, for example, are important features in both Mrs. Dalloway and Kukly. Most critically, it is by jumping out the window of the rooming house he shares with his Italian wife that Septimus commits suicide. In Kukly mention of the window as the means of Alice Davidovičová’s suicide echoes the unforgettable opening scene of In Two Kinds, the first novel in Hodrová’s trilogy The Suffering City, which begins with Alice’s suicide. As with so many other motifs in her novels, the motif of suicide is repeated, with variations, in subsequent texts, including Kukly. In both novels the window is not only associated with suicide. A memorable repeated motif in Mrs. Dalloway depicts Clarissa gazing out her window into the window of an adjoining house: “…in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! She was going to bed. […] She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her?” (Woolf 2005, p. 181). For the reader it is equally fascinating to see how Woolf suggests the possibility of shared consciousness through adjoining windows.

In both novels, an important counterpart to the exteriority of city streets is a common focus on interiority and domesticity, which is, among others, made by recurring images of sewing and knitting. Hodrová herself has noted that: “the motif of sewing, embroidery, and knitting is important in [Woolf´s] novel”, Mrs. Dalloway (Hodrová 2006, p. 377). Taken abstractly, such images may not appear so obviously connected with the city per se, but they are an important thematicization within the yin text, linking a typically feminine motif with fundamental significance. In Woolf’s novel, Septimus’s wife Rezia is a seamstress who makes a living by creating hats for elegant ladies. In a complex central scene in Regent’s Park, that brings together the separate consciousnesses of several characters, most importantly Peter Walsh (Clarissa’s boyfriend from youth) and Septimus, there is an elderly nanny sitting on a park bench and knitting. We may in fact view the knitting nanny’s coincidental presence in the park as a subtle thematic allusion to the feminine texture of Woolf’s novel. Later in Mrs. Dalloway the motif of sewing occurs at a significant moment in the plot. Clarissa discovers she must mend her special green silk dress before she can put it on for the evening party. Her doing the task coincides with her emotionally charged reunion with Peter, who has returned to London from a long stay in India. In Kukly Sofie Syslová is repeatedly identified as „Seamstress from the Realm of puppets“, an allusion to her work in the costume shop of a theatre. Her maternal grandmother is depicted several times as knitting or crocheting. In one scene Sofie puts on a dress that she sewed herself (it too happens to be green). In another, where she is knitting while looking out the window, the motif of knitting is directly linked with family and historical memory; Sofie looks out and sees her great‑grandfather Kukla waving to her from the pink balloon Prague (Hodrová 1999, p. 330). Such images of knitting and sewing are, for me, a thematic reminder of the “woven” nature of these feminine texts; at times, such as in the last example above, they also provide a link between present and past.

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In conclusion, let us return to a broader perspective on the two novels under consideration here. The critic Ryšavý reminds us that Hodrová’s Kukly is „above all an excursion into the consciousness of the main heroine, for consciousness, thanks to how it behaves, is the place where all the transformations, returns to the past, and anticipation of the future take place“ (Ryšavý 1993, p. 19). Similarly, Alter points out that in Mrs. Dalloway, the „consciousness of Woolf’s characters is so athletically metaphysical […], what we see of the city is what the mind actively makes of it, or even how the mind transforms it“ (Alter 2005, p. 119–120). With these similarities in mind, I have chosen examples from each novel to highlight the central points of commonality in the portrayal of urban space and consciousness in novels of Hodrová and Woolf. First, one from Mrs. Dalloway, in which Clarissa, during a conversation with Peter, strongly senses her interconnectedness with people and places in life, both present and past, and possibly beyond:

It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her skepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death…perhaps – perhaps (Woolf 2005, p. 149).

In this passage we experience Clarissa attempting to deal with the seeming fragmentation of stimuli in the modern city of London. Through her central protagonist in Mrs. Dalloway Woolf “imagine[s] a kind of unity in the heterogeneity or at least a sort of unity imposed by the perceiving consciousness that enables it to exult in the heterogeneity instead of being disoriented by it” (Alter 2005, p. 111).

Not surprisingly, we find a passage in Kukly in which Sofie experiences a moment of insight similar to that of Clarissa:

Sofie Syslová begins to understand. Her consciousness is the place where past and future events converge like radii of a circle. And just as Sofie Syslová gradually embeds into herself time in all its metamorphoses and continuity, so she embeds into herself different beings. They dwell in her as in a pupa […]. At the beginning Sofie Syslová was only herself (if she was anyone at all). Then one day she began to carry inside Alice Davidovičová, the one with the Persian lamb muff, and then she began to carry Ruth Kadlecová, the statue with the harelip. And then even Nanynka Šmídová, whom she felt inside herself when in a dream she was carrying water from the Rieger Gardens in Nanynka’s milk can.

