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Red Sky At Morning. Bad Day at Black Rock. The Kids Are Alright. The Magnificent Seven. For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. So wrote Vita Sackville-West, celebrated writer, celebrated hostess.
I love this quote. It reminds me of Woolf catching moths as a child with her father. There is something so practical, so physical a gesture informing the attitude of both these writers: so typically muscular, so bodily and lived. The catching of wayward things with nets and then pinning them down. Woolf often talked about the passing of time, but denying the power of time to pass seems so integral an aspect of her work as a writer.
All her pasts are rekindled, all her memories refreshed by the magical vivacity of her writing. Some butterflies survive the bottle and prove immortal. By the time she came to write Orlando, she had written three novels, all concerned with the project of revisiting — reanimating — intimately lived experience. This reanimation, together with an acceptance of the inevitability of transformation, multiplicity, inclusion and evolution, marks Woolf as a profoundly spiritual writer, as well as the formally modern one she is esteemed to be. This book, this slender plaything of an excursion, is, perhaps, the most transgressive experiment she ever made: the merging of a double-exposure portrait, in the vernacular of her paternal inheritance, as a kind of talisman of hopefulness and carefree abandon toward something better than a brightening future — rather a glorious, trustworthy present.
I was at school near Sevenoaks, within a short walk of Knole, and one of my school chums was a Sackville-West. Like Orlando — like Vita — I had grown up in an old house and looked like the people in the paintings on the stairs, mainly ruffed, mustachioed, velvet-covered men. We all posed formally in front of bits of furniture, strung together on a high family tree like so many forgotten party balloons caught in the branches.
Like Orlando, I wrote poetry. In my adolescent fantasy I read this book and believed it was a hallucinogenic, interactive biography of my own life and future. For me, this trifle of phantasmagoria has always been a practical manual. A tourist guide to human experience, the best of wise companions. At least, it was my first: a message in a bottle from an imaginary friend.
I reread it now, 35 years later, and I am struck by its capacity to change like a magic mirror. Where I once assumed it was a book about eternal youth, I now see it as a book about growing up, about learning to live. I played the part of Orlando. Twenty years later, Orlando is still the name by which I am best known in Russia, to which I readily answer on streets throughout the world.
In my attic is a box containing two of the costumes Orlando wore in the film. One day, I know my son will find them and try them on. It gave reliable faith in everything being true all at once: boy and girl, bloodline and blood pulse, England and everywhere else, solitude and society, literature and living, the quick and the slow, the quick and the dead, now and then, a trick of the light. I see now that at any point in a life of any length, when our relentless distractions lapse for a moment and there is that sudden flash of inspired clarity in which we see that all that life is about is nature, breathing in and out and keeping your head high until you drop, Orlando is the book to put under your pillow and rest upon.
This is an edited version of the introduction to a new Canongate edition of Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Love puzzles?
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