Review of Orlando: A Biography

Image result for orlando a biography harcourtWhat was it about? 

At the start of the novel, Orlando is a teenage page to Elizabeth I in 16th century England. He serves as an ambassador while writing poetry and plays. He even falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha. At the age of 30, he suddenly transforms into a 19th century woman. As a woman in Victorian England, Orlando faces limitations that she had not faced as a man. Her loves and interests remain the same, but she struggles to find her voice. Even as a man, Orlando didn’t know how to write good poetry. What does good poetry look like anyway? Who gets to decide? As a woman, Orlando wonders if she should even pursue writing. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is a nonstandard Bildungsroman replete with meditations on history, historiography, time, memory, gender, sexuality, love, and literature.

What did I think of it?

What is a biography? That is one of the major questions explored in Orlando: A Biography. Is a biography a slavishly literal retelling of a person’s life? If not, what are the details most important in a person’s life? Perhaps, a biography is never really a history of a single individual. But what sources do we use, and most importantly, how do we interpret them? Orlando writes dozens of works, but what do/can they tell us about the author’s identity or the author’s political, social, and literary context? Historiography is a field that particularly interests me. Memory is not simply the recollection of past events:

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.

Life experience and authorial intent influence the understanding of past events.

Orlando is quite an enigmatic character. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a boy but becomes a woman at the age of 30. Therefore, gender and sexuality are prominent themes in this biography. Virginia Woolf wrote about gender as a social construct almost a century ago. She challenged the belief that gender is a binary:

Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.

Orlando’s love for literature and Sasha remain constants, but society dictates what people of different genders can and cannot do. As a trans/gender nonconforming individual, Orlando struggles to fit into the societies of early modern and modern England.But does it matter what people think? Where does individual identity stop and social influence begin?

Orlando: A Biography was the perfect book to read for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted this month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader. If you have had difficulty reading Woolf’s works in the past, I recommend Orlando. It is more straightforward than her other works. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows her to say things that simply cannot be communicated as powerfully in traditional prose. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read (the first was Mrs. Dallowayand it simply reinforced my conviction that Woolf is one of the greatest prose writers in the English-speaking world.

Favorite Quotes

And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.

Other stuff I read this year…

I haven’t made too many posts this year. This is mostly because I have very peculiar research interests that I doubt too many followers of Exploring Classics care much about: late medieval and early modern religion and philosophy. I’ve read 33 books this year, but I haven’t written reviews for even half of them. And I don’t think I will. But in case you’re interested, here’s a list of some of my favorites this year in no particular order:

1) The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried (here is an extract)

Image result for the middle ages johannes fried

If you want a good introduction to the Middle Ages, this is it. In a little over 600 pages, Fried covers a lot of ground without being superficial. The author is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt; he is a leading historian in the field. Most recently, he published a massive introduction to Charlemagne, which I hope to get to soon. The Middle Ages traces major philosophical, religious, artistic, technological, and political movements through the ages. Particular emphasis is on the history of the Germanic lands. England and Scandinavia get scant treatment. The political sections were also admittedly hard to understand because Fried, unfortunately, does not supply us with any maps. Still, this is the best introduction to the Middle Ages I’ve ever encountered. Fried’s thesis is that what we now call the Middle Ages actually paved the way for the 18th century Enlightenment. Medievalists know that Fried is right, but the average reader still thinks of the Middle Ages as barbaric and dark. The Middle Ages is definitely the best book on this time period you will find in the bookstore. Most popular books on the Middle Ages are just plain awful.

2) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown

Brown’s 1968 biography of the great bishop of Hippo spearheaded modern Augustinian studies. Peter Brown is a big name in Late Antiquity, and this biography is well-written and engrossing. It has been cited by every Augustine scholar since. Augustine is definitely the most influential and controversial Christian thinker in the West. He is responsible for the bitter debates Christians have had in the past 1600 years about original sin, predestination, grace, the human will, and church and state. But it is Augustine the man whom Peter Brown concerns himself with the most. By the end of the book you feel like you’ve known Augustine your whole life. I have never read a greater biography.

3) Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Image result for confessions augustine maria

Phenomenal work! I especially loved Augustine’s commentary on true vs. false mercy, memory, and the limitations of language to talk about a reality.

O God, most high, most deep, and yet nearer than all else, most hidden yet intimately present, you are not framed of greater and lesser limbs; you are everywhere, whole and entire in every place, but confined to none. In no sense is our bodily form to be attributed to you, yet you have made us in your own image, and lo! here we are, from head to foot set in our place!

My 16 year-old self hated it for its intellectualism and pessimism. But my 24 year-old self loved the brutal honesty and humanity of this autobiography.

4) Archbishop Anselm: Bec Missionary, Canterbury Primate, Patriarch of Another World by Sally N. Vaughn

Image result for archbishop anselm: bec missionary, canterbury

Archbishop Anselm is one of the most recent books in the Archbishops of Canterbury series, and it is written by the living Anselm scholar, Sally Vaughn. While Anselm is mostly known as a scholastic, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury under the 2nd and 3rd Norman kings William Rufus and Henry I. As bishop, he was involved in the 12th century Investiture Controversy. Vaughn has spent decades studying Anselm’s archiepiscopal career. While Richard Southern argued that Anselm was reluctant to assume the office, Vaughn insists that Anselm always desired it. Archbishop Anselm is a masterpiece of historical criticism. Vaughn demonstrates convincingly that what Southern took on face value was actually a trope concealing Anselm’s true intentions. The weakest section of the book is the one on Anselm’s scholastic writings, written mostly while the bishop was in exile. Vaughn fails to consider Anselm’s writings in the context of older thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo, but that is not Vaughn’s main concern in this book. Much has already been written about Anselm’s theological views. It’s his archiepiscopal career that we know less about, so Vaughn has done us a great service. Never before published letters from Anselm to monks, kings, and popes are also included in Latin and modern English in the appendix.

