Virginia Woolf had vast knowledge and immense skills as a writer.
In a way, she had a lot to play with. But she didn't usually act playful as a writer.
And then there's "Orlando."
"She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts."
--Virginia Woolf, "Orlando"
It seemed as if it might be time to re-read "Orlando" because there it was lying at the sidewalk a few steps off Market Street in the Castro on a day when rain was predicted in the afternoon.
On a bright summer day, I could have left it where it was assuming that someone else concerned with gender identity issues, good writing, and love, love, love would pick it up later, but not in soggy late November.
I had to pick up this copy I have here of "Orlando" to keep it in the category of "something any number of people might read and out of the category of "soggy trash."
But I wasn't quite in the mood to just start at the start and read it. So I opened it and read this paragraph and that.
Which is a excellent way to read "Orlando" this second time around.
In a way, "Orlando" is a bouquet of writing riffs that Virginia Woolf wrote when she was in a really good mood because she was in love with Vita Sackville-West. It is, in the edition the sidewalk gave me, a 329-page love letter to Vita Sackville-West.
Things which she likes a lot about Vita Sackville-West include:
1. Everything: her very existence.
2. Her courage which largely consists of not caring what people think--which is closely related to
3. Her aristocratic family. Woolf loves that Vita's family is old. Even as she is smart enough to know that all families are equally old, she enjoys writing that Orlando's family has always been aristocratic, that "his fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads."
4. Her androgyny. Orlando is a character who lives through several centuries of English history being sometimes a man and sometimes a woman. This is what the book is best known for though flipping through it now I feel news that is as big is "See a talented experimental writer in a really good mood. See her show off for her girlfriend. See her do easy-to-understand (because the girlfriend hasn't the patience to read anything hard when she could be in the garden gardening) word tricks."
Imaging Vita Sackville-West in the clothes of both genders and several centuries clearly made Virginia writing life quite merry for a while.
5. Her legs. At one point, Orlando, a guy, is having a problem with unrequited lust. "He did what any other young man would have done in his place, and asked King Charles to send him as Ambassador" to Constantinople. The King, who was walking in the garden with Nell Gwen, the most famous of his many mistresses when asked, did so, and Nell Gwen looked at Orlando and thought "'twas a thousand pities, that amorous lady sighed, that such a pair of legs should leave the country.
Nice move of Woolf's to get a famous love of a king to admire the legs of her love. Not bad. Those who work in the creative arts have strange powers.
6. Her house. Orlando's house has 365 rooms. The estate where Vita Sackville-West grew up, Knole, is supposed to have 365 rooms and 52 staircases. It seems like nobody ever really counts them, but nobody disputes that that's the scale of the place, which is made up of multiple buildings, multiple courtyards and goes on and on.
Virginia Woolf, hanging out with lefties and writing a book that was published in 1928, knew that there isn't really much excuse for stately homes, but she really liked Vita Sackville-West's stately home much and much anyway.
7. Her country. Now admittedly, Sackville-West's country and Woolf's country were the same country, but in a way it's a different country when you have a vast house, and servants, and grounds. It's easy to enjoy a country when a goodly portion of it is yours to walk around in, yours to design, yours to engage in physical contact in in a relaxed way because it is after all yours. Which relates to the very particular way that Virginia loved
8. The grounds of Sackville-West's estate. A place she liked to think of lingering with Sackville-West. The life of the estate.
In "Orlando," there's a part where Orlando, a woman, is going through a period of being popular with one and all, high and low, in the neighborhood around her estate. The high invite her to parties and the low light bonfires in the village square in her honor. She ignored all the attention, and thought of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine.
" For when the bonfires were blazing in the market place, she was in the dark woods with Shelmerdine alone. So fine was the weather that the trees stretched their branches motionless above them, and if a leaf fell, it fell, spotted red and gold, so slowly that one could watch it for half an hour fluttering and falling till it came to rest, at last, on Orlando's foot.
"'Tell me, Mar," she would say (and here it must be explained that when she called him by the first syllable of his first name, she was in a dreamy, amorous, acquiescent mood, domestic, languid a little, as if spiced logs were burning, and it was evening, yet not time to dress, and a thought wet outside, enough to make the leaves glisten, but a nightingale might be singing even so among the azaleas, two or three dogs barking a distant farms, a cock crowing--all of which the reader should imagine in her voice)--'Tell me, Mar," she would say, "about Cape Horn."
