1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Art, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Feminism, Fiction, Fictional Biography, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, LGBT, Literary History, Literature, Monthly Review, Sexuality, Time, Virginia Woolf

Thoughts: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

46133

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 5

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time. At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Ultimately, after trips abroad and back home again, Orlando’s story is one of exploration and being open to the many possibilities of life. He is a writer, first, who spends hundreds of years working on one short poem called “The Oak Tree,” a strong symbol of nature’s presence and dominance throughout the passage of time. Orlando witnesses the world-changing, from the sexual freedom and marriageless years of the Elizabethan period, to the stringent, stuffy, prudish world of the Victorian age. At a certain point, he (now she) wakes up to “the present” and is terrified, realizing that she suddenly exists in the now, and it is a now that she no longer recognizes, where women are property, where love is regulated, and where art and literature exist only in the past.

There are two main characters in the novel; the first is Orlando, who changes from male to female throughout the long passage of time. The second is actually the narrator – a third-person, mostly omniscient but nevertheless unreliable “biographer,” whose tone and style change throughout the book, as Orlando and his life are changing. One could argue, though, that the true characters are actually gender (identity), sexuality, and time: these are the ideas explored most intricately and most often throughout the course of the book and they are certainly front-facing; the narrator/biographer views time and Orlando in opposition to how opinions and practices of sex and gender are viewed differently at various points in history. Other characters (of the usual sense) include Sasha, Orlando’s true first love, a Russian princess; Shel, Orlando’s husband who is actually a woman (or who, at least, has the qualities of one); the Archduchess Henrietta who is actually Archduke Harry (perhaps the only truly homosexual character, as the others whose genders bend throughout could truly be said to be of the opposite gender, psychologically and even physically, after their changes, while Harry is simply a man who cross-dresses as a woman and who loves Orlando as a man); and certain historical figures, like Nick Greene (poet/critic), Queen Elizabeth I, and Alexander Pope.

Orlando, though massive in scale, brilliant in conception, and beautiful in prose, was actually considered by Woolf to be a “writer’s holiday,” so to speak. She refused to allow gender nor time to constrain her writing, which is evidenced by the fact that Orlando, who begins the story as a man and ends it as a woman, 4 centuries later, only ages 36 years in the process. Woolf’s secondary aim, aside from bending time and gender, is satirizing Victorian biographies and novels which traditionally emphasize truthfulness and fact (though they are obviously fiction). What is most fascinating for me is the fact that the book was, for Woolf, a game of sorts – a lighter satire and departure from her more rigid works; yet, this one is incredibly important and speaks seriously, though fantastically, to issues of self-discovery, truth, art, and gender. The exploration of the many time periods, from Elizabethan to the early 20th Century, particularly in terms of the literary arts in any given movement, will be fascinating for serious readers, but the beautiful and sensuous prose (less explorative than other works, making it more accessible) as well as the unusual topic and uninhibited re-imagining of reality and time make this a unique, awe-inspiring read for anyone willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Time, Art, Literary History, Nature, Truth, Poetry.

Notable Quotes:
“Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy” (45).

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill” (75).

“Bad, good, or indifferent, I’ll write, from this day forward, to please myself” (103).

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high” (149).

“Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s” (173).

“Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors” (199).

“We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person” (243).

“For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down” (253).

“Our most violent passions . . . are the reflections we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time” (323).

Orlando is Book 1 for my B2tC Challenge; Book 9 for my Classics Club List; & Book 3 for my 2013 TBR Pile.

Standard
1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Architecture, Art, Art History, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Inquisition, Religion, Romanticism, Victor Hugo

