“First Love,” by Michael Cunningham, appears in PEN America 1: Classics. This talk was originally presented at a tribute to Virginia Woolf, sponsored by the PEN Forums Committee, at Town Hall, New York City.

First Love

Mrs. Dalloway is the first great book I ever read. I was fifteen, a not very promising student at a not very good public high school in Southern California, where I read the books that I was made to read but thought of literature as a dying art form. One day I was out having a cigarette where we went to have cigarettes, and suddenly found myself standing beside the pirate queen of our school. She was beautiful and mean and smart, she had long red fingernails, and long straight hair. Fringe, pretty much everywhere. I found myself standing next to her, and I thought, “Uh oh, uh oh . . . Think fast, be suave, say something that will make her love you forever.” So I said something that I thought then–and I think today–was very winning, about the poetry of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She was kind to me. She sucked in her entire Marlboro in one drag, but the ash didn’t fall, and exhaled an immense cloud of smoke, and said, “Well, yes, they’re very good, but how do you feel about T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf?”

Now, I wasn’t completely illiterate–I had heard of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and I knew Virginia Woolf was very tall and insane and lived in a lighthouse and jumped in the ocean, but I never expected I’d have to read either one of them. I went to the library, the Bookmobile, the little trailer where the books were. They didn’t have any Eliot, but they did have one book of Woolf’s, and it was Mrs. Dalloway. I took it out, and I took it home and read it, tried to read it, and I didn’t know what was going on. In another way I did get it. I did get the depth and density, and the sentences, and it did turn on some little light inside my stupid skull. . . .