Tuesday, February 19, 2008

675. Orlando - Virginia Woolf

I had thought (this was a while ago) that I would read Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, to compare it with Ulysses and Saturday, since they are all novels which trace a single day in the life of their main character. While searching for my copy, however, I rediscovered Orlando and I was unresistingly hooked once more. If you never read anything else by Virginia Woolf, read this - it won't take long and if you're anything like me, as soon as you reach the end you will be tempted to start again.

Orlando sparkles. It is a love letter to a dear friend that laughs at itself from beginning to end. It brings history to life in a way that makes you wish you were there. It makes the impossible seem not only possible, but as natural as breathing. It is one of those rare texts that prompts me to slow down and read every word, simply to prolong the enjoyment. If the modernist's credo was to 'make it fresh', Orlando is the wheatgrass juice, still growing in a little box on the juice-bar.

What is Orlando about? Orlando is about... Orlando! When the story starts, Orlando is a 16 year old boy, in the Elizabethan age, swinging his sword at a shrunken head in the attic of his ancestral home. By the end of the novel, Orlando is a young woman who has given birth to a son. It is now 1928, but despite the passing of time and alteration in gender, it is essentially the same Orlando. Don't ask me to explain how or why - read the book to see how Woolf achieves it.

From a thematic point of view, Orlando examines (but only in the most entertaining way) the difference between masculinity and femininity, and changes in those definitions over time. It is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a lesbian affair (though both were 'happily' married at the time). The Wikipedia article shows how Orlando is closely modelled on Vita, using the conventions of fiction and fantasy "to write a well-documented biography of a person living in her own age." I find, however, that these details of 'reality' actually detract from the story. It is not necessary to know who Vita was or what was her relationship with Virginia. The story stands perfectly well by itself as a magnificent, humorous fantasy. To try to tie it to history is to deny its imaginative power.

As an example, here is a passage where Orlando lies thinking about the meaning of life. I love the way we can hear the echo of Woolf wrestling with her own thoughts in Orlando's frustration!

Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.

'Another metaphor, by Jupiter!' he would exclaim as he said this (which will show the disorderly and circuitous way in which his mind worked and explain why the oak tree flowered and faded so often before he came to any conclusion about Love). 'And what's the point of it?' he would ask himself. 'Why not say simply in so many words - ' and then he would try to think for half an hour - or was it two years and a half? - how to say simply in so many words what love is. 'A figure like that is manifestly untruthful,' he argued, 'for no dragon-fly, unless under very exceptional circumstances, could live at the bottom of the sea. And if literature is not the Bride and Bedfellow of Truth, what is she? Counfound it all,' he cried, 'why say Bedfellow when one's already said Bride? Why not simply say what one means and leave it?'

So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. 'The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. 'Upon my word,' he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), 'I don't see that one's more true than another. Both are utterly false.' And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.'

It is rare for me to appreciate a movie adaptation of a book that I love, but in this case, I heartily recommend the film of Orlando made in 1992, starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, for the sheer beauty of the costume design and settings. This movie is an inspired adaptation and its visualisation of the book's magic has meshed seamlessly into my love of Orlando, so that when I am reading or thinking about this book, these are the images that I see.

You can download Orlando as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg Australia.

I'm giving Orlando my first PERFECT score!