9. Her moods. The part of Vita Sackville-West that was brave because she didn't even have a concept of caring what people thought also ensured that her moods were strong and varied, because why not? Why edit? Virginia Woolf whose favorite way to present herself was as smart and who called herself cold, liked, at least for a while, being around some prime, pure, uncut moods.
"So they would talk; and then, when her feet were fairly covered with spotted autumn leaves, Orlando would rise and stroll away into the heart of the woods in solitude, leaving Bonthrop sitting there among the snail shells, making models of Cape Horn. 'Bonthrop,' she would say, 'I'm off,' and when she called him by his second name, 'Bonthrop' it should signify to the reader that she was in a solitary mood, felt them both as specks on a desert, was desirous only of meeting death by herself, for people die daily, die at dinner tables, or like this, out of doors in the auttumn woods; and with the bonfires blazing and Lady Palmerston or Lady Derby asking her out every night to dinner, the desire for death would overcome her, and so saying 'Bonthrop,' she said in effect, 'I'm dead,' and pushed her way as a spirit might through the spectre-pale beech trees, and so oared herself deep into solitude as if the little flicker of noise and movement were over and she were free now to take her way--all of which the reader should hear in her voice when she said 'Bonthrop'; and should also add, the better to illumine the word, that for him too, the word signified, mysteriously, seperation and isolation and the disembodied pacing the deck of this brig in the unfathomable seas."
Virginia Woolf herself had unfathomable seas that she ultimately drowned in. She had the witty and she said cold self-presentation, she had analysis of layers and layers of what was going on in her society in her letter and her novels, and she had times when she felt really bad.
She felt so bad sometimes that the bad moods were called bouts of insanity. Calling it insanity didn't seem to make much difference either. She was quite witty about making fun of experts who gave contradictory advice, none of which worked, without ever saying that she was making fun of her useless insanity experts.
So in March, the month when it seems like winter will never end, in March 1941, when World War II was on and on and Britain was in it and the US wasn't, in March 1941 she put on her coat, filled its pockets with heavy stones, went to a pond near her home and drowned herself. Bad mood wins big.
Here is what I am not allowed to ask. If she had in her life had a long on-going romantic relationship with a woman, or several relationships that added up to some length, if she had been in such a relationship in March 1941, would she have drowned herself?
Leonard Woolf was a good guy, a good friend, a good helper, a good nurse. They never had sex; that wasn't the deal.
She would say it makes no difference; I was cold anyway. But Orlando is such a juicy book--so interested in the last 300 years it's hard to believe that the woman who wrote it would blow off decades of her own life.
It reminds me of a poem by Amy Lowell called "Decade:"
When you came you were like red wine and honey
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread, smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely satisfied.
Amy Lowell, Pictures of the Floating World
Virginia Woolf never had the wine and honey time with Leonard Woolf, so how nourishing could the bread be? And she needed nourishment to stay tuned.
In some ways of looking at dreams, the house is the self. I actually don't think Vita Sackville-West had a 325 room self. She had adventures outside herself, relating intensely to people, plants and gardens.
When Orlando, a man, is shown wandering through the vast house, visible to the servants only as a flickering light, Orlando and servants both aware that sometimes people never return from wandering in that house but disappear into some unknown flaw, I think that's Virginia Woolf talking about hanging out inside herself.
She repeatedly said she was cold in relation to other people, but I think maybe she was putting herself in places where she wouldn't warm. It's a way to kind of feel in control, but her bouts of feeling awesomely bad would indicate that it didn't work.
One of her biographers, James King, says she made a distinction "intense" happiness and "natural" happiness. Intense happiness was what happened when her writing was going very well, and natural happiness was the kind that derived from "family love and closeness" and the kind she didn't have. So she was very dependent on herself and her work to feel happy at all. Which felt shaky to her, and so it proved to be.
When Virginia Woolf wrote with her liberal condescension about homosexuals, she was writing about some whole other people, not, say herself and her husband who were probably homosexuals who didn't do a whole lot about it.
Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, knew they were both homosexuals, acted on it, and talked it each other about it. Their deal was "do what you do and tell me, and especially tell me when you probably have an emotional crisis coming up."
