As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-tweAs Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unravelling of ignorance and inequality in mine.
For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.
This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.
Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?
I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.
Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves. ...more
No longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grapplNo longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grappling with the strange new worlds blossoming both within and without himself, The Guermantes Way finds our Narrator thrust ever forward into adulthood and the disappointing discovery that grown-ups rarely behave like adults, especially when the pride of ancestral inheritance is on the line and there are duplicitous societal niceties to abide by, while the utterly insignificance and inanity of it all are underscored to devastating though understated effect by the first real taste of loss that this age usually carries with it. This third volume of In Search of Lost Time captures the period when our window to early 20th-century Parisian society is finding his place in it, though, true to his nervous, writer persona, he seems content to observe (now with the emergence of a sly humor) rather than engage with these exalted figures whose human forms slowly pale in comparison to the larger-than-life names he has aggrandized in youth.
It is, I imagine, intentional that battlefield philosophy receives generous attention early in this volume, as everything that follows is revealed to rest upon a framework of military-caliber tactics, from love (or what passes as love within the confines of Proust's created world -- ye gods, do any of these characters know what a healthy relationship actually looks like?) to facing the Grim Reaper as he counts down the minutes to one's predestined departure from this mortal coil to the carefully plotted choreography of maintaining superficial acquaintances to simply navigating daily life among even second-rate society when each moment brings a new potential for detonating reputationally ruinous land mines. If my piecemeal knowledge of foreign-language pronunciations isn't too far off the mark, I'd go so far as to suggest that the first syllable of the titular name is tellingly reminiscent of the French word "guerre."
I am so grateful that the (still somewhat and charmingly naive) Narrator is beginning to see through the shiny veneer of the socialites with whom he spends so much time and is slowly discovering, through both his own astute observations and whatever decidedly reliable tidbits are churned out by the rumor mill, what dirty secrets are hidden just below the surface and who has a limitless number of faces he or she presents according to present company and circumstance -- not to mention the public knowledge that is simply not spoken of unless it's being rehashed in hushed voices. If these vast stretches of recounting one gathering after another weren't full of the Narrator's observations about who's lying to whom, marital fissures slowly widening right before the public's eye, the double-talk that flatters one while slandering another (or are simply backhanded compliments cruelly served to one unlucky individual) and other betrayals of the his unwillingness to swallow the facade presented at these salons, I would have been bored to tears, page after page of gorgeous language or not, because I just don't care about such petty triflings in real life. A moment of the Narrator's blunt honesty echoed my own sentiments while handing them back to me in a beautifully rewrapped package while also illustrating that he was just as bored as I was in danger of becoming if not for his wit, beautiful prose and keen insights making it all worth the effort:
I scarcely listened to those anecdotes, something like the ones M. de Norpois used to tell my father; they afforded no food for my preferred patterns of thought; and, besides, even had they possessed the elements they lacked, they would have needed to be of a highly exciting nature for my inner life to be aroused during those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well groomed, my shirtfront starched--that is to say, hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure.
He does offer such a poetic presentation of these long hours listening to others' witticisms grow stale with every retelling, of gossip masquerading as current events, of current events being reduced to small talk (thanks for the Dreyfus affair primer, V.!) that it was easy for me to forget that the Narrator just wants to lose himself in his hosts' collection of Elstirs (which he does with abandon when finally given the opportunity, like the awkward animal lover who spends most of a party in the corner drunk on liquid courage and cooing not to an attractive stranger but to the party-giver's cat -- not that I have any personal experience there), catch a play and maybe finally start tapping into the creative juices that just won't let the words flow smoothly from his mind to the page. Society is no place for a sensitive man with an artist's soul, as even the most celebrated wit at the salon will eventually turn him into a plaything or a vehicle of immortality, as great painters are demonstrably reduced to mundane portraiture that will only be nitpicked by unappreciative minds for failing to capture the subject's outer beauty and inner glow adequately enough to pacify an aging ego that is fighting the nullification of death with the frivolity of social escapades.
