2.12.2010

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Having just read this book for the readathon last year and reviewed it here (though looking back it was an awful review, re-reviewing it seems kind of silly. Lord knows I had little enough original to offer in the first place - to do it TWICE? Not so much. I don't want to talk about Orlando as itself then, I would like to dicuss an interesting trend I noticed in the reviews of it.

Orlando, unlike the other two Woolf novels I've read, is funny - or to be more British about it, witty. Woolf's writing here is at time laugh out loud funny, frequently delivered with a quirking sneer you can feel stretching across her lips. The novel, after the stormy seas of To the Lighthouse, and the tidal wave of Mrs Dalloway, feels more like a fresh spanking wind over a playful sea. If you sail the seas of the other books, this book feels more like you roll up your pant legs and wade in it, or wait till noone is looking and skinny dip in it. Ms Frances over at Nonsuch Books talked about the issue behind a witty book in literary circles:

In college, fellow Woolf lovers would mock me a bit for saying that Orlando was my favorite Woolf novel. So many see it as the throw-away novel, something to pass the time in between her more serious works of literature.

I read this a few times this morning in one form or another - Woolf herself said this book was sort of her playtime after writing so many dark, heavy, carefully poetic novels.

But, as I mentioned I my previous review, I felt this novel very strongly.

Now part of this is for personal reasons not relevant to a discussion of the book, but that's not ALL part of it - Orlando, more than TTL or Mrs D made me feel like I knew something about Virginia Woolf. And I think this is inextricably linked to it's wittiness. Wittiness has a particular power that we as 'guardians of high culture' often forget - I realized this the other day, as well, while reading Plato's 'Apology', throughout which Socrates keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek. Gulliver's Travels is another example, as is Catch-22. Shakespeare was a master of this.

Of course, there is humor that is meaningless, and there's humor that is repellently arrogant. These things exist (just like there's drama that is voyeuristic and drama that is overflowing with it's own self-importance). There is two differences that make a witty work great for me: first, the author is not afraid to tell an honest story, with good and bad in it. Catch-22 is the perfect example of this. Real wit not only accepts the real world, it has real, honest human emotion in it, in all the multiple forms that human emotion takes. Secondly, true wit is not something for the author to hide behind - it makes the author more vulnerable, not less. (Honestly, and perhaps meaningfully, both of these statements could be applied to drama with very little modification).

Orlando, more than any of the other books I've read, lets me feel Virginia, rather than Mrs Woolf - tellingly, it's not that the book brings her down to my level, but rather it lifts me up to hers. It's a sort of inversion of Mrs Dalloway - in Dalloway, the author is an invisible god-like force and we drift between her various creations. In Orlando, we are invited into the kitchen of God, and chitchat with her as she cooks up a new batch. Chit-chat can be banal, sure, but it can also be honest, vulnerable, and filled with love and trust: intimate in a way that other ways of communication can't be. Mrs Dalloway, in places, serves as portraiture of Woolf - stiff and formal, carefully formed, methodically rendered. But, in Orlando, we knead bread with Woolf, hands plunged with hers into the self-same bowl.

Particularly in Modernism, the age of James Joyce who couldn't keep a straight face for 3 pages (Ok, I'm exaggerating a LITTLE), it amazes - and kind of saddens - me, how easy it is to dismiss wit and playfulness and humor as 'light', and 'charming.' Humor is a tool that it's easy to dismiss - but to do so shows a weakness in us as readers, not in the author, because humor can carry profound beauty.

Finally, just as a quick note - I don't think any of the reviewers I've read have been doing this, not at all - to the conrary, the reviews I've read have sparkled and danced just like the book did. Just that in several I felt just the slightest edge of defense, as if loving something funny had to be justified. I want to do my little bit to justify this myself, is all, because loving Orlando SHOULD be justified - or Catch-22, or Alice in Wonderland, or Edward Lear, or Finnegan's Wake. Anyway, off my soapbox for the day, and thanks to EVERYONE for the reviews today :).

11 comments:

Frances said...

Jason, this is brilliant! You have justified all our love of the novel. Especially identify with "Orlando, more than any of the other books I've read, lets me feel Virginia, rather than Mrs Woolf." Have always felt that we see the professional Woolf in the other works and a personal one here. As if we are all sitting outside about a fire with some great wine one night making up a story as we went along. And laughing. A lot. And then our genius friend polished it all up for us. That is the intimacy I seek in life and in a good read from time to time.

claire said...

I also found this book so telling of Woolf herself, even more than of Vita, which heightened my enjoyment all the more. While I don't think there's need for justification to enjoy something that makes us laugh, I kind of wonder how people can read this and not see the depth. Yes, it's funny, but there's so much more to it than just its playfulness. I really felt that it lacked no substance even in comparison to Mrs D and TTL. In fact, shouldn't funny be an indication of the writer's genius and wit? Thanks for the excellent post, as usual!

Amy said...

As a reader who really struggled with this book, I envy you. I'd like to have your experience with it.

I think "witty" is incredibly hard to write and it's a shame people dismiss it as not worthy. Truly funny or witty is an art.

nicole said...

