Orlando, Virginia Woolf

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I'm working my way slowly through Woolf, mostly chronologically, but in this case, I jumped ahead to Orlando. There are people who really, really love Woolf (on www.goodreads.com, for instance). I struggle. In Orlando I admire her psychological insight and thoughts on topics such as the value of obscurity, the subjective compression and expansion of time, the socially constrained role allowed to women. She often dazzles me with her prose ("orgulous" swans) and ecstatic, vibrant visions of Nature, but I have a very different sense of what a story is, and it comes up clearly in Orlando.

There are several points in this narrative that spans 300+ years in which Woolf in the narrator's voice excuses herself from relating the particulars of a conversation, and she passes over these noting that often what is said on these occasions is insignificant. Contrast this, however, with how Jane Austen handles similar social gatherings - for Austen the story, the revelation of character, is in the dialogue and mannerisms, sometimes the sillier the more revealing. Woolf tends to sweep over particulars as irrelevant to the big, important questions that interest her.

It is widely noted that Woolf's inspiration for Orlando was her relationship with the colorful aristocratic Vita Sackville-West, but for me Orlando the character remains vague, bizarrely detached from human relationships - there is a husband who seems more fairy tale than real and promptly disappears, an infant who no sooner is born than drops out of the story. Orlando has next to no friends, takes no interest in the changing times and displays little curiosity. The intoxication - like other Woolf heroines on my reading of them - is within one's own mind where enormous questions are posed ("Life? Love? Poetry?") and different answers tried out and discarded as insufficient.

I might be able to write this off as a difference in taste except that Woolf seems so miserable to me. Reviewers occasionally call Orlando a "romp," or words to that effect, but I just see the sadness, the loneliness, the frustration. Orlando spends a large part of the second half of the book in search of a semi-articulate desire for "Life and a lover," only to find lovers (except in the form of her absent, fantastical husband) disappointing. Life then. One of the things that fascinates me about stories about immortality is that they almost have to tackle the question of what is worth doing with a life. Orlando composes a lengthy poem she eventually manages to publish, but I think the "life" question remains open.

As perhaps it should, except that it is so easy to leave the question open, and that is no help to anyone actually engaged in finding an answer. At this point in my life, if I was going to take a stab at it, I think the answer is partly turning inward - because external goals turn out to be ephemeral - but only in order to settle the tumult inside, because I think what's really required is to look outward again from a place of centeredness, to take a genuine interest in the lives, petty though they may be, of others, to feel and act out of compassion, to pursue an intellectual and/or artistic work requiring one's highest faculties. It seems to me that Woolf's mental casting about - she uses the metaphor of the sea - keeps her perpetually wrapped in a cloud of philosophical and Romantic abstractions, and that, for all her insight, she fundamentally disdains other people because they are selfish, or fallible, or their concerns are simply more prosaic. Again, the contrast with Austen.

I do have to say that A Room of One's Own, made a huge impact on me when I read it, and when you read Orlando there is no doubt this is the same author. The idea of making Orlando a woman with a man's prior experience and perspective of the world is utterly brilliant and revolutionary genius.

7/11/16 afterthought:
My friend, who is far more knowledgeable about Woolf, explained to me that Orlando is an experiment in biography, an attempt to get at the essence of a person without being tethered, as normal biographical projects are, to dates and setting, as these could be seen as incidental to discovering, or showing, who a person really is. I admit this turns my reading of Orlando inside out - what I had taken for foreground is background and vice versa. I'll have to rethink my response to the book and give some thought to Woolf's intriguing theory. My gut response is that while the "facts" of a person's life are not sufficient to tell us who they are (born x at y to z, died x of y), what is important are the choices they make, the habits, the proclivities and pursuits, their relationships, and these are all very particular and detail-based. For me, I think, as a reader, a biography is an attempt to walk in someone's shoes, to try understand the world from his/her perspective, and that requires "grounding."

If you have a moment, please visit Jessica's blog at: http://alreadytoldtales.blogspot.com/ where she writes her thought-provoking retellings of classic fairy tales.