As a sobering reminder of such an inevitability, this volume also sees the loss of the Narrator's beloved grandmother (it's not really a spoiler if the book in question is nearly a century old, right?), whose stroke and rapid decline allow her one last gesture of undying love, as she suffers in valiant silence so as to not upset her family and amends her few voiced complaints to meaningless utterances should they be overheard, lest she further worry those she's about to leave behind. The visible wreckage gathering in the Narrator's mother as she watches her own mother's life ebb away is heartache set to words and makes for one of the most sorrowful sequences I've ever observed as a reader, but also serves as a testament to the humanity with which Proust animates his already estimable writing. The Narrator's own first taste of loss that runs deeper than simple interruption of a mother's nightly affections is the natural foil to the artificial high-society world he so often finds himself in, which emphasizes the skewed perspective of the latter and permanent void of the former.
It seems that a book about recapturing lost times through recollections of the past is bound to memorialize the dead as well as serve as the predictable offspring of a society that is so obsessed with itself that it gleefully, and often maliciously, recounts its own clever turns of phrase when it's not reliving a favorite adversary's shameful misstep. Because if that's not the epitome of living in a moment before it hurries into the fading past, what is?...more
Italo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.
Ever since the rapturous reading experience thItalo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.
Ever since the rapturous reading experience that is If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, I have been hooked on the man's words. As it is with most blossoming relationships, I'm a little wary of coming on too strong or getting too close too quickly and chipping away at the charming veneer of novelty in the throes of my overeager enthusiasm before we've gotten comfortable with each other, but this is the third book of his I've read in a year (exactly a year, actually) and I am just as giddily smitten with Invisible Cities as I was with my aforementioned introduction to Calvino's works and also Cosmicomics.
Invisible Cities clocks in at a seemingly stingy 165 pages, with many pages only half-filled and a number of them left conspicuously blank. But since this is a Calvino novel, his beautiful, beautiful words are only a fraction of the payoff: The ideas, the images, the quiet messages, the prophetic warnings disguised as storytelling, the dreamlike quality licking at the edges of every sentence and even the apparent silences of seemingly unused spaces carry more weight than they would if they were crafted by any other writer's hand. And there is not a sentence that does no warrant savoring with a second or third read in this entire book.
This novel is what happens when two historical figures -- in this case, an elderly but spirited Kublai Khan and the younger traveler Marco Polo -- whose lone commonality is being alive at the same time try to communicate without sharing a language. Polo conveys the cities (or is it just one city's many faces?) he has seen to the emperor through gestures, objects and other nonverbal cues. Like Cosmicomics, it is a map comprising the essences of things; like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the reader becomes part of the narrative as he is welcome to draw his own conclusions just as much as Khan is.
I think I've made it pretty clear in previous reviews that I love duality and the play between opposing forces in my reading materials of choice, probably to the point that I find them in places they don't really live. Invisible Cities has 'em by the fistfuls, though. The palpably dynamic tension between the visible and in-, happiness and misery, the imagined and the real, the living and the dead, the storyteller and his audience, the roaring inferno and the heavenly plains, the finite work of creation and infinite motion of ruin, the image and its mirrored reflection was a delight unto itself, but the additional step of blurring the lines between each extreme with every achingly gorgeous stop on the raconteur's journey through recollection and the listener's odyssey of imagination was exactly the kind of extra mile I expect Calvino to traverse with gusto.
There is an inversion of expectations that gives each push-and-pull pairing of opposites some of the hazy magic that is so particular to Calvino's works. It's not entirely surprising to read about cities where the living envy the cities of their dead to the point of emulation and confusion as to which populous is really alive, or whose people are more at peace with the certainty of obliteration than their earthbound counterparts because their metropolis is built upon a spider-web network of ropes and they are all too aware that their precarious balance could fail at any moment (is there anyone more alive than those who are reminded of death on a daily basis?). But there is a pleasant surprise when the design of a carpet and the layout of a city are echoes of each other; oracles who are consulted about the mystical connection between two unlikely entities only offer the ambiguous insight that "[o]ne of the two objects…. has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation."
