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March 24, 2008

Woolf's Orlando

I picked up and read Virginia Woolf's Orlando over the weekend. Generally not my cup of tea--I could do without the coy inside jokes and the motif of "barbarian" Africa, which begins on p. 1 and runs throughout. However, I found myself developing respect for two aspects of this highly unusual novel.

First, it is impressive how the narration evolves to match the historical period described on each page. The language shifts from courtly Elizabethan prose to the rapid-fire, cinematic feel of a movie. James Joyce does the same thing even more radically in Episode 14 of Ulysses. Perhaps Woolf's subtler experiment is more satisfactory; but in neither book is this technique a gimmick. I think modernism arises when artists, in any medium, realize that you cannot simply describe the world. You always do so in a style; and styles vary. The problem is: Why should you pick one style instead of another? Why, therefore, should you make art at all? One answer is abstraction, which means dropping the pretense of objectivity. Woolf and Joyce try something different; they make the change of style itself the subject of their story.

Second, I came to see that Woolf respects her protagonist. Orlando is generally identified with Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a relationship. For quite a few pages, I thought the portrait of Sackville-West was patronizing. Orlando has great legs and lots of money. He (later she) yearns to be a writer, but writes nothing of value. I cannot imagine that Sackville-West would want to be so portrayed. But it turns out that Orlando matures as the novel progresses, and the story of his/her development is moving because it reaches a conclusion in full, self-conscious, capable and creative adulthood.

March 24, 2008 1:15 PM | category: fine arts | Comments


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