30 Days of Book Reviews – Day 3: Orlando

February, 2008

2008 Review – Somehow, I managed to miss Orlando in all my desperate love for Virginia Woolf. I decided to listen, rather than read, and am very pleased. This edition is broken into very small tracks, so it is easy to rewind back if I lose focus. Moreover, Woolf’s mastery of the language and playful “biographer” narrative work wonderfully spoken aloud. I have only had a few moments where I had to “re-listen” to a couple tracks because they didn’t quite make sense of the first listen and am utterly pleased with the narrator. An absolutely stunning biography of a man who lives for centuries and in the process becomes a woman, who is sometimes a man, and ultimately a woman.

2014 Review

Dear Ms. Wolff,

Sigh. How are you old friend? Your hair looks lovely in its disheveled bun and the ink blotch on your cheek is adorable. As you well know, you are one of my most beloved. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) a lot of your essays in the last few months, beginning with Shakespeare’s Sister, which in many ways was a fantastic smack across the face. I am not an erstwhile Emily Bronte, however my excessively dramatic heart might feel a kinship to her, and really it was time to buckle down and do some proper work. You are a bit of a bratty snob in some of your book reviews, which only makes me love you more. If I painted portraits, I would paint one of you and put it over my desk. Since I do not, I’ll probably shoot for something lovely and simple, like the one in my sophomore English class (and not some crap BN edition that you would have mocked in essays you whipped out in an afternoon).

But to the point of my letter. I’m working on a book review project to get myself into form for writing a review of my favorite book by a living author (always an important distinction) of the last ten years and because I have become exceedingly lazy in the last six years since I read Orlando. Odd choice for my third review of the month, no? Here’s my logic. To the Lighthouse is clearly my favorite of your novels. It’s in my desert island book collection and was one of those books in high school shoved into my hand by a teacher before I was shooed outside to read. But I haven’t read it since college, which was a very long time ago. Mrs. Dalloway is another love, but I might go after handsome Ian or Michael Cunningham for their riffs on it, and I always feel like mentioning your name in the same breath as Clarissa’s is expected. Also have not read since college. I could review your essays, but which edition? Jacob’s Room but I feel kind of meh about it. One is saving a few others for her forties, which leaves Orlando.

Let me begin by saying that I’m sorry about the film. It should have been brilliant, Tilda Swinton is, generally does a nice job, but they needed someone capable of more excess, someone like Cate playing Bob Dylan (which you would have mocked, but secretly chatted up Vita about for months). It’s a bummer. Films don’t really capture your work. A silent might do it, but enough about that. Hopefully some mad genius is in high school now, falling in love with you, and surreptitiously writing a new screen play.

Onto the novel which is as much a tour of England’s history as a tour of our inner notions of sexuality and self-definition. I do not think its your most accessible work as many do. Clarissa takes care of that for you. Its complicated, because it looks like a story of immortality and sexuality, a biography, as it is of a man who becomes a girl who becomes a man who becomes a girl, all the while having great adventures, binge reading, writingwritingwring, parties, lots of romantic entanglements, many double entendres, but I don’t think it is. I think that’s what you wanted your reader to see first before peeling back the layer and noticing how you cue changes in time with changes in writing, changes of an age, and changes of how society changes and molds a person. Given your brilliant (and almost, but not quite excessive) number of reviews discussing the evolution of women’s writing over time, things make a bit more sense because the biography of Orlando is the biography of memory:

“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. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.”

Specifically, the memory of a writer and passionate reader, which makes a lot of things fall away and make sense. Once we figure out what you are thinking, it all makes a little more sense. But, the brilliant thing about you, is that it doesn’t really have to make sense. If your readers like words strung together, Virginia, in varying sizes and shapes and in sometimes just to see how they string, Orlando is joyous: “For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. ”

And we know, or should, better to expect anything conventional from you. You play with plot a little here, Virginia, and that’s dear of you, but you needn’t have. Instead the best part is watching your mind dig through layers, and string together thoughts and words, walking down a curving path humming a tune and observing the air currents move. You write in that many ways at once. While I do not think it is your best work, its a worthy, delicious read for Woolfians and wordsmiths. An antidote to excessive realism.

As always, I adore you. I promise to review something I don’t like soon and think of you. Pleae enjoy the persian cat I have sent along.

All my love. –C


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