While there are common threads and themes woven throughout Polo's narratives, no two cities (or no two faces of the city) are examined in the same way. The cities' signs, desires, dead, names, skies and other shared traits may be explored but never to the same effect. And sometimes seemingly unrelated characteristics make similar points: A city would have no history without its dead, just as its living have no motivation for progress without acknowledging the mistakes upon which a history was built, just as the dead have a peace that the living won't know without forging ahead in life.
There is a sense of concentricity that unites each urban observation, which, along with the interspersed exchanges between emperor and explorer, help move the novel toward its oft-hinted-at augury of urgency that reaches its climax as the stories reach their conclusion, as relevant as it was centuries ago when Marco Polo and Kublai Khan were supposedly having their animated discourse in a garden, as when Invisible Cities was published four decades ago, as when I finished it this morning:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and make them endure, give them space....more
Oh, adolescence. Is there any period of time more frustrating, conflicting and downright disappointing than that too-long span of gawky limbs and endlOh, adolescence. Is there any period of time more frustrating, conflicting and downright disappointing than that too-long span of gawky limbs and endless opportunities for embarrassment? When one's body is alien territory, when one is faced with an onslaught of wholly unfamiliar impulses, when the head and the heart and all of the hormones are battling for control over a vessel that just wants things to make the kind of black-and-white sense they did in the blissfully naive days that are just out of arm's reach but already rapidly fading memories, constantly pushed farther and farther away by the systematic remapping of a formerly recognizable world.
Both Proust's narrator -- still imbued with vestiges of an innocence that can only take root in a childhood shaped by terminal sensitivity -- and his vulnerable heart stumble cautiously and cluelessly beyond youth's idyllic safety zone into the uncharted realm of life after puberty: He is, indeed, alone in the umbra cast by blossoming young girls who have gained his affections but will not share the warmth of their vernal lights with him. One of Proust's most obvious successes with this volume is the familiar poignancy he gives to the fumbling initial efforts of gaining another young heart's favor because, really, did any of us understand the objects of our blindly obsessive desires at that age? Reading this book was like going through all those terrible milestones all over again, only with each misstep beautifully rendered and every confused failure examined with an enviably erudite melancholy that still captures the fatalistic immediacy of all those awful lessons' first cuts.
From the beginning, his understanding that the world he had not long ago regarded with a child's certainty was now turned on its head was apparent, as the feverishly anticipated chance to see his favorite actress results in the kind of shattering disappointment specially reserved for those times when an impossibly idealized dream becomes a vapid reality. This is only the first in a series of crushing blows, though: The narrator's dreams of literary greatness are effectively dismantled by his father's colleague; a beloved writer has little in common with the literary persona he has come to adore; his first taste of love sours with his beloved's cooling interest and cruel neglect; the church at Balbec simply does not live up to his expectations.
But the necessary dethroning of old favorites and the tarnishing of long-upheld ideals make way for the man the narrator is to become, just as childhood's magic sooner or later drains from all those things that once so enthralled our younger selves. It is imperative that the narrator grow tired of such things so he can make new discoveries: His happiness is no longer derived solely from the sensory delights of a delicious feast, the beauty of nature, his mother's love, the wonder of the arts -- though the echoes of these things do reach the core of his soul to move him with their familiar stirrings of joy when they prove to be at their most resplendent moments. With age comes discrimination: As one can no longer live in a constant state of marvel distracting him from the myriad things to be discovered both within and without him, he also must learn what is truly worth his awed regard.
