What I talk about when I talk about problems

Now that it’s the end of Jeanette Winterson week, it’s time to address some of the bad. I’ll be talking about it in terms of the three novels I’ve discussed, but really this applies to so many books and writers: you like or love something quite well, but then get to a single sentence and say, “Now damnit why’d she have to write that?” And it’s just that one thing but it’s a mar and it gives you doubts.

Unfortunately, one of those sentences happened to me at the epigraph of Sexing the Cherry. (Sidebar: is it still called an epigraph if it’s not a quotation? Whatever.)

The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?

Well, sinceSapir-Whorf is not that simplistic, and it’s not entirely clear how right Whorf was about Hopi time to begin with…things like this just set off alarms for me. I was worried that such a passage before the novel even begins was a bad sign, but then things went so swimmingly. Mostly. Until someone tells Jordan that Hopi “has no grammar in the way we recognize it.”

The other problem here is the interjection of sweeping statements (lists of “lies” and such) that are less objectionable in themselves but more jarring in terms of the reading experience (at least, for a normal person not especially attuned to questionable linguistic claims).

We’ve got a few similarly jarring passages in Lighthousekeeping, though again, it’s not their content that’s objectionable, just their place in a novel full otherwise of poetry and implicit meaning.

We’re told not to privilege one story above another.

You don’t need to know everything. There is no everything. The stories themselves make the meaning.

The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

In the endless babble of narrative, in spite of the daily noise, the story waits to be heard.

Now, I’m not looking to disagree with any of this. I’m just saying that the phrase “continuous narrative of existence” is a tough one to fit seamlessly into this particular novel, written in the style it’s in, and it makes it seem like for this unusual span of two pages or so Winterson no longer trusts the reader, suddenly thinks she’s got to give it to us right out. But I missed Silver’s softness—and her storytelling.

One other thing about Lighthousekeeping: coronation chicken is served in 1851. I do not think that is part of the magical realism.

I don’t think I ran into issues like these with Weight, actually—at least not any that I marked. It makes me wonder whether, over time, Winterson begins to put more faith in the story and feel less need for those few buzzwords to send the message home. I’d have to say that in spite of all this I’ve begun to really like her work, more than I expected to, so I’m sure I’ll be finding the answer to that question sometime in the future.

Postscript: After I’d drafted this post, Sarah commented, in part: “I love all the stories she tells, but sometimes feel I’ve missed the point or that certain stories are less well thought out and told than others e.g the contemporary ones at the end of Sexing the cherry.”

I didn’t quite say this, but I agree. And that may seem contrary to what I write above, complaining she can become too explicit. If I’ve missed the point, I don’t really want to have it explicated so clearly; I want to have gotten the point. It may well be my fault when the pieces don’t connect up right for me, but I’d rather be left in the dark than break up that lyricism.

Weight by Jeanette Winterson

WeightAges ago now, Alison asked me in the comments to write about one of the Canongate Myths books I liked (as opposed to the one I didn’t particularly care for), and some 11 months later I deliver, re-reading Weight to round out my Winterson Week.

This installment in the series is a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. The basic story: Atlas has to hold up the world as punishment for making war on the gods. Heracles needs some apples from Atlas’s garden. Heracles, the only man in the world strong enough to relieve Atlas of his burden, takes the earth for a while so Atlas can go pick some apples. Heracles then tricks Atlas into taking back his burden before he is ready.

Somewhat unusually, Winterson gives us an introduction, which is quite enlightening. As she explains:

Weight moves far away from the simple story of Atlas’s punishment and his temporary relief when Hercules takes the world off his shoulders. I wanted to explore loneliness, isolation, responsibility, burden, and freedom too, because my version has a very particular end not found elsewhere.

Simply put, she succeeds in all that, and brilliantly. Atlas, one of the only men capable of even carrying out his punishment, stands alone, holding up the earth, his burden, his responsibility, isolated but listening to the sounds of the earth near his ears, feeling close to all these people he can hear and must support, but totally alone in the Nothing.

And freedom. It is Heracles, I believe, who first brings it up—the question why:

‘Why are we doing this, mate?’

