Tuesday, 22 November 2011

1001 Books Review - Orlando

1) The lovely people over at Writersdock have re-published two more of my reviews, of 1984 and Angels and Insects.This is very kind of them and makes me extremely delighted.

2) My latest blog for Litro is all about old men in hot pants, the word lentor and my criminal inability to learn languages.

And now, a 1001 Books review with a difference.

The difference is, I'm sorry to say, that this is a cheat. Not only have I read Orlando at least three times before, but I am only reading it now for one of my MA modules, and didn't I tell you I would never subject you to my MA books?


Orlando is one of my all-time favourite, love-of-my-life books, one of those pieces of writing that, for me, that only gets better and more astonishing each time I go back to it. This time around I started Orlando at ten thirty a few nights ago, intending to read the first chapter. At one o'clock in the morning, on page 150, I came to myself and realised that I should probably go to sleep at some point.

Re-reading something that means as much to you as Orlando does to me is like meeting someone you love at International Arrivals. You see them and you're overcome with ridiculous joy and recognition, almost irregardless of the merits of the person in question - but, in this case, I think that all the praise I can give it is entirely deserved. Orlando is an astonishing, virtuoso piece of smart, funny, poetic wordplay from a writer who understands the language so well that she's able to do things with it that ought to be entirely impossible. Virginia Woolf can sometimes be so technically high-flown that she's almost entirely impenetrable (read The Waves and see if you can understand more than about half of it), but in Orlando she reigns herself in just the right amount. Unusually for a novel by a high Modernist writer, there are distinct characters and an actual linear plot(!) as well as beautiful images of rubies and falling leaves, and the result is an insane, delightfully out-of-left-field gallop through the last 500 years of English history and literature. Written as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Virginia Woolf's friend (and girlfriend) Vita Sackville West, it's the maddest biography you'll ever come across, a completely ridiculous story set in a world where literally anything can happen.

Orlando is unbelievably believable, full of brilliantly tall tales of villagers turning to stone during particularly cold winters and cats being mistaken for coals and put on the fire. It's got the most casual attitude to time travel and eternal life you'll ever come across - in it, some people just go on living for four hundred years, not aging, without it being remarked upon at all. I read a Guardian article in which Ursula Le Guin said that Orlando was one of the books that made her want to become a science fiction writer, and I think (as usual with Ursula Le Guin) she's absolutely right. Orlando (with a charming wink in the direction of the audience) turns most of the physical laws of the universe upside down and ties the rest of them in knots. Hours can last years, you can see all of England from the top of a hill and people can change their sex at the drop of a pair of trousers.

This is where Orlando is at its most outrageously clever and witty. Women dress up as men, men act like women (or are they actually women in particularly good disguise?) and the main character, Orlando, lives the first two hundred years of his life as a man before going to sleep for seven days and waking up a woman. Physical gender becomes something like the ridiculous paper hats you might put on at a party - you swap them round, you wear two at once, it's all a bit of a joke and none of it means anything anyway.

Orlando really is a very funny book (though it's laugh-in-the-head rather than laugh-from-the-stomach), a joke at the expense of great authors, high-minded biography and boring history. Worse than that, it enjoys itself immensely, it was clearly written for the sheer jolly love of it, and there are pictures. All of this makes critics terribly nervous. Great Literature should not be funny, it should be full of people sobbing and dying and giving birth under haystacks while it rains, and unspoken conventions like this are why I sometimes get very tired of academics.

In this case, they are wrong, and Orlando is right. In fact, Orlando is wonderful. You should all read it five times in a row and be amazed. It's possible I'm biased, but the nice thing about reading is that it's entirely subjective. I'm free to love this no matter what the critics say.

5 stars.


  1. I loved and adored this book in my early twenties - the only Virginia Woolf I ever saw the point of and now I hardly dare read it again in case I no longer feel the same. You're making me want to pull it off the shelf though so maybe it's time.

  2. I do like Woolf's writing style a lot, but sometimes how I feel about her is more like admiration than actual enjoyment, so I know what you mean. But Orlando really is different!

    I think you should try a reread - I definitely like it better each time I read it.