5) The Friars: The Impact of the Mendicant Orders on Medieval Society by C.H. Lawrence

The Friars by C.H. Lawrence

The title is pretty self-explanatory. This is a brief introduction to the history of the friars from the 13th century to the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Lawrence not only introduces us to the Catholic mendicants, he also discusses the radical preachers in the same time period who were condemned as heretics. Most people don’t realize that Francis of Assisi was not the first preacher of radical poverty. There were literally hundreds in his lifetime. Many were heavily persecuted, such as the Waldensians, Albertines, Humiliati, and Albigensians. The new Franciscans were not embraced with open arms either. Pope John XXII condemned Franciscan poverty as heretical, claiming that Christ and his disciples owned property. William of Ockham, in nominalist fashion, condemned the pope as an anti-pope, was excommunicated, and lived under the protection of the not-so Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (he was excommunicated 4 times!) until his death. Ockham may have been rehabilitated before his death, but his life bore witness to the tension existing in Late Medieval Catholicism on the eve of the Reformation when a whole new wave of radical and magisterial preachers emerged. The friars contributed to the spirituality, intellectual advancements, horrors, and scandals of the late medieval world.

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Review of O Pioneers!

Image result for o, pioneersWhat was it about?

After the death of her parents, Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant, becomes responsible for the well-being of her three brothers and for the running of the family homestead. Her friend Carl Linstrum suddenly leaves Nebraska for Chicago in hopes of making a fortune. When he returns after 13 years, Alexandra learns that Carl is on his way to Alaska. He has never found his place in the world. He is not alone. Marie Shabata is in a love-less marriage, and Ivar has earned the name “Crazy Ivar” for his outlandish mystical views. Faced with so many responsibilities, Alexandra does not have time to tend to her own personal needs. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather explores love and friendship in the beautiful but unforgiving Nebraska plains.

What did I think of it?

What can I say? Willa Cather has produced yet another literary masterpiece. Like My ÁntoniaO Pioneers! chronicles the lives of immigrants from Scandinavia. In fact, O Pioneers! and My Antonia are the first and third books in Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy. The Nebraska plains are stunningly beautiful, but the immigrants who live in the region have only one thing on their mind – survival. Alexandra is forced to take on many responsibilities as a young woman, but she and her friends are constantly scrutinized by her two older brothers. The woman runs the homestead, but it never really belongs to her. Alexandra takes care of everyone else, but no one takes care of her. People marry for purely economic reasons, so romance, if it exists at all, is found outside of marriage. Willa Cather is one of the three most poetic writers I’ve ever encountered (the other two being Marilynne Robinson and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).She can pack so much emotion into a phrase. While I thought My Ántonia was a more powerful work, the female characters in O Pioneers! are more compelling. If you love character studies, you will enjoy Cather’s novels.

Favorite Quote

“There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain.”

Review of Giovanni’s Room

Image result for giovanni's roomWhat was it about?

Giovanni’s Room is told from the perspective of David who recalls the time he was in Paris, away from his fiancée Hella and in a relationship with a barman named Giovanni. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Giovanni has been executed though we do not know his crime. The rest of the book is told in flashback and anecdotally. Hella is in Spain while David has an affair with Giovanni whom he met at a gay bar. David is torn between desire and guilt, not sure whether to continue his relationship with Hella, return to the U.S., or stay with Giovanni. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David struggles to accept his sexuality, make major life decisions, and relate to his father.

What did I think of it?

James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room in 1956, long before gay rights received any serious consideration in the United States. But although the work deals primarily with sexuality, it also touches on family, the woman’s place in society, moral responsibility, and national identity.

This work really reminded me of Sartre’s Nausee and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In all three works the narrators are pretty unpleasant characters with similar personalities, but their relationships and existential crises are so beautifully and hauntingly described. While the story of Giovanni’s Room is not very eventful, the prose is absolutely gorgeous. Giovanni is a very lovable character despite the crime he commits. I look forward to reading more works by James Baldwin.

Favorite Quote

[Giovanni] laughed. “Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”

Augustine and the Bizarre Creatures

I’m currently listening to Augustine’s City of God. It definitely shows its age. His Confessions is much more timeless. LibriVox is a great resource (there is even an app for that). I don’t have the patience to read the work. I listen to it in the background while I’m cleaning. Some passages are brilliant, but most are either outdated, irrelevant, or superfluous. It’s not necessarily Augustine’s fault. He lived in the 4th century and wrote City of God in the early 5th after the sack of Rome by Alaric. If you are interested (as I am) in medieval history you should read it because it was highly cited by theologians, philosophers, and especially political leaders beginning in the Carolingian Empire.

In Chapter 8 of Book XVI, Augustine describes what is taught in the secular histories of his day. These things were believed by people until the modern era. Too funny!

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended.  For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:”they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth.  So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee:  they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet.  Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities.  What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.

With beliefs such as these it is no wonder that xenophobia reigned supreme.