Review: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 17


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Count Frollo, Quasimodo, and Esmeralda are quite possibly the most twisted, most bizarre, and most unexpected love-triangle in literary history.  And if their problematic involvement with one another is not enough, throw-in Esmeralda’s philosopher husband, Pierre, and her unrequited love-interest, Phoebus, not to mention the self-isolated mother-in-mourning with a sad history of her own, and Frollo’s younger, troublemaking brother Jehan, and finally the various kings, burgesses, students, and thieves, and suddenly we have an epic history in the making.  The main character, as it turns out, is not Quasimodo or Esmeralda, but Notre-Dame itself.  Almost all of the major scenes in the novel, with a few exceptions (such as Pierre’s presence at the Bastille), take place at or in view of/reference to the great cathedral.  Hugo’s primary purpose is not to present the reader with a heart-rending love story (or two), nor is it necessarily to comment on social and political systems of the time (though this is certainly a high purpose); the main purpose, though, is a nostalgic view of a diminishing Paris, one which puts its architecture and architectural history in the forefront and which laments the loss of that high art.  Hugo is clearly concerned with the public’s lack of commitment toward preserving the rich architectural and artistic history of Paris, and this purpose comes across directly, in chapters about the architecture specifically, and indirectly, through the narrative itself.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Hugo is concerned with one character above all in this story, and that is the cathedral.  While other characters have interesting backgrounds and do develop slightly over the course of the story, none seem truly round.  This is a minor point of contention, because though the story may have a loftier sociological and artistic purpose, it loses something by not also working completely as a stand-alone narrative.  One can certainly empathize with Quasimodo’s dilemma, for instance, when he finds himself caught between the two loves of his life, Count Frollo and Esmeralda.  The sub-story relating to the mourning woman who has locked herself in a cell, weeping over a child’s shoe (and who vehemently despises the gypsies for stealing her daughter) is also moving, but ultimately unsurprising.  Count Frollo’s descent from learned man and upstanding caregiver is not entirely unbelievable (given, especially, the relationship between Frollo and his brother), but it still seems sudden and quite dramatic.  Of course, this suits the Gothic element of the story nicely and also parallels Hugo’s analysis of science versus religion & physical art versus linguistic, so it is not out of place – yet the characters seem flat in relation to the overall attempt by Hugo to re-instill, through means of Romanticism, a renewed passion for the Gothic era. In the end, the characters and there interactions are interesting and, at times, moving or hilarious.  The reader can engage with and, to a certain extent, believe them, but they are not perfect characters; this is in large part due to the fact that their stories are not the primary focus of the work.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What moves this story along so well, even through chapters such as “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” which is, literally, a textualized description of the city of Paris, if looking at it from on high, and in all directions, is Hugo’s great ability at crafting words – phrases – sentences.  Although I found this story inferior to Les Miserables, which is perhaps to be expected, considering it was published 30 years prior and much of it was written under a pressing deadline, one thing the two clearly have in common is a richly beautiful and workable prose.  There were certain other “tells” of inexperience, such as Hugo’s confusing dates/places or allowing certain items to exist in the time of the story that were not yet invented (the story takes place nearly 400 years before Hugo wrote it).  Still, the language and prose are clearly masterful, almost umatched.  Hugo’s sense of humor (especially sarcasm and irony) are very well developed and leap across the page.  His Gothic elements are appropriately dark, even surprisingly so at times.   


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most interesting about Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is that everyone knows the story, but few really know the story.  There have been numerous adaptations of this work, for film, theater, television, etc.  Most people are probably familiar with the story through various retellings in children’s books or movies (i.e. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Those of us who are only familiar with this story as told through the grapevine are led to believe that it is a tragic “Beauty and the Beast” type love-story, where true love rules in the end.  This explanation of the tale could not be farther from the truth. Notre-Dame de Paris is first and foremost a story about art – mainly, architecture.  It is a romanticizing of the Gothic period and a study of the time period which brought together traditional art forms and oratory with the novel idea of a printing press (and published works as artistic/statement pieces).  Yes, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are there and their story is a sad one and yes, Count Frollo turns out to be a downright despicable antagonist; but, ultimately, this, like Hugo’s Les Miserables is more than a story about its characters – it is a story about the whole history of Paris and about the absurdities of the caste system.  It is the first novel where beggars and thieves are cast as the protagonists and also the first novel in which the entire societal structure of a nation, from King to peasant, is present.  It might also be the first or most prominent work to feature a structure (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) as main character.  Hugo’s approach, and this novel in particular, would later influence Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and other sociological “writers of the people.”  When one thinks of writers who are genius at fictionalizing the history of a people, the first who comes to mind might be Tolstoy, but Victor Hugo certainly belongs in this league.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: High School+
Interest: French History, Art History, Architecture, Paris, Romanticism, Epic Theatre, Alchemy, Caste, Class & Society, Gypsy Lore, Gothic literature, Religious Inquisition/Witchcraft.