‘Doing what?’

‘You’re holding up the Kosmos and I’m spending twelve years clobbering snakes and thieving fruit. The only good time was chasing Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons, and she didn’t want anything to do with me when I caught her….’

There was a pause. Atlas was silent. Heracles drank another skinful of wine. He didn’t want to think. Thinking was like a hornet. It was outside his head buzzing at him.

‘What I mean to say, Atlas, is why?’

‘There is no why,’ said Atlas.

‘That’s just the trouble,’ said Heracles. ‘There is a why here, or here, or here,’ and he started hitting the side of his head, trying to squash the droning thought.

But Atlas, in his years holding up the Kosmos, has spent much time listening in on the lives of men, and has become convinced of their futility. He understands Fate.

Interspersed in the myth are Winterson’s meditations on her own life, which fit very well to form a cohesive whole. She understands Fate too:

The ancients believed in Fate because they recognised how hard it is for anyone to change anything. The pull of past and future is so strong that the present is crushed by it. We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.

The burden is intolerable. After a very poignant section where Atlas gains a new friend in Laika, whom he plucks out of her sputnik, long after the gods have lost their power and his punishment is truly futile, Atlas revisits that question from Heracles: “Why? Why not just put it down?” Over the course of the retelling that’s become a very powerful message, the more so because of the authentic, personal sections, “the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements.” And Winterson is really so well cut out for this project, with her love of “Cover Versions,” retellings, and the recurring motif here, so like something out of Lighthousekeeping: “I want to tell the story again.”

Weight is definitely one of my favorites of The Myths, but I think my number one pick would have to be Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy. You simply must read Litlove’s recent post on that one; it expresses just what I’d want to. I have a feeling I’ll be getting to some other Ali Smith stuff myself next week. I almost think I need a new category for my Borgesian theme chart: “Joy.”

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

Lighthousekeeping is even more overtly about storytelling than Sexing the Cherry, and also made up of story after story. Silver—the one who’s “part precious metal part pirate”—is orphaned toward the beginning of the novel, and she is eventually taken in by Pew, the lighthousekeeper, as his apprentice. A great part of this apprenticeship is in storytelling:

‘I can teach you—yes, anybody—what the instruments are for, and the light will flash once every four seconds as it always does, but I must teach you how to keep the light. Do you know what that means?’

I didn’t.

‘The stories. That’s what you must learn. The ones I know and the ones I don’t know.’

‘How can I learn the ones you don’t know?’

‘Tell them yourself.’

LighthousekeepingIn a way I am getting ahead of myself, because before we even meet Pew Silver has already told us one of her loveliest stories: of the house on a cliff she grew up in with her mother, where anything not nailed down goes slip-sliding around. “We ate food that stuck to the plate—shepherd’s pie, goulash, risotto, scrambled egg. We tried peas once—what a disaster—and sometimes we still find them, dusty and green in the corners of the room.”

I suppose what really does it for me here is that I’m a sucker for well told stories, lovely small things with nice language and not too much said. When Silver talks about, her first night with Pew, eating “sausages and darkness” for supper, I know I am reading the (a) right book for me.

Pew and Silver keep the lighthouse together for years, and he’s passed down some wonderful stories. The tale of Babel Dark, a 19th century adulterous minister in the nearby town of Salts, is his main contribution: the story of the past, of the history of Salts, of the history of the light itself. And Pew tells these stories as though he himself knew and spoke to Dark, explaining to Silver that “there’s always been a Pew in the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.”

But modernization comes, pushing Silver out of the magical world of yarn spinning and into one where she can’t even read stories because she doesn’t have the proper identification to obtain a library card. She is unmoored here where her eccentricities are frowned upon and where most people don’t live in the fantastical story world that seems to cover not just her and Pew but all of Salts and Cape Wrath, places on the very edge of British existence, geographically and, now, economically.

There are so many messages here, about beginnings, middles, endings, retellings, and I’ll certainly be reading this again sometime, both for those and for the beautiful world Winterson (that is, Pew and Silver) creates. But the idea that’s sticking with me for now at least is one from the very end: “Don’t wait. Don’t tell the story later.”

