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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

"At one moment we deplore our birth and state and aspire to an ascetic exaltation. The next, we are overcome by the smell of some old garden path and weep to hear the thrushes sing."

Were I to comment on the novel, in a very general sense, I would say that Virginia Woolf's Orlando was rather uncompelling. Of course, one might rightly call me to task for using the term "uncompelling," due to the fact that it is not a word--it is not a word in the sense that it cannot be found in a major dictionary. However, if you were to suggest that my word was not a word merely because it was not in the dictionary, I would say that this matters little because you get the gist of what I am attempting to communicate. Or, alternatively, in response to your criticism that my word is not a word, I might respond by saying that Woolf's novel is not a novel.

Orlando is in fact a displaced genre. It is written as a biography and intended by the author as a biography. It is shelved under "fiction," and more importantly, it is being reviewed by this writer as a novel....but not quite a novel....but when you read it, you get the gist of what Woolf is trying to say.

The novel is a biography of "Orlando." It is a loose interpretation of the life of one of Virginia Woolf's intimate friend, Vita Sackville-West, also a writer. Yet it is free and easy with the truth, very "unhistorical," if you will, "unfactual." But then again, you'll get the gist of what is going on. Woolf is taking liberty with the biography to better understand the person. It's like painting a tree that doesn't quite look like a tree but at the same time gives us a better sense of the tree than we would have if we had looked at the tree itself. Or said differently, it's like the fact that what we see in the mirror is never quite what is being mirrored.

Orlando, the one being biographied, if that's a word, which I am sure it is not...oh, but we've had that conversation before....Orlando, subject of this biography, is like Woolf's friend in that s/he is a writer. However, unlike Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is ageless and sexless. Well, not quite sexless. We are treated to a discourse on the life of Orlando, and then we find that while Orlando is in the prime of his life, he falls into a deep sleep and wakes up to be a woman. The "he" becomes a "she," but retains her (or his) prior impressions and understanding of what it is like to be a he. So she understand he, as perhaps no she has ever understood a he. And to top it all off, she sometimes acts like a she and sometimes acts like a he.

Orlando also feels out of place in his/her class. S/he is an aristocrat who can't quite give his/her heart to the life of an aristocrat, but who also on the other hand cannot quite escape the life of an aristocrat. Orlando isolates himself from his aristocratic peers, never managing to quite form any intimacy with them. Later, as a woman, Orlando finds herself living with Gypsies, but she longs for the comforts of her aristocratic lifestyle.

"For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another."

Our subject also belongs to no era. As the story progresses, centuries pass and Orlando does not age. S/he is somehow lifted out of time and space, yet s/he seems at the same time to embody each era, be it the Elizabethan Era of the Victorian Age or the modern industrialized city.

In short, this novel is the story of a subject displaced from time, class, and gender. And all of this displacement occurs within a novel that is deliberately displaced as a biography by its author who (despite being a novelist) insists that we approach her novel as though it were a biography.

"How little she had changed over the years....she had remained fundamentally the same."

"I have sought happiness over many ages and have not found it, fame and missed it, love and not known it....I have known many men and many women, none have I understood."

The text is experimental. The prose is beautiful. Yet for me, the novel lacked a truly compelling element. The subject is lifted out of the world such that s/he lacks context. Orlando becomes a sexless character without any true affiliation to any particular era or even alignment with a class. Orlando, the protagonist, remains static, and as such, there is nothing to invest, emotionally or otherwise. The best the reader can do is to sympathize with this character for the extreme displacement that s/he finds his/herself living.

"Morning James," she said. "there's some things in the car. Will you bring them in?" Words of no beauty, interest, or significance in themselves it will be conceded. But now so plumped out with meaning that if they fell like ripe nuts from a tree and proved that when the shriveled skin of the ordinary is stuffed out with meaning it satisfies the senses amazingly....to see Orlando change her skirt for a pair of whip cord britches and leather jacket, which she did in less than three minutes, was to be ravished with the beauty of movement, as if Madame Lopokova were using her highest art."

The protagonist is distant and inaccessible. S/he seems to live in a sleep-like state, unable to awaken to a strong sense of identity. In the above quote, Orlando is in here eleventh hour, nearing her demise, and she experiences an awakening of sorts. The prose is beautiful, but somehow I remain unconvinced. Orlando still seems distant, as if she is experiencing a moment of fullness, when life is being experienced in all of its richness and the heart is full. Yes, she may be living a few moments of being in tune with the wonder of the world, but the reader still is somehow being kept at bay, closed out. As for myself, my sense is that Orlando is not only closed off to the reader but ultimately she is closed off to herself. And perhaps that is the point of the novel, itself, a character unable to ever quite wake up.

The world seeks to establish and settle identity: gender, era, class and social standing. Orlando is displaced in this world, and somehow his/her displacement paralyzes his/her ability to awaken. She remains trapped in a dream.

"Illusions are to the soul as atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air, and the plant dries, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder...by the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. 'Tis waking that kills us..."

But how many of us truly wake from this dream?

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