Book Review-“Orlando” by Virginia Woolf

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Title-                  Orlando

Author-             Virginia Woolf

Genre-              Fictional biography/ historical biography/ fantasy/ satire/                                                             modernism/magical realism

Theme-            Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/                                                              conformity/ flow of time/ identity

 

Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Though, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.

It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.

Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare’s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)

The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.

The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.

Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.

Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).

Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!

A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander Pope ( Rape Of The Lock), Joseph Addison( Spectator) and Jonathan Swift( Gulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).

The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.

In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.

Copyright © deepanairrp

 

‘Crime And Punishment’ – By Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Literary Movement   – Realism.

Literary Genre  – Psychological fiction, philosophical fiction.

Setting    –    Russian Empire, St. Petersburg.

 My review

My third try beating the brain out, mustering all idle neurons on the qui vive for delving into the allegories and nuances of Raskolnikov’s thought process that is something akin to a weathercock. The first two readathons seemed like Chinese arithmetic, more like the transcript of Graeco- Roman theatre played in St. Petersburg, that my muddle-pated neurons couldn’t make the head or tail of it nor read between the lines. One of the best ten classic fictions of all times couldn’t be a no-brainer either- Cela va sans dire. So this time, the lecture notes, analysis and summary at the ready and at a click of the mouse helped to see the lost thread in a new light. And the translation by LarissaVolokhonsky and Richard Pevear is on par with the work itself.
               

                 Intellectually exacting and viscerally overpowering, the metaphysical elements are still beyond me. Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller, a rigmarole of a crime, no less than murder, justified by the logic of the protagonist, a new esoteric theory put forward by him, that had been put to test. The rationales of the murder are multifarious- poverty, inequality, tug of war between his moral compass and necessitude to name a few. As Sonia( the protagonist’s future lover) mentions in the story, no matter what, the hideousness of the crime merits confession and so punishment as no one could take a life for whatever reason. 
           

                Dostoyevsky’s novels are the culture media of new ideas and propositions, by and large, those that had been making rounds in 19-th century Russia in particular, insanity theories, for instance. They depict the societal milieu and vices like drunkenness, debauchery, adultery prevalent during the century. The Marxist theory of dialectical materialism( conflict as caused by material needs) is alluded to in a conversation between the protagonist and others in the novel.

             Nineteenth century Russia was a breeding ground of intellectuals and the burgeoning readership buttressed the literati in propounding various theories, out of the box at times, and to make them seep into the minds of masses. Strikingly, many parts of the novel betray the thought processes and religious convictions of the author. Critics inveigh against his support for the Tsars and antisemitism ( ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ has repulsive instances of this), his anti-Jewish stance much more toxic than Charles Dickens, notoriously known for his execrable antisemitism.

Review of ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’

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                               Rebecca Skloot in her debut science-based non-fiction deals with the journey of Henrietta Lacks, contributor to the famous He La cell line, to immortality. She also discusses the early stages of tissue culture, how the He La cells transformed the fields of cytology, cancer research, virology, genetics, chemotherapy through years of research, it’s implications in almost every area of medicine, tribulations endured her posterity and the ever-relevant topic of ethics in scientific research.

                             Early and mid 20 th century medicine had been so overshadowed by racism and permeated by the insidious and festering ideas of eugenicist theories that the essence of medical science had often been jettisoned by parochial, condescending physicians and researchers. As we navigate Henrietta’s biography, it is interesting to mull over the paradox of ‘benevolent deception’ touched upon by the author, the term itself being self-contradictory. Nevertheless, whether her gynecologist Dr. Jones and John Hopkins researchers and physicians had been benevolent enough not to add oil to the fire of cancer diagnosis by withholding it’s sinisterness from her thus aiding and abetting her death or whether they had been unwittingly naive and deceptive in misdiagnosing the type and extent of malignancy is debatable, given the incipiency of cancer management and research then. Much more contestable is the justifiability of procuring and harvesting Henrietta’s cells without the knowledge or permission of her near and dear, the diverse sentiments of which are dealt with in the epilogue, shedding light on the ethicality of tissue research, by platoons of pro and anti-tissue ownership rights crusaders.

                           The bigoted and invidious practices towards patients in the first half of the twentieth century had been much lofty as to tilt the equations of ethics and norms away from a soi-disant plebeian race to such an ignoble extent that the boundaries of conscience, ethics, and oaths were routinely transgressed in delivering care to the indigents. Yet, ethics has always been a thorn in the flesh of medical history. An example being the sensitive issue of euthanasia where ethical dilemma of decision making contravenes legality. Other downsides from the medical fraternity’s perspective are the liability on the physician to bring forth the burden of proof or the denial of the benefit of doubt from the public even though life-saving decisions need to be prioritized and executed in good faith. 

