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 :).