So when Vita had Virginia to visit for several days with neither husband present (Harold was a diplomat who, like the sea captain Orlando was married to, traveled a lot on business; why Leonard wasn't there is unstated), she wrote to Harold,
"Virginia is an exquisite companion and I love her dearly. She has to stay in bed till luncheon, as she is still far from well, and she has lots of lessons to do. . . .Please don't think that
a) I shall fall in love with Virginia
b) Virginia will fall in love with me
c) Leonard will fall in love with me
d) I shall fall in love with Leonard"
Inaccurate but shows how they kept in touch, and after all, it's all there in the first sentence.
When Leonard Woolf was feeling huffy later and didn't like how much time and how much intensity Viriginia was spending on Vita, he had a fight with her about her attitude toward the 1926 General Strike in Britain. A hugely important event in U.K. history and very important to leftists, but off-point in terms of what was going on.
I'm not sure making the safe choice is a safe choice for an intense person because the intense person is still intense and what's going to happen with that? Crummy weather, bad war news, on top of the usual internal volcano and the usual acting mild to others and the next thing you know, there you are on the bottom of the pond, and for why?
Leonard Woolf was a safe choice for Virginia. Good guy. Not sexually demanding in that way that people are who usually don't know they're gay. Sensible. But. I bet she never had big fun envisioning him wearing different kinds of clothes, and she obviously liked doing that.
But part of their deal was that the temperature in the public rooms of the house never be very high. (You're never here, you're always with her, let's argue about leftist politics.) She was supposed to be intense in her study, and then she was intense inside herself when nuts--which gave him his big chance to be worthy and supportive.
Worthy and supportive isn't good or a reason to stay alive.
Having all your pipes cleaned and all your insides liquefied because someone is just so great that everything in the whole world looks great--now that's helpful on the staying alive dimension and also fun.
Europe was colder in the 1600's, part of what scientists call the Little Ice Age, and therefore the Thames in London froze over. And therefore what?
If current news media existed they would have kept a running tab on how many deaths were to be blamed on the harsher weather.
But when Virginia Woolf went back there in company with Orlando and in company with how great Vita Sackville-West helped her feel, she could only see what a great occasion for a weeks long party. Skating, flirting, bumping into to people literally, and using that as a occasion to go off and keep each other cozy.
What could be warmer than a frozen Thames, if you're in the right, bright mood?
A mood Leonard would never evoke because that wasn't his job. His job, that she chose him for, was to fill to spot of husband in a mild-mannered manner.
Dangerous. There are missing books because of that choice. And missing good feelings when she could have felt as good as she did when she wrote about Orlando and as she did, at least sometimes, when she was in love with Vita Sackville-West.
"Orlando" goes from Elizabethan times, when Vita Sackville-West's family was given the 365 room Knole up to 1928, when the book was published.
As it gets close to 1928 the changes described become more detailed because they are changes Virginia Woolf experienced herself. She's not always in a larky mood when she gets to the part of English history she lived through because she wasn't always in a larky mood in life. Some changes she wasn't frolicsome about, as she had been when writing about times she didn't live through.
In Virginia Woolf's lifetime, electric lighting of rooms people lived in became universal in the parts of England she lived in. In the cities, she writes, you could now look into a room from the street and see the whole room, every corner, clearly. Before that you couldn't see every nook and cranny, even if you were in the room.
Now, in a domestic interior, there was no place to hide. A change she clearly didn't like.
I met a woman who was with a guy when I met her--living with, committed to, fond of.
She'd been with both men and women. She told me she thought women were more interesting generally, and she liked the physicality of women more.
What she like about men was the privacy. With a guy, she said, you could have a full-bore nervous breakdown right in front of him, and he would have no idea unless you told him, several times.
With a woman, you could faintly think you might look for another job someday, and she was instantly either arguing with you about it or calling employment agencies to help you make it happen, and it wasn't even necessarily a complete or serious thought.
One time a woman who was actively dating guys told me how to make it through a date with a guy, in case that should ever be something I wanted to do. (And wasn't I, a clearly labeled lesbian, a safe choice to complain to about guys? Yes, but, hey, it's all part of our friendly service.)
She said the first thing to do is make sure you go to a restaurant where you like the food a lot which has large portions. The large portions help the time pass enjoyably--you can diet on your own time.
Eat slowly. Savor the food. While you are savoring the food, stop every once in a while, finish your mouthful and say, "Yes." The guy will be talking; you don't need to worry about that. That's like a law of physics manifesting.
What you need to know is there is no reason for you to listen. Love the food. Say "yes" in different tones of voice. Experiment with different ways of saying "yes" and "right" and "uh-huh" for your own entertainment. You cannot be over the top about this.
