Orlando: A Biography

Orlando - Virginia Woolf Orlando is subtitled "a biography" and for the most part that's how it's written. As if Woolf was writing the biography of this member of the English nobility--who is 36 years old after over 300 years--and who switches genders from a man to a woman about half way through. So this is part historical fiction and part fantasy. Although more magical realism. The book doesn't like ordinary fantasy flow along ordinary lines in a world where magic is real. Rather it's fantastical in ways it can be hard to wrap around if you insist on a straightforward reality. I was shocked by how much I loved this book until (almost) the very end. I loved Woolf's essay, "A Room of One's Own" when I first encountered it in my early teens. It's a classic defense of women's abilities, and I revisited it recently after reading Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, which reads almost like a refutation of it--I found myself sucked in and rereading almost the entire essay--it's not just a classic feminist work, it's a classic work about literature. Orlando hits a lot of its themes, and so brilliantly I thought this would be a book I'd return to again and I'd definitely give the highest possible rating--until anyway I hit the last half of the last part. To understand my reservations, you'd have to understand my reaction to another work I was introduced to in my teens--Woolf's most famous novel, Mrs Dalloway. Reader, I detested it. It became my bete noire as I was assigned it again and again in high school and college, taking to Monarch and Cliff Notes to survive without having to actually complete the book. I have little tolerance for the stream-of-consciousness technique which dominates that novel. I hate James Joyce, William Faulkner and (almost) all their works. I've read that the technique can be valuable in rendering a chaotic mind, and in touches I can see it as effective, but for me pages of it marred Toni Morrison's Beloved, and a novel-full of it is more than I can stand. Mrs Dalloway I found tedious and incoherent. But not only did I want to love the author of "A Room of One's Own," a friend of mine who didn't care for Mrs Dalloway adored Orlando. Orlando for most of its length is free of a stream of consciousness narrative--until, I think not uncoincidentally, we reach the time around Woolf's birth and the beginning of the modern era, and suddenly I have Mrs Dalloway again. Not that there is as large a break in styles as you might think from my comments. Woolf's style is easy to recognize. A single paragraph can take pages, and a single sentence, kept aloft by endless semi-colons... Well, let me give you an example: Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Yes, that's one sentence. But it's wise and gorgeous--and it's something else--something that can be said about almost the entire book: it's hilarious. Notice her comment about her own sentence being unwieldy? Did I completely miss the sense of humor in Mrs Dalloway or was it just missing there? I did notice from time to time beautiful language and imagery even in that novel, and it's certainly present here. This is technically a dense read--little white space and very interior. There was not much dialogue and as I noted sentences and paragraphs that seemingly go on forever. And yet, yes, I did find this a page-turner, in the sense I was riveted and found it impossible to not speed through it even as I wanted to slow down and savor so much of the prose. It's the kind of book I can imagine returning to. So yes, even though my eyes rather glazed over because of the style of the last pages, I decided this is nothing short of amazing and for me worthy of five stars.