                            In this context is the need for physicians to be proficient in juggling the priorities, treading the fine line of mental maths, a sort of acrobatics for which many of the noble jugglers are ill-trained, at best. Most of the medical schools do not cater to the topics of ethics and etiquettes in their curriculum or those that include them just makes a passing reference over a few sessions. The gravity of the topic rationalizes the incorporation of these as a distinct subject.

                           In Henrietta’s case, she inadvertently lent her hand and cells to medical innovations that turned out to be the elixir of life for many, in the process growing to a cause celebre in the history of tissue culture. Though medicine has come of age and the past specters of puritanical eugenic misadventures exorcized, ethics is still a hot-button issue, it’s complexity being shaped by determinants like subjectivity, intangibility, unfathomableness, religious, geographic and cultural influences.

                         Since the progression of science is far-fetched without pushing the limits, often the black and white facileness ought to be smudged to grey zones and hard and fastness tweaked to pliancy so as to fit into the tailor-made molds of necessity and enterprise in the course of research-based furtherance. While there are specific laws regarding human experimentation for research that sprouted from the Nuremberg trials and these are universal, regulations for tissue research is still somewhat murky and in its infancy.

                        That doesn’t mean, as a physician or researcher, one has done with it once the patient or subject initialed the consent form. Their accountability only begins there, in seeing to it that by pushing the limits they are never crossed, by holding on firmly to the pledge of ‘ Do No Harm’. 

Copyright © deepanairrp

The untrammeled masterpiece of Gustave Flaubert- ‘Sentimental Education’

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Gustave Flaubert was a nineteenth-century French novelist, whose works include the famous ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Salammbo’.

‘Sentimental Education'(1869), when published, was something of a shock that left most of its readers receiving it in a cold, hostile way. It is a Naturalist novel belonging to the genre Bildungsroman or apprentice-novel(coming of age novel), a boho work in the nineteenth century France.

By the same name, Flaubert had written another novel(1845) when he was twenty- three, before this one. That too was an apprentice- novel. The 1845 novel depicts the relative nature of success and failure in the contrasting areas of Art and Life on the same line as Goethe in his ‘Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship’. But, the conclusion of Flaubert was the polar opposite of Goethe who glorifies the bourgeois life to Art.

In Flaubert’s antithetical representation of Art and Life in the first ‘Sentimental Education’, the protagonist who embraces Art succeeds, while the other one fails. But this has something to do with the France of 1840s where Art was epitomized and the bourgeois way of life( Tatigkeit) deplored. In his second Sentimental Education, a certain haziness of conclusion is felt, though the perspective of readers from a particular period of time is significant. A reader of today could feel his aesthetic and perfectionist style, as compared to the common readers of the 1860’s France. Still, contemporary Naturalist novelists of Flaubert’s time, like Emile Zola had recognized it as ‘ a most audacious and difficult composition’. During his time, such an attempt at Realism was literally unheard of.

What makes the narration distinct is its uninterrupted flow just as the daily life in France of that time. And such a realistic approach to fiction was unprecedented at that time. According to Flaubert himself,’ It is too real and what’s lacking is falseness of perspective’.

Set in the backdrop of the 1848 Revolution, the story revolves around Frederic and his unconsummated love. This makes the novel, in the genre of historical fiction as well. At one time, while writing it, he had even mused of how the background could swamp the foreground of the novel in the case of a historical fiction.

Frederic’s chaste and virtuous love for Madame Arnoux has its echo from Flaubert’s fruitless love for Elisa, a woman considerably older than himself. His passion for Elisa leaves its thinly veiled marks in most of his initial semi-autobiographical works. For Frederic, Madame Arnoux is an ideal like Art, an angelic soul, a beatific presence, not to be defiled. Such a romantic passion had indeed been out of the box in the bourgeois society of France. The ideal of Madame Arnoux is contrasted with the reality of Rosanette, a harlot.

Flaubert was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. He used to revisit and edit his writings many times until it peaked the artistic perfection of ‘ prose with the rhythm of poetry’. He was not as prolific in churning out works as his contemporaries, due to this. Marcel Proust had mentioned the poetry of Flaubert’s prose in his 1920 essay. The scrupulous portrayal of life won him as many critics as admirers. His romantic cum realist writing style has greatly influenced many 20th-century writers like Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Deslaurier is the other main protagonist in the novel, who sacrifices his life for power as Frederic did for love. Both turn out to be unsuccessful in their respective endeavors, yet possessing the world wisdom to laugh off their follies in a bantering way, in the end. It is difficult for those without a firm grip on the history of French Revolution, art and literature of the nineteenth century to grasp the arts vocabulary in the novel( a profusion of luminary names in the arts and philosophy fields flash by, whom I am not at all familiar with, so that was cumbersome). Sentimental Education is a literary masterstroke, not easy to read, but, familiarizing us with Flaubert’s style on each re-read.