I think the deal with her is that she liked the physicality of men and that's all she liked, so make it through till bed.
During dinner, she had lots of privacy. He had lots of privacy and didn't necessarily know it.
Lennon and McCartney wrote, in "Hey, Jude," "Remember to let her under your skin. Then you'll begin to make it better, better, better. . ."
When women click, it's not really a matter of "Let." It happens, we're a Vehn diagram and what do we do now?
I think for Vita Sackville-West the answer would be to keep doing what she wants, which is her style and a big part of her appeal. I think for her she could see the point of being gentle in certain moments, sort of as a tactics, but gentleness doesn't seem basic to her being.
She's seems to be more about striding.
I think Vita Sackville-West would seem less butch now than she did then because more women have more choices about how to move their bodies and take them.
But then, the 1920's, when women were not long out of corsets and skirts and underskirts they couldn't take a long step in, the fact that Sackville-West just went where she went with big free steps stood out and didn't look womanly.
And there she was, somewhat melded with the usually cautious and low-key (except when she went crazy) Virginia Woolf.
Since part of the Virginia-Leonard Woolf deal was that her work was the most important thing and another part of the deal was that Virginia was fragile, in her own home, Virginia Woolf got routinely catered to.
Orlando is described by Woolf as a person who fought duels and rode horses fast. Vita Sackville-West came from generations of people who had enough servants to run a 350-room house. She wasn't one of God's natural caterers.
"Vita got through more ramparts than anyone," wrote Virginia Woolf. I think of the stones she put in her coat pocket to help her drown herself as being from the unscaled ramparts she had kept to keep herself safe from Vita, to keep herself safe from the uncontrollable meld.
"Someone saved my life tonight, sugarbear."
Sometimes I get a warning that's like a warning to avoid a minefield: "Don't be clever."
Clever, which standardized tests have shown is an ever-available option for me, means I am smart about putting together the elements I can see in the situation to get what I want, what I am capable of wanting, out of the situation.
This can be under the heading in my mind of "Generosity" but still limited by my clever ideas about what generosity is.
"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine." J.D.S. Haldane, a scientist, wrote that and he was right.
So if I am clever, I am cutting out vast portions of the universe that are right here around me now. I don't figure them in because I can't figure them out. I may not even be capable of understanding that they exist, and yet they are as real as the floor I stand on and the air I breathe.
Beyond being clever, there is being smart with a dash of humility. Working with the elements of the situation I can see and understand and remembering that there is much I can't see and understand. Also understanding that the intelligence I'm using is limited by what I was born with and how I've been trained and propogadized, most of all by the pervasive background music
I can't hear.
Beyond humble intelligence is intuiton. That's where I can get instructions and ideas based on more of the universe than I will ever consciously know about.
How can I tell the difference between my intuition and static created by my brain and body and immediate situation?
I can't. Uncertainty is what makes being alive so much tastier than being dead.
I think Virginia Woolf ran too much of herself through being clever. Her father was a famous literary critic at a time and place where a literary critic could be famous and could be encouraged by one and all to take himself very seriously.
Virginia Woolf wrote a lot of literary criticism.
When she did that, she was working within a closed system. X number of known authors are important, X number of things have been said about them. Within the pre-existing ideas of who was important and why, literary critics wrote, in 1928.
Two important characters in Virginia Woolf's life were good, in her opinion, administrator's in the British Empire. (George Orwell's widely anthologized and probably on the Web "Shooting an Elephant" is one short well-written take on why it was impossible to be a good administrator in the British Empire.)
One good administator was the guy Mrs. Dalloway didn't marry in "Mrs. Dalloway," the novel. He was returned after many years and coming to her party to be given the night of the day in which the novel happens.
Mrs. Dalloway, a mildlyg happy person, is very glad she didn't marry him, who she had more heat for than her worthy husband, who she is very glad she married.
All this very gladness adds up to being mildly happy. I think being mildly happy was a wild fantasy for Virginia Woolf and something that may not have been available to her. Happy, yes. Happier than she was, yes. Mild, no.
The other good empire administrator was Leonard Woolf, an actual human being, and I think, Virginia Woolf's try for the mild happiness plan.
Leonard had planned a career as a colonial bureaucrat and done that some and gave it all up to marry Virginia Stephen and value her work. Initially he was financially dependent on her, though they got past that.
