June 16, 2007 at 9:32 am 3 comments

Kandinsky, ‘Winter Landscape’ (1909)

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (1928), is about time, desire, and poetry. It is about shifting identities, both personal and national. It is a fairytale with baroque details, a historical novel and a dream. When I read this blurb, how could I resist?

His longing for passion, adventure and fulfillment takes him out of his own time. Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England and imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian princess Sasha? Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey – a nobleman, traveller, writer? Man or . . . woman?

It didn’t disappoint. At the beginning it reminded me a bit of Vathek (eighteenth-century orientalist fantasy), but it had a lighter touch than this (it is Woolf, after all). I love the way Woolf can weave a single sentence over a whole page, and you don’t mind. I love the bit where England is hit by a huge frost and the Thames freezes over. The new king turns it into a pleasure park:

Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear was it indeed that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in trance. . .

Isn’t that great! Oh, there is a lot going on in this novel, and it builds to a wonderful, surprising, twisting climax, but it is easy to read, like someone telling you a fairy story. And it’s very funny too. I’ll leave you with this defense of the artistic temperament:

The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business – this time keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts; and it may have been her love of poetry that was to blame for making Orlando lose her shopping list and start home without the sardines, the bath salts, or the boots.


Entry filed under: Virginia Woolf.

The Story of an Unknown Church Book Awards Reading Challenge

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  June 18, 2007 at 6:14 am

    This was the first book I ever read by Woolf, and I loved it! After reading your review, I want to run off and reread it. 🙂

  • 2. Ted  |  June 18, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I’m with you – I just love this novel. It’s everything I read for – delicious fantasy, humor, romance, transformation. It’s so accessible. It made me a Woolf fan. It’s one of those books I need to read every few years!

  • 3. robi-d  |  June 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Lovely, tantalising review

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