It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


2008 Reading Challenge – May

I’ve had Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on my book-shelves for a number of years, but had never got around to reading it. I forget why I even bought it. It was cheap, I know that much: there’s a Dh 10/- sticker on the back (ten Dirhams, the currency of the UAE; at the time I was living there, that would be about £1.65).

I also have the DVD of Sally Potter’s film, starring Tilda Swinton. And it’s a good film – looks fantastic, although the story meanders a bit.

So the book immediately went on the list when I decided to read a classic author each month of 2008. And now I’ve read it…

Orlando is a young noble in Elizabethan England. He is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, writes volumes of execrable poetry, and has an affair with a Muscovite princess. The affair ends badly, and so Orlando wangles a position as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Sultan’s Court in Istanbul. Several years later, he is promoted to Duke and made a member of the Order of Bath. Shortly afterwards, he falls into a sleep from which none can wake him for a week. While he sleeps, the Janissaries revolt. When Orlando wakes, he is now a woman.

After spending some time with Anatolian gypsies, Orlando returns to England. She then lives through the centuries following until the publication of the book: “Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight” (the last words of the novel).

Orlando is written as a biography, with frequent authorial interjections – at one point, even declaring the date on which a passage was written – “…for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs…”; or commenting on the prose itself: “…who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence…” The words “biography” and “story” are used throughout, explaining that Orlando is as much a commentary on Orlando’s life as it is a telling of it.

Unfortunately, Orlando is a paragon – loved by all who meet him; his legs “the shapliest legs that any Nobleman has ever stood upright upon”; his house the greatest in England, with 365 rooms and 15 acres of parkland… We are told this repeatedly. Woolf makes no effort to make her protagonist or her story plausible. Orlando’s central change of sex is left completely unexplained – and barely remarked upon by those who knew him before.

Orlando reads like a paean to its subject. It tells a story, yes, but it’s not really a novel. Woolf’s close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West was the inspiration for Orlando, and the book reads like an open and frank love letter to her. In places, the author’s heart is far too visible on her sleeve.

In one respect, reading Orlando proved an interesting exercise. It’s a fantasy, and it was published ninety years ago. Given the current form of fantasy, especially high fantasy (or sword & sorcery, as it’s sometimes known), comparisons between such novels and Woolf’s were almost inevitable. The current trend is for immersion, a narrative that drags the reader into the world of the story and keeps them there. And the world must be internally consistent in order for that to occur. Whereas Orlando does no such thing. The story is told to the reader, no effort is made to entice the reader into living the story in their imagination. Woolf is quite clearly writing Orlando in 1928, and often makes reference to items and knowledge that would have been unknown to her protagonist – “The thought struck him like a bullet”, for example. It’s an entirely different reading experience to that of, say, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (quality of writing aside).

Personally, I prefer rigour and internal consistency in my fiction. Especially in regard to an invented world, or a story which cannot rely on the real world to provide consistency. Woolf’s authorial interventions I found intrusive. This might have been acceptable if they were witty – like Jane Austen, for example – but in Orlando, they were just fawning. Orlando was too good, too improbable, a hero/heroine, and quickly became boring. Orlando is, well, fanciful tosh.

So, another classic fails to make the grade. While I admitted back in February that I might give Hemingway another go some time, I very much doubt I’ll be doing the same to Virginia Woolf. Orlando is, according to Wikipedia, “generally considered one of Woolf’s most accessible novels”. Not to mention its importance to English literature. But I just can’t see it.

I’ve all ready picked out Nostromo by Joseph Conrad for next month. Let’s hope I like that one better.

(Incidentally, for those who want to try Orlando for themselves, here’s an online copy.)