You will note that she and he put him in the wife position, dependence, the other person's work is most important. Being thus placed would tend to make anyone darn grumpy when the more important person is spending tons of time and energy being intense about someone else.
The mild happiness plan Virginia Woolf developed was partly being yoked with a good human being she wasn't all that hot for, that she wouldn't accidently meld with.
Another part of the mild happiness plan was working inside the closed system of literary criticism her father worked in. Reviewing some of the some old writers her father reviewed in maybe a different way, but the same writers, and newer writers just like them.
Neither of Virginia's Woolf's colonial administrators, Leonard the real or Peter the imaginary would have thought of taking the culture of the countries the worked in as seriously as Virginia Woolf took for example the novels of Oliver Goldsmith, who a novelist who is almost minor but safely in the great interrelated closed system of thinking about British Literature.
The trouble with living lots of the time in a closed system is that four o'clock in the morning when everything seems grim and meaningless, being smart about Oliver Goldsmith is not enough. Knowing the major and minor details of the closed system is not enough.
You've spent so much time inside the closed system that you forget about all the mulitudes of things outside the closed system that might make life seem a little bit worth it.
Someone wrote recently in praise of Bernie Taupin who writes song lyrics that Elton John writes the melodies for and sings. The praise of Taupin was that he does Bernie Taupin authentically, deeply and with conviction and is therefore like nobody else. He supplies an otherwise missing ingredient on the world scene. He was the only person who could know that the next logical word after "Someone saved your life tonight" was "Sugarbear."
Virginia Woolf used her cleverness to value this and not that and left out some needed source of "Sugarbear."
We're partly here to entertain each other. Any busy place where people can sit in raised position and therefore see other people walking by is a place where a lot of people will sit. Because one thing mammals know viscerally and regardless of the head opinions of any given mammal is mammals know other mammals are fascinating.
How do you do warm blooded? And how is locomotion going for you? What's up with you and hair? This a primal things than occur to any mammal in the prescence of any other mammals and clever people in closed systems can try to pretend they are above that kind of wondering, which isn't safe.
One time I did a housesit/dogsit in a situation where the beloved family dog was very old, doddering. The woman I was house/dogsitting for had worked in public health and therefore me and her veterinarian had all the paperwork to kill the dog if the dog got any specific malady while she was gone.
The woman whose dog is was knew how many lives you could save in a refuge camp for $200 and this affected how much money she would spend extending the life of an old dog.
This all seemed sensible, impressive and heavy to me.
And what happened wasn't like that at all.
For example, when I stood at the kitchen sink, filled a glass with water, and drank it standing by the sink, the dog looked at me like I was a talented apparition. "I've never seen the like," he might as well have said. The people who lived there didn't drink out of the tap? They didn't drink out of the tap while standing by the sink? I didn't know, but the dog was staring at me, three times as alert as I'd ever seen him.
I went outside to water the outdoor plants, as per the written instructions left me. As I bumbled with turning the water off and on and moving the hose around, the dog made the trip outside to stand (very vigorous for him) and emitted, "I never knew anyone could be as incompetent as you are."
I took the dog for a walk. He did his business right in front of the house, and when I kept walking after we'd reached the half-block mark, he turned to look at me like, "Oh, angel of impossible demands, what are you asking of me?"
I said, "Sorry" and moved to turn back. But the dog stared ahead, and then took a few steps further away from the house with the air of a mariner moving into the the "Monsters here" portion of the map."
The dog didn't get sicker while I was there, but weller--more focussed eyes, less doddering step. Just because I was different.
We're here to entertain each other, partly.
"Orlando" doesn't exactly have a plot. The actual plot is exterior to the internal action--the actual plot being "Virginia Woolf warms up" as a writer and as a person. Borges is quoted on the back of "Orlando" edition I'm reading calls it Virginia Woolf's most intense and, he implies.therefore best book. She always said, hey, it was a goof, a game, a diversion.
Virginia Woolf's father was a literary critic. Most of her novels are very structured.
* They can be easily described in terms of their structure, making them easy for critics to talk about. In "Mrs. Dalloway," Mrs. Dalloway gets ready for her party that night, runs errands, thinks about how basically fine her life is even though she didn't marry the guy she was hotter for than she is for her husband, and is mildly active and mildly content. That's half of the structure.
