Thursday, February 25, 2010

I do hope that doggy's for sale.

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 13 - 96

First, a question: Am I alone in my random pet peeve about books that don't start on page one? I mean, look at Orlando - page 13? Really? The blank ones in the front should not count. Maybe, maybe, if there's a preface or something, you can start numbering there, but really, I'd prefer the Roman numeral method if you're so desperate for page numbers, preface-writer.

Anyway. Orlando is quite good so far. I pretty much completely unexpectedly loved Mrs. Dalloway the first time I read it, so I have to admit I was biased in favor of Virginia Woolf before I began, but she's coming through for me on this one, too. To give a little bit of background on the book, it's a semi-biographical novel about a friend of Woolf's, Vita Sackville-West, that casts the events of her life in a strange, sort of historicized light. She's made into a completely different person for the novel, but the events in the book, I gather, are somewhat close to the events of her real life. I don't know that much about how the details line up with Sackville-West's life because I haven't wanted to spoil it for myself, so I'll discuss that more after I'm done.

Orlando, our main character, is a young English nobleman. He is creative and sensitive and writes and reads constantly, regardless of the fact that it's frowned upon by society. He begins the book at his country home, only 16, but quickly goes to court, becomes a member of the Order of the Garter (we also call that getting knighted), and serves Elizabeth in her waning years. Though initially he's the favorite of the queen, and so unavailable for courtship, after she dies he becomes rather the cad, dating several different women in succession. (You can't really call it dating, I suppose, but it's clearly the 16th century equivalent.) During his third engagement (Yes, third. What did I say? Cad.), to a nice, proper young English girl, he falls madly in love with a visiting Russian noblewoman, Sasha, but is heartbroken when she runs off back to Russia with a sailor. Afterward, he's never quite the same, and retires from court to his country house where he secludes himself from society and reads and writes all day and night. He invites a popular writer, Nick Greene, to stay with him for a few weeks, but Greene rewards him by writing a satirical poem about the experience. (Damn ungrateful poets. Sheesh.) As a result, he vows even more vehemently to have done with mankind, and buys himself some Norwegian elkhounds to keep him company. (No, I didn't make that up. Also, look how cute they are!)

I realize the plot doesn't sound that thrilling, although it's not bad, but it's the style that really brings the novel off. Woolf is clever and quirky and self-referential, and it's pretty much awesome. She even says, at one point, in the middle of a long sentence, "nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence..." If only Henry James would mock himself a little, I'd be much more tolerant of his syntactical extravagances.

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