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
Continue reading What I talk about when I talk about problems
Ages 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?’
‘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
Continue reading Weight 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?’
‘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.’
In 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
Continue reading Lighthousekeeping 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
Continue reading Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
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.
My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.
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.