Like all teenagers, the narrator gradually distances himself from his family, focusing on the friendships and infatuations that define life on the brink of adulthood. And, like every teenager I ever knew, some of those friendships are based on convenience rather than a mutual affinity for each other's company. The deepening bond between the narrator and Robert serves as a beautiful foil for the narrator's desperate attempts to tally the redeeming qualities within Bloch, a back-home chum whose coarse manner and general inability to recognize his own countless flaws make his presence difficult to bear even at a reader's safe distance. The two dueling personalities embody the narrator's own wavering balance between youthful indiscretion and the discrimination of experience, highlighting the decay of the former as it becomes unreasonable to cling to such childishness to any longer. Just as not every girl the narrator fancies will return his interest, he no longer has to subscribe to the youthful notion that he ought to be friends with everyone.
Proust's writing is the real star of the show here, with a sumptuous language that just drips poetry from each page. His insights prove time and again that human nature is constant across the ages, even though people themselves are in constant states of adapting to both interior and exterior forces. What I found the most remarkable, though, was the way he takes the tired tradition of similes to positively novel heights by playing two almost diametrically opposing elements against each other to fully express the emotional resonance of a seemingly insignificant moment: A household cook's reverence for her cuisine is likened to Michelangelo's dedication to his art; the fading hope of restoring a broken relationship is akin to the panicked desperation of a wounded man who has drunk his last vial of morphine; "[j]ust as the priests with the broadest knowledge of the heart are those who can best forgive the sins they themselves never commit, so the genius with the broadest acquaintance with the mind can best understand ideas most foreign to those that fill his own works." They take what could be bloated ravings exaggerated to the point of nonsense and translate them into a personal relevance that paints a more accurately vivid representation of a personality than bland narration ever could.
This is people-watching at its finest, a tour of humanity with an unusually tender soul leading the way through his own emergence into adulthood and his discovery of the world around him....more
I feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted toI feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted to be perceived as painfully different or terminally misunderstood or on the verge of absolutely losing their teenage shit) lauded the virtues of this book and how it, like, so totally spoke to them in places they didn't even know they had ears. My own overly judgmental high-school self could not accept even the remote possibility of actual merit lurking between the covers of something that such bland, faux-distraught ninnies clung to like a life raft.
I should probably also apologize for referring to every pair of oven mitts I've ever owned as a pair of Sylvias but I think the lady scribe in question was too mired in real problems to care all that much about my sick amusement's crass reduction.
"The Bell Jar," packed as it was with bleak truths, difficult topics and wryly dark humor, was not at all what I was expecting. Old biases die hard: I couldn't help but brace myself for a trivial tribute to mental imbalances, White Girl Problems and petty complaints disguised as life-ruining moments. What I got was an utter lack of histrionics and a sincere, to-the-point road map of one talented young lady's fight against her inner demons. Sylvia's alter ego Esther Greenwood (let's all take a second to appreciate the sly cleverness of trading "Sylvia" for the fictional surname "Greenwood") is so straightforward in addressing her despair that I couldn't help but extend more sympathy than I thought I could muster to her understated suffering. If nothing else, this book taught me that my own bouts of the blues are simply me being human and could be so much more debilitating: For that clarity of self-awareness alone, I am grateful.
Reading this as I neared the "Infinite Jest" finish line offered necessary perspective that helped me get a better idea of what it must have been like inside such a messy head. The relative ease with which IJ's depressed cast could self-medicate in secret or seek refuge where at least someone was trying to understand the extent of such gaping psychological wounds offered a jarring contrast to the way Sylvia/Esther seemed truly isolated from those who couldn't see how awful it was to live inside herself. While she encountered precious little understanding in both her personal life (Mrs. Greenwood's inability to see her daughter's problem as her daughter's problem instead of wondering what she did wrong just rubbed my modern sensibilities the wrong way) and from the medical professionals who were tasked with helping her rise above the sinking despair she couldn't escape, I finished this fictionalized semi-autobiography 50 years after its publication with a keener understanding of what Sylvia Plath endured than I'm comfortable with. ...more
Like apparently so many others, my love of Bukowski led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as weLike apparently so many others, my love of Bukowski led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as well kiss your ass goodbye," my literary hero asks one of his own, "Sir.... that first novel, did you really eat your own / flesh as a young writer? were you that / hungry?," leaving me to ask how can one NOT give in to curiosity when presented with bait that's so temptingly flavored with desperation and meat of the scribe? Besides, reading the very book that left such an irreversible impact on Buk the same way that his poetry has affected me was the kind of atemporal unity of shared reading experiences that makes me love discovering my favorite writers' favorite writers even more.