In the other half of the structure, a person very different than Mrs. Dalloway and very different than Virginia Woolf is going crazy and kills himself at the end of the day. He is male; he is a war veteran and therefore has a darn good reason to be nuts. He has an Italian wife. His only connection with Mrs. Dalloway is she passes him in the park as she in running errands.
What a cop-out. There a truth being said here, that people pass each other in cities who really don't know what is up with each other and never will. But she can't do a whole lot with that because she doesn't really know much about what it's like to a poor, mentally disintergrating veteran of the 1914-1918 war.
In the introduction to "Mrs. Dalloway" that she wrote for the Modern Library edition, Virginia Woolf said her original idea was that Mrs. Dalloway would kill herself at the end of the day and the end of the book. A different book where buying flowers for the party in order to kindly give your maid a break isn't quite enough.
If Virginia Woolf had written Mrs. Dalloway killing herself, would she herself have lived longer? I don't know. Perhaps if she had been the person who was willing to write the novel where Mrs. Dalloway killed herself, she might have lived longer.
Virginia Woolf sought people who were different than her, people who might have said sugarbear in the right way at the right time, and then kept them at a distance.
Like the shell-shocked war veteran, for example, could have been of Virginia Woolf's class, or above--lots of shell-shocked veterans were. But she made him someone whose pre-war experiences she wouldn't really know anything about--as well as not having experienced what he experienced in the war.
In fact, he doesn't have war flashbacks, like war vets in mental trouble often do. He has this thing were sounds, all sounds he hears, get very metallic and weird. I think that Virginia Woolf had that.
She uses the structure of "Mrs. Dalloway" to export her problems to someone ever so different than her. As if people who buy flowers for lovely parties don't got nuts.
"Orlando" barely has a structure. It's like a rock skipped across the river of English history as it flowed from Tudor times to 1928, touching down wherever the author thinks will be interesting and fun. And that works. But the daughter of the literary critic didn't see it as a way to go.
Writing like that involves the author feeling that the basic energy's she's got on the planet is good, and that good things will happen if she just runs with it. Lets it run with her.
Gregory Bateson said that being a conscious being is like riding a crazy horse. It sort of wants to go this way; you thought you wanted to go that way. You lean; it pulls; you go somewhere. God knows Gregory Bateson wasn't the happiest human being in history but he produced a lot of good word works, some people liked to hang out with him, and he lived to be old.
It might be a good thing to think of the unknowns of one's own self as a living being, a mysterious horse, rather than a house with dangerous rooms that must be avoided lest one fall through the floor and never return, which is one way Virginia Woolf imagines walking around the 365 room house in "Orlando."
You could even imagine consciousness, including the parts you aren't conscious of, as another being whom you liked. A lot. A formulation from Virginia Woolf that she never did much with--talking about the difference between "Chloe liked Sylvia" and "Chloe liked Sylvia. A lot."
"A love story, at least a convincing one, requires three elements--the lover, the beloved, and the adventures they have together. If the lover isn't ardent, then thestory isn't a love story. If the beloved isn't appealing, then the lover just seems idiosyncratic, or even crazy; and if they have not adventures, then their love is too easy, and they have no way of learning anything important about themselves and one another."
That's Jane Smiley, a novelist who has thought about love stories, writing at the beginning of a book where she says she's going to make the case for falling in love with and being in love with individual horse. Not the species, though she loves that too, but particular horses, with their individual characteristics, smarts and dumbnesses.
In this book called "A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck" she doesn't really make that case because she has to start too far back. She tries to prove to some imagined fairly unsympathetic audience that horses do have consciousness and that different individuals are different and they think and plan and often remember other mammals, other horses and humans over long periods of time.
Having to start on such a basic level and having let the skeptics into the room in herself where she writes from, she can't, in that book, do the falling in love with a particular horse thing.
But she does do that in glorious detail in her novel "Horse Heaven."
When I was reading "Horse Heaven" I thought it was one of the best books in the history of the world and that everyone I knew should read it. I didn't know why, and of course, when I stopped reading the book and sobered up, I realized that a book so frequently funny could never be considered by grownups one of the best books ever.
It probably isn't one of the best books ever, but I liked it a lot because it was so spacious. The animals, and there are many animals, are point of view characters. We get to know how they see and feel the whole thing with the same validity that we get to see and feel what's up with the humans.
I am not a horse person, or much of an animal person, but that feels so right, to read a book like that--where animals have experiences as detailed as human experiences and we know all about them. That makes reading fiction worth it--when it shows me vividly all the parts of missing because of my temperment or my susecptibility to cultural brainswashing.