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

One of Jeanette Winterson’s strengths is in creating fantastical characters so compelling they can light up whole novels (not that they have to, they aren’t alone here). So far the Dog-Woman of Sexing the Cherry may be my favorite.

The Dog-Woman is Gargantuan. She trains fighting dogs and cares for the boy she plucked from the Thames. She doles out an individual strain of justice, often violently. And she is wonderfully grotesque:

I lifted Jordan up and I told Johnson that if he didn’t throw back his cloth and let us see this wonder I’d cram his face so hard into my breasts that he’d wish he’d never been suckled by a woman, so truly would I smother him.

He starts humming and hawing and reaching for some coloured jar behind his head, and I thought, he’ll not let no genie out on me with its forked tongue and balls like jewels, so I grabbed him and started to push him into my dress. He was soon coughing and crying because I haven’t had that dress off in five years.

The Dog-Woman once had a name, by the bye, but she’s forgotten it. I wonder what that means.

Sexing the Cherry, for most of its length, is formed of alternating narratives by the Dog-Woman and Jordan. Toward the end of the novel, they are joined by modern-day counterparts who sadly lack their vitality. The adventures of the Dog-Woman bringing roundheads to heel in 17th century London and Jordan traveling round the world discovering unusual fruit pretty seriously outshine the brief and conventional stories of an environmental activist and the boy she inspires.

More jarringly, those conventional narratives contrast with the heady magical realism of so much of the novel. Jordan’s pursuit of a mysterious dancer leads to him meeting the first eleven dancing princesses (retellings inserted) and finally the twelfth. We hear the tale of the town that outlawed love. One of Jordan’s first stories sets the tone very well—especially for a logophile like myself:

The words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.

The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious row sought to bring the original antagonists to court. The men reponsible made their defence on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. Years had passed. Was it their fault if the city had failed to deal with its overheads? The judge ruled against the plaintiff but ordered the city to buy her a new mop. She was not satifsied, and was later found lining the chimneys of her accused with vitriol.

Jordan is lucky enough to accompany a cleaner in her balloon. On their way back down they pass “new flocks of words coming from the people in the streets who, not content with the weight of their lives, continually turned the heaviest of things into the lightest of properties.” Universities are covered in a word fog. Lovers are “killed by their own passion” when they suffocate themselves with so many words in an enclosed space. The “wrath spewed from a parson caught fornicating his mother” must be cleaned with holy water. Jordan (and his mother) gives us story after story this good. Sexing the Cherry is a book of stories in this way—another strength of Winterson’s, going by what I have read so far.

I was really taken with Sexing the Cherry, despite some problems I haven’t discussed here. Those issues, like most of the things I like about her writing, seem to recur a bit in Winterson’s work, so I think I’ll write a bit about them later in the week, after I’ve written some about Lighthousekeeping and Weight. Also, Litlove wrote a really great post on Sexing the Cherry in January, including an excellent discussion of the Dog-Woman.

Jeanette Winterson on naming

From Sexing the Cherry:

They call me the Dog-Woman and it will do. I call him Jordan and it will do. He has no other name before or after. What was there to call him, fished as he was from the stinking Thames? A child can’t be called Thames, no and not Nile either, for all his likeness to Moses. But I wanted to give him a river name, a name not bound to anything, just as the waters aren’t bound to anything.

From Lighthousekeeping:

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

From Weight:

Zeus read out his decree. Atlas, Atlas, Atlas. It’s in my name, I should have known. My name is Atlas—it means ‘the long suffering one’.

Jeanette Winterson gives us names as talismans in these three novels I have read by her. Re-reading the passage about naming from Sexing the Cherry, I find it especially noteworthy. Waters are not bound to anything except themselves, it’s all about the cohesion tension, and Jordan with his river name is bound for life to the water, pulling him away from the Dog-Woman.

All three of these names fit like a glove, and fit Atlas’s cry: “It’s in my name, I should have known.” Long-suffering because your name is long-suffering, or named long-suffering because your author knew you would suffer long? Atlas is speaking to use from inside his own myth, and cannot realize—then, neither can Silver or the Dog-Woman.