If I hadn't realized a long time ago that the romance surrounding the life of a starving artist is more of a well-manufactured lie than an honest portrayal of an uncertain existence that's fraught with so many basic concerns that any hope of creative output is thwarted by the much more biologically imperative pursuits of food and shelter, Hunger would have been a rude awakening.
Ostensibly, this is about a homeless, jobless and increasingly hairless writer's slow descent into madness through hunger: hunger for food, for shelter, for adequate company, for letting his talent flow from his brain through his pencil to the page. He is completely at the mercy of the notion that creative greatness can't be rushed and he suffers poignantly (and sometimes with a dark humor) for it. He goes days without eating, he pawns his possessions nearly to nakedness, he chews on wood chips (and, yes, his own fingers) for sustenance, he sleeps outside as a brutally cold Scandinavian winter bears down on his little patch of Norway. It is the ultimate ballad for what can be sacrificed in order to live through just one more unforgiving day, how the hope of publication propels the despondent writer in his peregrinations.
As the story trundles on and Hamsun avails himself (or attempts to, being limited not by his own fading conscience but rather the standards of those to whom he tries selling his possessions) of everything down to the buttons of his coat, it becomes increasingly clear that those who are blessed with talents they are meant to share with the world can stand to lose everything of material worth so long as they keep those precious mental facilities about them, as evidenced by Hamsun's mounting fear of permanent madness: Losing his mind for good means that he has lost the one true asset that is the essence of his being and, at a survival level, makes him economically viable again so he can afford to focus on the outpouring of words that he is so clearly meant to leave behind as inspiration to generations of his literary successors....more
A mere 10-minute drive has separated me from my college best friend since March. Even with my knack for getting hopelessly lost in the wilds of CentraA mere 10-minute drive has separated me from my college best friend since March. Even with my knack for getting hopelessly lost in the wilds of Central Jersey, it’s the shortest distance between us since our days as roomies; unsurprisingly, however, life since we graduated six years ago has been filled with things like work and conflicting schedules and living with significant others whose company we actively enjoy and our shared inclination for decompressing in fabulously introverted ways, which means that we don't get to see each other as frequently as we would in a perfect world.
When she got engaged last month, I was among the first to know. And when she announced her happy news, it was in nearly the same breath that she asked me to be her matron of honor. It’s not like I've been writing my MOH speech in preparation for Maureen's nuptials since college or anything, which is rather fitting: Though our friendship didn’t blossom until we found each other through mutual friends in the final days of our sophomore year, she and I first crossed paths in a freshman oratory class wherein our final project -- a toast of some nature -- was called off when our professor had a family emergency that semester.
Maureen's really the first girl friend who I let bring out the unabashedly, endlessly silly THIS IS MY BESTIE FOR ALWAYS AND I LUUUURVE HER SO MUCH behavior that has punctuated our friendship. Until we glommed onto each other in the wake of another friend's tragedy early in our junior year, I'd thought of myself as someone who'd always have peripheral female friends and much closer guy friends. Not to say that my high-school gal pals weren't an awesome bunch -- they were then and they still are now -- but I didn't know how to appreciate who they were until much later. It took meeting my twin-to-be in some friends’ dorm room as our sophomore year was drawing to a rapid close to realize that I'd spent years looking for this sister figure right in front of me. When I hesitantly friended her after a truly neurotic internal dialogue that summer on LiveJournal ("Is this stalkery?"; "Was she only humoring me and secretly wishing I'd shut the hell up?"; "Will she think I'm trying too hard to be her friend?"; etc.) only to discover that her username referenced "Tristan and Iseult," I had a nagging suspicion that I had discovered a kindred spirit after a lifetime of right-person-wrong-time that neatly summarizes my self-inflicted messy track record with people to that point.