Notable Quotes:

“For, even if we believe in nothing, there are moments in life when we are always of the religion of the temple nearest to hand.”

“Never has there been loose such an unruly mob of students! It’s the accursed inventions of the age that are ruining everything–the artillery, the muskets, the cannons, and above all the printing press, that scourge brought from Germany. No more manuscripts, no more books. Printing is ruining bookselling. The end of the world is upon us.”

“You can be a great genius yet understand nothing of an art which is not your own.”

“Fashion has done more harm than Revolutions.  They have cut into the quick, they have attacked the wooden bone-structures of the art, they have hewn and hacked and disorganized, and have killed the building, in its form as well as its symbolism, its logic as well as its beauty.  They have also remade it: which neither time nor revolutions have presumed to do.”

“She danced, she spun, she whirled on an old Persian carpet thrown carelessly down beneath her feet, and each time she spun and her radiant face passed in front of you, her great black eyes flashed like lightning.”

“I have not crawled all this time on my belly with my nails in the earth, along the countless passages of the cavern without glimpsing, far ahead of me, at the end of the unlit gallery, a light, a flame, something doubtless the refelection from the dazzling central laboratory where the wise and the patient have taken God by surprise.”

“I perceived, at the end of a certain time, that I was, for one reason or another, fit for nothing. So I decided to become a poet and rhymester. It’s a profession one can always take up, if one’s a vagabond.”

“To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids. In the fifteenth century everything changed. Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”

“The press, that giant engine, incessantly gorging all the intellectual sap of society, incessantly vomits new material for its work. The entire human race is its scaffolding. Every mind its mason. Even the humblest may block a hole or lay a stone….It is the second Tower of Babel of the human race.”

“One drop of wine is enough to redden a whole glass of water. To tinge a whole company of pretty women with a certain amount of ill-humor, it is enough for just one prettier woman to arrive on the scene–especially when there is but one man present.”

“When one does evil one must do the whole evil.  To be only half a monster is insanity! There is ecstasy in an extreme of crime. A priest and a sorceress can melt in delight together on the straw of a dungeon floor!”

“Every civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.”

Standard
2011 Historical Fiction Challenge, Art, Art History, Book Review, Catholic History, Classical History, Creative Biography, Irving Stone, Italian History, Michelangelo, Reformation, Renaissance

Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a biographical novel of the life of Michelangelo.  The story begins when Michelangelo is a young apprentice and ends with his death at 89.    All in all, the book is put together brilliantly.  Michelangelo was tormented throughout his life – never left to satisfy himself as he was always at the mercy of political and religious leaders’ desires.  The reader is afforded an intimate look at how difficult and dangerous Michelangelo’s days were – Popes, Cardinals, and Political leaders were assassinated regularly; even Michelangelo’s own life was threatened on more than one occasion.  Michelangelo was forced to create at the whim of various Popes for the majority of his life, under threat of being thrown in prison if he were to deny his services to the Vatican.  Not only is the political atmosphere interesting to witness, but so are the personal relationships Michelangelo has with his family and friends, as well as other artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli are all alive and working during Michelangelo’s days (Donatello had died not too many years before), so much of what they are doing, and their works in relation to Michelangelo’s, is included.  Stone gives modern day readers an incredible look at what it was like to live during the Reformation and Renaissance, for the artist and for the everyman.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are so many characters in this book, it is almost ridiculous.  Of course, the book is nearly 800 pages long and spans nearly 80 years of Michelangelo’s life, so this is appropriate.  It was difficult, though, to connect with characters other than Michelangelo.  There are certain people, like Topolino family – stone cutters who tend to be more a family to Michelangelo than his own biological one is- as well as Tommaso and Il Magnifico who are written very well,  even beautifully, and who truly demonstrate the good nature possible in humanity. They are also written (as are some of Michelangelo’s masters) with a clarity of inspiration and impact on Michelangelo’s life and works, so that hundreds of pages (decades of time) after they are no longer in Michelangelo’s life, their presence is still felt in his creation.  Conversely, there are the rotten apples as well – such as the irritating Popes (some better than others, but almost all a nuisance and dictator to Michelangelo) and the disgusting Aretino of Venice, who spends his life earning money by blackmailing others.  The different people and portions of Italy, too, become characters.  There are the Florentines – lusty, artistic, and wealthy; the Romans – dangerous, dark, self-involved; the Carrara – interdependent, suspicious, isolated; the Bolognese – joyous, hearty, uncultured.  As Michelangelo travels and interacts with these different people, their cultures come to life and these too have lasting impact on Michelangelo’s works and methods.  The only complaint would be that Michelangelo is truly the only character in the book to be cared about which, while granting the fact that this is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, is still somewhat disappointing given the number of characters involved.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