"Horse Heaven," Jane Smiley's novel about horses and peole and one dog (I list them in order of importance to the author) involved in horse racing is like "Orlando" in that it reads fast and fun.
That is because the authors are enjoying themselves hugely making connections they want to make in the way they want to make them.
So much of life is finding out the connections your society acknowledges the existence of and says are good, the connections your society acknowledges the existence of and says are bad, and the connections your society doesn't even acknowledge exist.
If connections that are naturally important to you are in the "bad" or "don't exist" categories, you got a problem. One way to solve this problem is internal self-amputation, which is undertandable but numbing. It can also involve phantom pain in the parts you thoug you cut off.
Keeping up the connections that are bad or don't exist to people around you is always going to involves smarts. Utter straightforwardness at all times is probably not going to work. But finding someplace to know what you know and connect with what you connect with makes life a lot more life-like, is greatly to be sought out, is worth the trouble.
Jane Smiley's deep connection with horses is not in the super-difficult "This connection doesn't exist" category. It's in the challenging "This should not be as important to you as it is" category.
She owned three different horses as she was growing up, because her family could afford it (just) and because she really, really wanted them. Each got something wrong with it so that it had to be killed. She kept loving horses.
She eventually succombed to the pressure that says the horses are the substitute for the guy and the kids. As she went to college she left off with horses, much to her mother's relief and ended up with the guy, the kids, careers as teacher and novelist.
Then, in her forties or fifties, she happened to see this horse. And, as she doesn't say, her novels were selling well enough to support an expensive love. Away she went, relearning to ride, learning to ride better, breeding horse to be race horses, being really happy.
The non-fiction Smiley book, "A Year at the Races," reveals why the fiction Smiley book, "Horse Heaven" is such fun. The author is in horse heaven, in the glowing place created by hanging out with what you most profoundly connect with. The author in the non-fiction book feels free enough to say that she found out that the guy and the kids and the career were the substitute for horses, and now she was back to the center. (She still had the kids and the career. She barely deals with the fact that somewhere in the midst of all this the guy, the long-time husband, is gone.)
Horse heaven for her consists both of going back to where she was decades ago, riding horses, and going to someplace she did not go in her private school youth--the race track. The place where wildly divergent people of types who would never otherwise meet meet all the time because they have found in the racetracks of the world a way to be around horse, which is, after all, the point of existing.
Jane Smiley clearly did a ton a research for "Horse Heaven" and it combined for her the engagement of her trained academic intelligence and an ongoing, cross-country, international mystical experience. She has always loved horses, though she has not always spent time with them, but only briefly, when she writes "Horse Heaven" has she found this world of wildly different people who also love horses. She loves exploring this world and imagining what the horses and people and one dog in it might be thinking.
The one dog is one of the few characters she clearly doesn't like. Another is an evil trainer who hurts horses to make money. The dog isn't evil. He's a willful Jack Russell terrier who expresses his female owners discontent with life by being obnoxious.
The only problem with the Jack Russell terrier is he is the first point-of-view character in the book and he is not fun. Do not be put off by him. It gets much better.
Jane Smiley wrote a good, short biography, "Charles Dickens," about a guy who liked to have gigantic casts of characters from many walks of life in contact with each other, with the bad ones getting punished and the good ones having very happy endings.
In order to get his way-different people together in places like 19th century London, Dickens has to use coincidence in a science fiction way. Coincidences that never happen in this world as we know it happen frequently in Dickens' novels to keep the plot moving.
Smiley can get all those wildly diverse people together because they are all spending time at the track.
The happy horse-loving, horse-working lower middle class family and the fabulously wealthy, massively unhappy rich lady eventually overlap around a horse.
She, Rosemary, is a fun soap opera like character. She is married to a hearty, shallow, very good provider who is only slightly less rich than God. She has affairs with some pleasure and much anguish. She goes to the races with her husband because that's what he does.
And then she falls in love with a horse, a particular horse.
A filly, a she is who she loves intensely. Most racehorses are either stallions, male horses as they were born, or geldings, male horses who have been castrated.
Her true love is a young female horse who is obviously very talented in a racehorse way but isn't performing anywhere up to potential when she gets in a race. Also, she seems unhappy, frustrated. Rosemary can relate.
Rosemary puts a lot of time and money and thought into figuring out what the deal is with this horse, and finally does, with the help of people (not rich at all) who work with her all the time.