I was proven more right than I could've optimistically imagined when another mutual friend later christened us as twins, which is still how we squealingly address each other. She and I do have a staggering many things in common, save for her ability to, like, actually plan things (an area in which I fail with joyful abandon). So when we recently found ourselves with simultaneously out-of-state mates, she and I had every intention of cramming a whole lot of wedding stuff into an uncharacteristically sans-SO weekend. Actually, I had every intention of catching up on the reading that stupid work kept interrupting but if there's one thing that trumps solitary bookworming, it's a two-day romp through the tri-state area with my beloved and sorely missed twin.
Our university days were a blur of turning the college radio station (Maureen's territory) and college newspaper office (mine, and also her then-boyfriend's) into The Place to Be at Next-Morning-o'-Clock, nursing one cup of coffee after another in flagrant abuse of her Starbucks employee discount, trips to New Hope or Princeton for the hell of it or wherever our friends' makeshift bands were playing that weekend, scenic everythings for mutual shutterbugging, harassing the same roadies over and over again for a setlist after the show, and geeking the hell out over our shared affinities for things like British lit, British bands and British spellings. So when she turned to me during our recent drive through Bucks County and said something along the lines of "Screw the bridal show, wanna go to New Hope?" and later "Oh damn, looks like we'll be spending tomorrow in New York" while ogling dresses from her living room couch, it was like we were carefree co-eds with time to kill together all over again.
So maybe I did do the content of my first non-required taste of Virginia Woolf a great disservice by tackling it in tiny pieces over the course of a month. But having Orlando on the brain while clumsily prancing around in pretty dresses in NYC boutiques, while examining tiny treasures together in New Hope shops (where we found a whole stash of outofprintclothing.com goodies!), while making a mad dash through the Met in the hour before it closed as she played tour guide (where I discovered a love of art I didn't know she possessed) more than made up for that by reminding me of what it means to experience a feminine love to the point where you want to write pages and pages detailing all the things that make this woman uniquely magical so other people come to love this quirk and that idiosyncrasy, too. And I think that, more than anything else, drove home the spirit of the novel better than an uninterrupted reading experience may have. Maureen and I might not have shared the physical intimacy that Virginia and Vita did (I mean, aside from the constant boob grabs and thigh gropes) but she's certainly someone who gets me in a way few others do.
There was so much of Orlando him/herself that had the part of me that needs to find myself in every artwork, song, film and book I love underlining passage after passage in a story that, like my twin, I first encountered as a college freshman but didn't fully appreciate until later. Thanks to my first big-girl's film-appreciation class, I was introduced to the whimsy of "Orlando" via its cinematic incarnation during the same semester I read "A Room of One's Own," which should have been enough to make me a fan of VW had being an English major not left me with such an incongruous lack of reading time (speaking of things that never change....). Anyway. The things I foggily recall from the film -- frozen bodies underwater, positively scrumptious costumes, blocking choreographed down to an inch -- came screaming back and actually started adding to the sweeping narrative of this gorgeous novel.
But when I saw "Orlando" nearly a decade ago, I had no idea that the novel itself was dedicated to Vita, nor did I know that Woolf's lady lover inspired the titular gender-bending character. Knowing that, plus having a better understanding of the historical guideposts that pop up throughout Orlando's centuries-long existence, turned this novel into the best kind of brain candy. I'm a sucker for literary allusions by the armful and lush symbolism (I'd rave about my late-to-the-party realization that Orlando is the oak tree she'd been immortalizing in verse for 300-some pages but hasn't this so-called review gone on long enough?) and pages soaked in true-to-life humanity, so it's only natural that I'd enjoy Virginia's ode to a woman for whom her passionate love most definitely stands the test of time. Way to throw down the gauntlet for the rest of us, Woolf. Challenge accepted....more