(Sofie Syslová začiná chápat. Její vědomí je místem, v němž se sbíhají jako paprsky kruhu události minulé i budoucí. A tak jako v sobě Sofie Syslová postupně zahrnuje čas v jeho proměnách a trvání, zahrnuje v sobě i různé bytosti. Přebývají v ní jako v kukle […]. Na počátku byla Sofie Syslová jen sama sebou (byla‑li vůbec někým). A jednoho dne začala v sobě nosit Alici Davidovičovou, tu s perziánovým štuclem, a potom v sobě začala nosit Rut Kadlecovou, tu sochu se zaječím pyskem. A potom i Nanynku Šmídovou, kterou v sobě pocítila, když nesla ve snu z Riegrových sadů vodu v její bandasce.) (Hodrová 1999, p. 341–342).

Although set in different epochs and cities, both novels through the consciousness of their heroines depict a remarkably similar understanding of the interconnectedness of life, of its transcendental, mystical aspects.

Inspired by walks through their respective cities, Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and Daniela Hodrová in Kukly have created intricately fascinating narrative networks of personal, spatial, and temporal interrelationships. In these novels the representation of the urban spaces of London and of Prague is inextricably linked with each author’s portrayal of human consciousness in a complex contemporary world. Thus we have the “woven” feminine (yin) texts of two European women writers from different cultures and relatively distant generations (labeled modernist and postmodernist) – obviously distinct on the surface, but “tuned in” together on some deeper level._12


An earlier shorter version of this study was presented at the IV. International Congress of Czech Literary Studies in Prague (July 2010).
The trilogy comprises Hodrová’s first three novels: In Two Kinds (Podoboji, 1991), Pupae/Masks (Kukly, 1991), and Theta (1992); she began writing the first novel in 1977, and worked on Kukly from January 1981 to November 1983. These three novels were published as a trilogy in 1999.
Rendering the title into English poses a distinct challenge for the translator, since the Czech word ‘kukly’ embodies multiple meanings. The most obvious are two: 1) pupae or chrysalides, the cocoon stage between larva and adult in the metamorphosis of an insect, and 2) masks. Another allusion is to the Russian word ‘kukla’, doll or puppet. A further allusion specific to Hodrová‘s novel is the family name of the main protagonist’s great grandfather, which evokes the name of the popular Czech writer and journalist Karel Ladislav Kukla (1863–1930), whose prolific work includes the trilogy Underground Prague (Podzemní Praha). In English I usually give the title as Pupae/Masks, but here am using the original Czech for efficiency’s sake.
All translations from Czech are my own.
Woolf was the daughter of a well‑known Victorian man of letters, Leslie Stephen (1832–1904); Hodrová’s father, Zdeněk Hodr (1908–1983), was an actor at the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague.
See Woolf, Street Music (1905), Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1927), The London Scene; Hodrová, I see a city (Město vidím…, 1992) and Heads Beheld (Spatřené hlavy, 2007).
For a concise discussion of the difference between men’s and women’s writing, see Mills 1998.
For my earlier discussion of Hodrová’s writing in a gendered context, see “Spinning her web: Novels of Daniela Hodrová through a gendered lens”. In: Rosalind Marsh (ed.): New Women’s Writing in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle (forthcoming).
We should not find it surprising that Hodrová’s one observation on Mrs. Dalloway in A Sensible City touches on Woolf’s treatment of consciousness in that novel: “Consciousness, which has its center in Mrs. Dalloway and spreads out from there to the consciousness (points of view) of other characters – impressions of a London street are intertwined with her memories and those of others, moves toward a unified time. In Virgina Woolf’s novel, “clock” time, announced by the chiming of Big Ben, clashes with mental personal‑collective “singular time”, which gradually reaches more and more places and acquires a form that is an intertwined web.” (Hodrova 2006, p. 377).
In our first interview Hodrová mentioned her affinity with the Latin American novel of magical realism, especially the work of Gabriel García Márquez (Hodrová 1996).
See Bakhtin 1984.
I owe a special thanks to my colleague and friend Joanne Frye for her willingness to share with me her extensive knowledge of Virginia Woolf and women’s writing in general.


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This essay offers a concise comparative study of the intersection of urban space and consciousness in two novels by 20th‑century European women writers – Czech postmodernist Daniela Hodrova’s Kukly (1991) and English modernist Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). While Woolf’s setting of post‑First World War London would seem to offer a significant contrast to Hodrova’s late communist‑era Prague, the two authors share an uncanny commonality in their stylistic and thematic concerns. The private merges with the public, the present with the past and future. Through the consciousness of their heroines both novels depict a similar understanding of the interconnectedness of life, of its transcendental, mystical aspects. Both novels share characteristics of “woven” feminine or yin texts.