In a race, she needs a jockey who will just be there with her and not boss her at all.
She is sensitive and smart and all she asks is to be undisturbed to make her wise moves. The rules require a jockey, and she's fine with having a jockey if the jockey knows that the role required is companionship and informed appreciation of the horse.
The aforementioned lower middle class family of horse workers has just the jockey that's needed.
In this family, people grow up around racehorses cleaning up after them, excercising them and eventually having everything it takes to be great jockeys. But when people in this family are fully grown, they are too big to be jockeys.
The family tradition, from the father's side of the family, is that as soon as the kids are old enough to get away with being jockeys, they are and they continue to work as jockeys until they are too big. Then they pick back up on education and some other work, probably horse related.
So one of these herefitary horse smart people is available to ride Rosemary's beloved filly. He does. He just sits there, except for the part where he totally understands the horse. She wins and enjoys winning and learns how to win more.
As soon as the jockey got to the getting on the horse area, he noticed that all the other jockeys were much bigger than jockeys in the US. They were in fact the size that members of his family usually grew to be.
In fact, at the end of the race, he is in the position of having won the biggest race in a country where he will not grow too big to be a jockey. When we next see him, the next day, he already has a job as a jockey with a big training stable and a French girlfriend.
The not-happy rich American has inadvertantly engineered happiness for the jockey that he couldn't have imagined by doing whatever she could to make the filly, her beloved, happy.
All the good people in people in "Horse Heaven" end up being as happy as they can probably manage given who they are. For the not-very-short jockey, that is pretty darn happy. For his rich woman benefactor, less happy, but more than one might have expected, having gotten to know her. I mean, her beloved filly did win the big French race.
The horses in "Horse Heaven" end up well-taken care of. Some of them in the midst of the book end up in bad places to show us that it's not far from winning races to being in a small outdoor pen in the middle of nowhere where no ones remembers to feed and water you. It can happen to the same horse within a year. Smiley shows us how that can happen, believably, and then sets it up so the horses to which that or something equally bad has happened get rescued.
The rescue is not as believable as the descent into misery, but inside this book, it all works out, except for the bad humans, who are justly punished.
I felt like Smiley wrote this book in a rush without at tight plan, and in her book "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel" she says that's what happened. Often she has very thought out the book before she writes it. This time she sat down with her old love of horses and her fairly new knowledge of racetracks and away she went.
For a whole lot of history, most people in most groups couldn't say anything to people in general. Women, for example, couldn't speak to the wide world and were often pretty shut up, in every way, in the places where they lived.
This means there are missing stories. Stories that were inside the shut-up people, poor, women, not white in white countries, that didn't get told, that the people couldn't even tell inside themselves because they were so sat-on and struggling.
I think when people from groups that used-to-would-have been utterly silenced just let rip and improvise a story, we are on the way to discovering missing stories. Stories that are very old but were never told.
In Jane Smiley's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel," she says she's always surprised when people tell her, as they often do, how moved they were by her novel "A Thousand Acres." It's not one of her favorites, thought she likes it fine, and she doesn't get why people are so deeply personally moved.
Jane Smiley's assignment to herself in "A Thousand Acres" was to write a book based on the plot of Shakespeare's play "King Lear." That plot, sad, was old when Shakespeare borrowed it from someone else 400 years ago.
Jane Smiley retelling that sad and ugly story is touching a plot that has touched people for centuries, that has lived because it speaks deeply to people. It has probably lived because people feel it deeply and personally, as people tell Smiley they feel her book. She didn't have to feel it as deeply as they because she was choosing to work with old gold.
Like many old stories that have survived, it's sad and ugly. Some not sad, not ugly plots and missing and need to be found.
I don't know if the "King Lear" story, older than the play, lasts because it's written into the human condition, or lasts because it lasts--people keep retelling.
I note that many old stories that last a long time are serious bummers, like Greek tragedies. I think somthing is missing.
There is a way that being part of of huge horrible mess feels important. There's a way in which striving to be important leads to huge horrible messes.
Then there are the allegedly not important people who keep things going on, who strive for ongoingness, not importance.
That approach contains missing stories that aren't heard so much because they never got outside the head or the room of the ongoingness people.
People who used to wouldn't have been able to complete a sentence, or develop of tail--when those people just follow what feels good in creating art, they may find stories as old and as powerful as the famous bummers.