I don’t even begin to know how to describe Orlando. On the surface, I suppose I could say this is about a person, Orlando, who lives for hundreds of years, from the 1500s to the early 1900s. Orlando begins life’s journey male, and halfway through the book, spontaneously becomes female after a long sleep. He – and she – is fixated on poetry, love, and the meaning of life, and is not the only person on this journey who lives through centuries.
Odd enough for you? Orlando is a very strange book, like many of Woolf’s books. This is the ninth work by Woolf that I’ve read. From my experience, her books seem to fall into two categories: relatively easy, straightforward prose (The Voyage Out, Flush) and more difficult, almost stream-of-consciousness prose (Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob’s Room). Orlando definitely fell into this latter category.
I thought, perhaps, it would be good to try to listen to one of Woolf’s books. I have a tendency to read them and miss 95% of what she says when she uses her more difficult style. She’s so much smarter than I’ll ever be, and often I have to read her books twice or even three times before I feel like I understand even a quarter of them. It’s been a really long time since I read one of her more difficult works and I knew Orlando would be one of them, so I thought perhaps I could try an audio version in order to force myself to slow down and (hopefully) understand better. It worked for Nabokov’s Lolita, so hey, why not Woolf too? Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Audio was the wrong choice. I didn’t understand this book any more than I usually understand Woolf’s more difficult novels, and I didn’t have the advantage of going back to reread passages when I got completely lost.
My impressions, walking away from Orlando, are mild and only barely scratch the surface of what’s in here. It doesn’t help that I know absolutely nothing about history and so the people and events Woolf kept mentioning made no impression on me. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t know the difference between Alexander Pope and Alexander the Great. Seriously. No lie. Jason laughed at me for that one. So when a book relies heavily on me needing to know my world and European history, I’m already in trouble. Add Woolf’s poetic tongue to the mix and I’m really in trouble.
I understood that there was a certain amount of satire on the biographical process, particularly in the way we remember people by a few key profound statements they made in their lives. I understand she was making fun of those people who always sigh and complain about modern literature while extolling the wonders of the past (“Gloire! Gloire!”). I know she made a lot of statements on gender issues, both on the differences between the roles of men and women and on their changes over time. There was also something about identity and selves and whether or not it’s possible to really know one’s true self. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing.
Virginia Woolf is one of those authors who continues to baffle me. I adore her completely! This isn’t meant to say that I disliked the book or anything! But reading one of her more difficult books is like wading into a pond of mud and trying to find my way through. I know there’s something special in all those words, but I’m not smart enough to find it! So I keep trying, keep rereading, keep testing the water, until I can more solidly grasp some of the little things and hopefully one day understand just a tiny bit better what she’s trying to tell me.
Performance: While I personally think I would never try audio for reading Woolf again, I have nothing bad to say about the performance. Orlando was read by Clare Higgins, who did an excellent job. I would definitely listen to something else she read. Just not Woolf. Must read the rest in print!!