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Nonsense, Fiction, and Miscellaneous Things

'Orlando: A Biography', Virginia Woolf

     Orlando: A Biography© by Virginia Woolf is a difficult review for me. I appreciated Woolf's sublime literary sense and yet I couldn't say the book was without a bit of disconnect.  First a synopsis.
     The novel centers around Orlando, from his youth in an aristocratic family with access to the Queen, to his marriage - as a woman of about 35 years of age - to a ships captain a mere 350 years after his youth. Yes that's right, Orlando changes from a man to a woman and lives approximately 350 years. For me, these characteristics of the book are an important extending of the concept of fictive writing.
     
Both the case of Orlando's male/female being and the case of settings spanning across a few centuries add, in an evincing way, to the humane sensibility which seems to most concern literature.   The effect isn't radically innovative but rather additional in its ability to evoke. In the case of Orlando's gender change, when reading of separate male/female characters, gender aspects can be 'glossed-over' by readers. Orlando, as a singular character of yet different gender - is, if subtlety so, noticeably more availing and gritty as a man and noticeably more thoughtful yet reticent as a woman. Similarly, - through the spanning of 300+ years - Woolf delineates societal changes more noticeable than could be done by detailing societal relationships within the timespan of only  1 or 2 lives, 60 or 70 years. Whether the the reader agrees with the characterizing and conclusions of these gender and era differences is a question separate from the evocativeness of Woolf's portrayal.  
     The setting of the novel is mostly of Britain and it's society.  It seemed obvious to me that she harbored a deep love for Britain - its people, it's class structure of aristocracy and commoner, and most obviously its natural, urban, and rural, geography.  Time and again I was enticed by the depictions of a liveliness, warmth - even in drunkenness - and a  social security which characterized Woolf's Britain.  The countryside was a frequent escape for a forlorn Orlando, and it was always beautifully depicted.
     The book is as much humorous with satire and absurdity as it is with a sublime literary aesthetic.  Here, Orlando is a male and is smitten:   

                  "Images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in his mind.  He called her a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree . . ."1 

     Here, her future husband - Orlando is now a woman - and her meet for the first time. She's sitting under an oak tree, ankle broken.   He's come upon her while riding a horse and has pulled the horse to a stop:

                   "Madam," the man cried, leaping to the ground, "you're hurt!"
                   "I'm dead Sir!" she replied."                            
                   A few minutes later they became engaged.2
 
   
      The humor is not unfunny and the satire is forgiving rather than biting, but the contrast with the more profound style and elements of the book was such that trying to harmonize - connect - the two gave me a headache.  I finally settled on labeling the humor as somewhat sophomoric and silly.  Maybe you could say the humor derived from an 'aristocratic guilt';  The humor seemed inclined to, sophomorically, assuage some disdain of aristocratic pompousness, although, for me, the pompousness of aristocracy seems trite and cliched.
     Overall, the book is as good as the reputation of its author, Virginia Woolf, would suggest but it is not without lapses.

1Orlando; A Biography,  Virginia Woolf, ©Leonard Woolf 1956, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, pg .28
2 Ibid, pg. 183

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