It was surprising to find a few grammatical errors in the book, particularly as this is not a first edition and the book was a #1 NYT Bestseller, but one cannot fault the author for items which should have been caught during the editing process.  Those tiny complaints aside, Stone is a powerful and entertaining writer.  His prose and language are both intelligent, yet fluid.  It would be easy to imagine a book of this length, which takes place 500 years ago, being incredibly difficult to read.  Fortunately, this was not the case.  Stone uses many Italian words and phrases for emphasis, but translates these words into English immediately following their use (in dialogue or description).  This is incredibly effective, as it allows the reader to stay in period and to learn something, but also allows the reader to continue the story without confusion or without stops to search for a word’s meaning.   He is also adept at dialogue in general, as well as in timing/transitioning from prose to poetics.  There are moments where the general prose breaks off into a poem, a letter, or a list – and these moments are seamless and natural.  The chapters, too, are an appropriate length and seem to be pre-planned, so that the right amount of information is covered in the correct amount of time (and this information is also cohesive with the present time/situation in the story).  It was not as vividly written as Lust for Life, which at times seemed to read like one was watching a film; but, it was appropriate to the time and mood of Michelangelo’s life and work.  Michelangelo was much less emotionally extroverted than Vincent van Gogh, and his works were more soulful than passionate, so the prose followed appropriately.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is that it was written with the help 495 of Michelangelo’s personal letters (all translated from Italian for the author to create this book specifically), as well as his contracts and professional records.  This is the same method which Stone used to write his brilliant book, Lust for Life, a biographical novel of Vincent van Gogh, and it works again here, just as well.  It took 6 years from the start of research to the completion of the book, and Stone spent many of those years living and researching in Italy, specifically in the various cities where Michelangelo spent much of his time and which were therefore important to his life story.  This incredibly detailed study resulted in a brilliant work that is both factual and creative – much of the dialogue had to be recreated, of course, and specific happenings in Michelangelo’s travels and studies were also necessarily created by Stone.  With so much historical fact, though, and so much based on Michelangelo’s own letters, coupled with the extensive research that Stone did, the book ends up reading as if it were written by a first-hand observer of Michelangelo’s life.  Stone was careful not to take liberties too far, as well; for example, he wrote in the important decades-long relationship between Michelangelo and Tomasso, including the “scandal” that was invented by a jealous fan and known blackmailer of information (contemporary readers should think of a 1500s-era Rita Skeeter) over their relationship; however, he left the nature of that relationship largely open to interpretation, which seems appropriate as there is not much firm evidence to support either opinion (lovers or just master/apprentice).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+

Interest: Art History, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Italian History, Catholic History

Notable Quotes:

“For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.”

“Still, it is true: people who are jealous of talent want to destroy it in others”

“Listen, my friend: it’s easy to get used to the expensive, the soft, the comfortable. Once you’re addicted, it’s so easy to become a sycophant, to trim the sails of your judgment in order to be kept on. The next step is to change your work to please those in power, and that is death to the sculptor.”

“He knew that many artists traveled from court to court, patron to patron, for the most part well housed, fed and entertained; be he also knew he would not be content to do so. He promised himself that one day soon he must become his own man, inside his own walls”

“Art has a magic quality: the more minds that digest it, the longer it lives.”

“Humanism … what did it mean? … “we are giving the world back to man, and man back to him. Man shall no longer be vile, but noble…. Without a free, vigorous and creative mind, man is but an animal and he will die like an animal, without any shred of a soul. We return to man his arts, his literature, his sciences, his independence to think and feel as an individual, not to be bound to dogma like a slave, to rot in his chains”

Standard