Thursday, November 12, 2009

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I have read Ms Woolf a few times. Everytime I finish with the distinct and powerful feeling that she's a genius, and a sort of yawning sense of personal failure. This is something I've groped at over time, wondering, why it is that I fail when I read Virginia Woolf. It's not that I don't understand it - I'm sure I don't completely, but that never stopped me from reading a book. It's... I don't know. In a sense it's that, upon finishing the book, I have the impression that Ms Woolf wouldn't really like me very much. There is something very lonely about meeting someone wonderful and realizing that if you introduce yourself you'll do nothing but emphasize what an idiot you are.

It's not that I'm shy about forcing my company on genius. For goodness sake, I have had enough chats with poor, patient Emily Dickinson. And honestly, I don't think she likes me either (I'm fairly sure she doesn't). But it's different - with Emily Dickinson, I feel like she wouldn't like me because I've done so many stupid things that have disqualified me for likability. Like, in an ideal world, I would be able to maybe, in some strange little dream, be someone she smiles kindly at, anyway. With Virginia? It's more fundamental. I love her, and feel like there is just simply no way that she would ever like me in return. I'm just not the sort of person she could like, even in a hanger on, condescending kind of way. I could be her brother and she wouldn't like me, her son even. I could be her character and she wouldn't like me. I don't know why I feel this way so strongly (perhaps, in some sense, one gets the feeling that her sharp edged wit could quite easily turn one's self, but even that isn't ALL of it). But it's made it hard to read her.

Orlando... well, I don't want to say it's changed that. I don't feel like she could like me anymore now, than afterward. But, I felt like she could look politely at me if I were friends with someone she loved. Like she could not-hate me, maybe.

Orlando is a marvelous book, to start with. If you're not familiar with it, Orlando is the biography of someone who lives all the way from the Elizebethan period through the present (well, the present as of the writing of the book). It is not a story about being immortal. It's not the Orlando lives forever, Orlando just seems to never happen to die. The idea of dying never seems to cross Orlando's mind, and so it never occurs. The book is much like that in many aspects - reality seems to be firmly, if subconsciously, an extension of Orlando's own whimsy. The other central theme to Orlando's life? About halfway through the book, Orlando changes from a man to a woman.

Again, this change is perfectly natural (though the scene in which it occurs is probably one of the most quietly beautiful bits of magic I have ever read). Orlando simply ceases to be a man, and becomes a woman. In this change, we see what it is for a soul to be male or to be female. We see the ways that different aspects of Orlando's characters express themselves through the strictures of the two genders (social strictures, that is). We see, the echos of the world as it latches into him/her, drawing on whatever gender she/he is at that moment.

And that is another beautiful aspect of the book. As I said, the book travels through British history, from Elizabeth to the 1920's, and it changes, with each successive age. In each period, Orlando is filtered through the lens of the time, so that in the 18th century, we see her in the company of the great satirists (like Swift and Pope), or in the Elizabethan age, we see him trying to write poetry in the company of the bawdy days of Shakespeare. In the Victorian period, we feel a terrifying sort of cincture close around her, shutting her up and crushing her poetry into florid, explosive, meaningless prose that she cannot bring to her purposes. The book is, essentially, a portrait of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means to live in society. These things combine into a sort of phantasmagoric journey, all in the nimble, stately prose of Ms Woolf.

And, as I mentioned, this is powerful, deep prose, the sort of writing that invites you into yourself. I read this book for the readathon, and of all that period, this book hit me the hardest. The strange transformation wove itself into my dreams for days afterwards: strange, liberating, heartbreaking dreams where the world was more pliable. And, in the mind of Orlando, I felt as if Ms Woolf understood me. I always knew she comprehended me, that she could stare at me, and dress me down to the bone to see just what it was that I was. That's part of the terror, I suppose. But now, from Orlando, I feel like she could see the naked bones for what they were, and quietly dress me back in my flesh when she was done. I didn't cry when I read this book. But a few days later, when I woke up from the book in my dreams, I cried, on the way home form dropping off the boys, a few quiet little tears, the kind you can't use for show or sympathy, that just offer themselves up from your eyes like quiet little reminders that you're human.


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Trixie said...

What a wonderful review, Jason. I read this book in college and I still have it on my shelf somewhere.
I should break it out and read it again because I remember it feeling very liberating to see how this character could live through history without restrictions as to who she was on the inside. I continue to think of the character as a woman since that's her later personification.

Suko said...

Quite an interesting post. I've read other works by Virginia Woolf but not Orlando. Now I"m intrigued.

Just because someone has a critical intelligence doesn't mean that they'd necessarily also be mean-spirited and condescending. In fact, I've found the opposite to be true. Very gifted people are often also very kind.

Rebecca Reid said...

I read a Virginia Woolf book in high school for class but I can't recall a single thing. She has always intimidated me, and your description of how she doesn't "like" you simply reinforces that...

Your description of the effect of this book on you is simply beautiful!

Unknown said...

Ms Trixie - I agree, it was beautiful to read something that was honestly feminist, but not just miserable. The book has such a spark of hope and laughter to it :).

Ms Suko - Oh, I don't mean to imply that Ms Woolf is mean spirited or elitist (though, she does seem to be somewhat class-ist and maybe a bit racist at times). I love Ms Woolf, really. I think she's quite justified in disliking me :D.

Ms Reid - It's been really interesting to read Ms Woolf this year, as I've been also working through the major novels of Mr. Joyce - the comparison is striking, and makes me want to, perhaps, read all of Ms Woolf's novels next year. But I'd really like to read ll of Ms Eliot's as well, so I have to decide now...

Ana S. said...

"There is something very lonely about meeting someone wonderful and realizing that if you introduce yourself you'll do nothing but emphasize what an idiot you are."

Welcome to my 24/7 thought process ;) I haven't had much luck with Woolf's fiction (unlike with her non-fiction), but I think this is the novel I want to try next.

Unknown said...

Ms Nymeth - Well, I'm not someone wonderful, but I DO know I've had the impression that you are the OPPOSITE of an idiot. I'd probably find you Woolfintimidating, except you just don't seem capable of openly disliking anyone, so I can comfortably act as a hanger-on ;).