The most prudent way to review a Virginia Woolf book, perhaps, would be to write 'THIS IS STUPENDOUS. GENIUS. AMAZING. WHY HAVEN'T YOU READ THIS YET?' and leave it at that. Because not only does this relieve you of the responsibility of casting about for appropriate words to serenade Woolf but also because you know no review in the world does justice to the sheer magic that she is capable of creating with words.
But since I have a thing for self-flagellation(not really), I wish to undertake precisely this mammoth task of writing about Orlando.
After having closed the book and put it aside, the first predominant emotions are that of being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing nature of its inherent themes, then awestruck, then of being very close to tears.
One is compelled to sit quietly in a corner, still under the heady influence of Orlando
's poetic prose, and brood over all the discrete human sentiments, actions and events that make up life as we know it, letting precious minutes trickle by.
Our hero-heroine, Orlando, seems not only to be a representation of the human spirit, a union of yin and yang
in all its imperfect glory, but also a lasting testament to the perpetual flow of time. His-her pronouncements sound almost like a chorus of voices, echoing all the dichotomies that characterize our existence and the transience of our emotions.
Orlando begins the journey of life as a man of wealth and social standing in Elizabethan era England, comfortable in the skin of his vanity, amorous in his dalliances with women. And the book ends on 11th of October, 1928, in modern England where Orlando is a married woman, a mother, an accomplished writer and finally at peace with life's many ironies and caprices. I will refrain from going into all that takes place between these two distant points in time because for that one can always read the book.
It will suffice to say that Orlando swings back and forth between craving and shunning love, between pursuing his-her literary interests and trivializing the urge to write, between seeking the august company of men of letters like Pope, Addison and Swift and then belittling them. And even though hundreds of years pass by as Orlando goes through the many myriad experiences that life had in store for him-her, it seems like everything has remained essentially the same. The reader is struck by a sense of passivity in motion, of an enduring constancy even though the sights and sounds and scenarios, that Orlando flits through, keep varying.
Thus in a way Orlando
is not different from Woolf's other works just because of the noticeable absence of a stream of consciousness(which, again, is not totally absent here) but because here, she attempts to grasp at an amorphous entity like time and enclose it within a few pages. And I am mightily pleased to say that she pulls off this feat with an elan, one associates only with her.
What makes Orlando really stand out among other VW works is the dual gender of its protagonist. Orlando keeps oscillating between his-her manly and womanly bearings and towards the very end, what nullifies the differences between the sexes is his-her humanity, his-her detachment from the material world and a crossover into the realm of the spiritual.
"The whole of her darkened and settled, as when some foil whose addition makes the round and solidity of a surface is added to it, and the shallow becomes deep and the near distant; and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So she was now darkened, stilled, and become, with the addition of this Orlando, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self."
The narrative does seem a bit disjointed at certain points, especially when Woolf foregoes conventions and goes into intricate detailing of events which seem of little importance in the greater scheme of things or inserts her witty observations on society's prejudices concerning women, chastity and more.
"Orlando, who was a passionate lover of animals, now noticed that her teeth were crooked and the two front turned inward, which, he said, is a sure sign of a perverse and cruel disposition in women, and so broke the engagement that very night for ever."
"I am she that men call Modesty. Virgin I am and ever shall be. Not for me the fruitful fields and the fertile vineyard. Increase is odious to me; and when the apples burgeon or the flocks breed, I run, I run, I let my mantle fall. My hair covers my eyes, I do not see. Spare, O spare!"
"Truth come not out from your horrid den. Hide deeper, fearful Truth. For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear, Hide! Hide! Hide!"
See what I mean? This is probably Woolf at her funniest and wittiest. So not a single sentence or passage can be devalued even though it may appear a little out of place or slow down the progress of the narrative.
In essence, Orlando
is a summation of all the irrepressible instincts of both the man and woman - their quest for love and true wisdom, their search for meaning in chaos, their feelings of inferiority aroused by the vastness of the universe and their desire to find an eternity trapped within their brief lifetimes.