Woolf’s _Orlando_ was about everything and about nothing

tumblr_m1d8146kkl1qc93qfo1_500Over the weekend, I read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It was really fantastic. Another of those book that makes you want to re-read it the moment you finish it, because the act of reading it has taught you so much that re-reading the beginning would be an entirely different experience.

I never quite understood Orlando before I read it. I knew it was about a dude who lives three hundred years and has various adventures and turns into a woman and such. But I couldn’t quite see what it was about. In fact, even after I was about a third of the way into the book (which is around where Orlando turns into a woman), I was thinking, “This is great and all…but what is this book about?”

And I still can’t really answer that question, because the book is about a lot of things: changing gender roles; the Empire; industrialization; the art world; the development of an artist; the meaning of life, etc.

But what struck me most was how the book is about the changing conception of the self over time. As you read through Orlando, you can almost feel it’s tenor and tone and shape changing with the times. During the 18th century, it’s very much a Romance: Orlando serves as an ambassador and gets involved in a weird, secretive marriage and hangs out with gypsies and all kinds of stuff. Then, during the 19th century, it becomes very somber and introspective. At some point, Orlando looks at his housekeeper’s wedding ring and is like, “What’s that?” And then he realizes that marriage is a necessary part of life.

What I love is that the book never stops. Even after Orlando becomes a successful artist, even after she finds the love of her life, even after she has a child, it keeps going–it has no answer. No milestone is the culmination of a life; she just has to keep going and going and going. By the time Orlando hits the 20th century, the book has become very jagged and stream-of-consciousness, and it finally terminates in a grand image, in a very 20th century fashion.

A really excellent book. At around 70,000 words, it’s perfectly weighted, too. I read it through in about three hours, while sitting in a coffee shop. By the end of it, I couldn’t keep still. My knees were bouncing and I was shifting positions. It was a very exciting reading experience.