I love your image of being in the kitchen with Woolf -- or, I should say, Virginia.

I'm sort of scratching my chin though trying to decide whether I would call this, after all, "humorous" (or "witty"). I mean, it is, but I don't think that's really the differentiator between this and the earlier Woolf in Winter reads. There really is a degree to which it's lighter, to my mind--more earthy, less cerebral; less brooding while still being very thoughtful. I don't know. I clearly can't put my finger on it. Not to say that it's a bad thing at all either, but I do think there's some way in which this is a less intense reading experience than, say, To the Lighthouse.

Julia said...

Odd that even Virginia Woolf seemed a little defensive about her book. Her diary: "Orlando is of course a very quick brilliant book. Yes, but I did not try to explore.... I never got down to my depths & made shapes square up." She gave herself license to have a little fun with the book, then seemed to think it less important that her more serious, more poetical, more experimenal books. I found it hard to get into the book at first, dragging behind me lugubrious memories of TTL. But for her wit, I may never have finished it. It's a good book, yes, and very funny in places.

Emily said...

Excellent points, Jason! I completely agree that humor/wit shouldn't be (yet often is) regarded as opposed to "serious" art, and derided, but acknowledged as a powerful vehicle that can drive art. Vonnegut is another classic example, and CĂ©line - not to mention Austen! I just read a book about museum curation, which argued that the back-lash against "edutainment," while in some ways justified, should be careful not go go too far: people tend to learn and remember more when they're laughing and enjoying themselves than when they're not!

As far as the difference in narrators, it's interesting, because my own personal reaction to Mrs. Dalloway was SO visceral and personal, and I felt so included and intuitively connected to all the thought processes and everything that was going on, that I don't relate so much with your casting it as the sort of cold/removed side of Woolf's work. However, from a purely narrative standpoint, I can see how the movable third-person-limited narrator seems more remote than winking, nudging pseudo-biographer of Orlando. To me personally, the Orlando narrator seems like my good buddy, but the Mrs. Dalloway narrator seems like my soulmate...or maybe just a more articulate version of myself. Needless to say, though, I connect strongly with them both. :-)

Trapunto said...

I like what you say. Orlando is the Woolf I read most recently, and I enjoyed it differently, but no less, than the others. I think humor ages so badly that if you find yourself laughing at a 80 year old book, it's already done something pretty amazing.

dolcebellezza said...

Jason, I love your voice, your freshness, your complete honesty. What a wonderful blog you have! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post after reading the insightful comments you left on my rather dull thoughts. I responded to what you said about humour, being one who finds humour completely necessary in life, after your comment on my blog. Anway, it's great to meet you along with my introduction to Virginia Woolf.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Frances - It's a sort of comforting book like that - like sitting with your friends :). I'm glad you think so too.

Ms Claire - Well, and I wonder if that's the problem - we look for depth in the drama of a dramatic book. We look for depth in spite of the wit. It's a funny dichotomy, the more I think of it...

Ms Amy - I'm sorry you struggled with it! I've been utterly unable to feel like I was comfortable in a Woolf book till late last year (I loved TTL before that, but still felt sort of out of place, out of my depth). Even now, I'm sort of just bobbing up and gasping for air once in a while. Try it again some time, she grows on oyou! :)

Ms Nicole - I don't know - 'lighter' is such a loaded word. I will say, I think I could spend as long reading Orlando, and learn as much from it, as I couuld To the Lighthouse. They're very different books, and it would be a much different kind of learning. But I don't know if it's lighter, in my mind.

Ms Julia - Yes, I felt very welcome into this book, the wit makes you feel like it's alright for you to come in :D. I can imagine Virginia being defensive - ironically, I can imagine her thinking somewhat less of the book than her other books in fact. I imagine she would be a bit snobby about it if someone else wrote it, to be frank :D.

Ms Emily - I think the two books are certainly equally intimate - the difference is that in Mrs Dalloway I feel intimate with each character - the strength of the absent narrator is that I feel like I really know them, not what the narrator told me abotu them. Orlando I feel like I know the narrator intimately, rather than the characters - many of whom I hardly feel I know at all, honestly.

Ms Trapunto - do you think? I wonder if drama has trouble aging too, and that we just tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. I have to work to connect with the humor in, say, an old Punch magazine cartoon. But I have to work to connect with the drama in, say the Illiad, as well.

Ms dolcebellezza - Thank you, it's a pleasure to meet you too :).

Amy said...

While I haven't read a single thing by Virgina Woolf I absolutely agree with the idea that funny does not equal shallow. :)

And it annoys me that's the prevailing attitude.

Wonderful post as always.

Nymeth said...

I completely agree. And as an unapologetic and ardent Terry Pratchett fan - who famously said that the opposite of funny is NOT serious, but unfunny - I have been dragged into these discussions SO often.

I also agree about the book's feel being so intimate and vulnerable - that surprised me, especially after reading your thoughts on the unaccessibility of the narrator in Mrs Dalloway. I think that for this reason, this was a perfect introduction to her novels. I feel that I know her a little bit now, and I hope that will make the distance easier to handle when I get to her other books.