Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Hard
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Here’s a summary of Orlando: a lonely young man with nice legs (very nice, we are repeatedly assured) gets dumped by a Russian princess after their ice river carnival was swept away in a sudden thaw. He’s sad for a while, and decides to go abroad as a royal ambassador. Then one night, in a flurry of trumpets and Spensarian theatrics, Orlando transforms into a woman for some reason (who still has nice legs). And everyone’s cool with it, though she does need to go through a lengthy legal process to retain ownership of her property now that she’s a woman. So she returns to England, and spends time writing poetry and hosting famous poets at her estate. Eventually, Orlando wins her lawsuit for her property and decides to marry a sea captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (seriously). They then live happily ever after for at least several hundred years.

I love Orlando for how un-seriously it takes itself. There aren’t many ‘great English authors’ who were willing to let themselves have this much fun. Even when composing parodies or satires they’re always very serious about their art and their reputations, but perhaps Woolf cared less because she had other reasons for writing this novel. Orlando is often called the ‘longest love-letter in literature’ because it was written for Woolf’s close friend and sometimes lover Vita Sackville-West, represented by the character Orlando. In Virginia’s eyes, Vita transcended the limitations of gender, time, and place, so Orlando does too (she must have had very nice legs too, if the pattern holds). I find it incredibly romantic that one of the most radical and celebrated novels of the 20th century sprung from such a relationship. What a monument to the lover!

While Orlando is one of Woolf’s most accessible novels, it’s still written in dense, high-modernist fashion and may prove a bit difficult at times. Goofy as the plot can be, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud comedy though it does have its moments. It’s a bit difficult to say how the character Orlando would be labelled in our current moment. The concept of transgender didn’t really exist at the time, and Orlando continued to dress as both man and woman as it suited them, suggesting that neither their male or female version is more correct than the other. The obvious term might be ‘genderfluid,’ but Woolf had some slightly different ideas about the relationship between the masculine and feminine. In A Room Of One’s Own, she muses upon the necessity for the artist to be “man-womanly” or “woman-manly” in order to consider all points of view and achieve lasting art. I find this interesting to consider in our era of names and labels. What if, fifty years from now, we discover we’ve had this whole gender thing wrong the whole time? Or some other aspect of sex and sexuality that we treat as fact today? Orlando helps us think about those questions, and so it remains one of the more important LGBT+ books yet written.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. Indeed, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. DIvine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Difficulty: Medium
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Ursula Le Guin was one of the most prominent figures in the science fiction New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which introduced a greater variety of voices to the genre and refocused on peoples and cultures rather than potential technologies. It’s difficult to overstate how groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness was when it was first published in 1969. Many sci-fi writers had dabbled with alien sex and gender before, but they did so in the same way they might give that alien an extra arm or eye; it still wasn’t something normal or natural to them, or even human. But in Le Guin’s work, these issues are nothing if not human. Her explicit goal was to “[eliminate] gender, to find out what was left”, and the result was a near-universally acclaimed classic work of literature.

Genly Ai is a human emissary tasked with contacting the planet of Gethen to invite them into the Ekumen, a galactic confederation of planets. For most of each month the Gethenians are androgynous, and only assume a male or female sex as needed when they enter their period of sexual fertility. The effective non-existence of gender has caused Gethenian culture to develop in ways never before seen by humans, and this creates a cultural gap Genly Ai must struggle to overcome. Together with his Gethenian patron, Estraven, he journeys across the planet and learns to navigate its complex political and cultural structures to accomplish his mission.

What I admire most about Le Guin’s writing is her ability to secure buy-in from skeptical readers. Her world-building is meticulous and strategic, designed to respond to those who might claim that her ideas are delusional and have nothing to do with humanity. All she asks of her readers is that they listen, even if they’re skeptical, because if they start to listen then she can start to change their minds. The Left Hand of Darkness is more like an anthropological journal than a galactic space-opera, but it still has a clear plot and narrative arc. The relationship between Genli and Estraven is ambiguous and dynamic, and there’s a nice dose of political intrigue to keep events moving. Plus, there’s cool sci-fi stuff like space travel, telepathy, and prophesying, which keeps the book interesting all the way through.

Also, nobody can make me like the ugly 50th anniversary cover 😡