This novel shook me so tremendously (during the three consecutive days I spent reading it) that I still experience the spreading distant rumble of a dThis novel shook me so tremendously (during the three consecutive days I spent reading it) that I still experience the spreading distant rumble of a depth charge in my mind....more
Good art tugs at the soul. Profound art pulls out all that is in us and fills us with awe. Great moments in literature wash stillness over us and we lGood art tugs at the soul. Profound art pulls out all that is in us and fills us with awe. Great moments in literature wash stillness over us and we look up suddenly at a world in sharper focus, a world that we understand more clearly. Good literature offers surprising insight into our own struggles and hopes. I believe that it must also entrance us with its tricks, its artfulness, its aesthetics. This novel does all of this for me.
When I read I am not looking for a great book, although I have found many and that is wonderful, too. Really, I am looking for great authors. When I am stirred or enriched by a piece of writing I cannot help but to move immediately to that authors' other works. And so it is with Jeanette Winterson--I have found a striking, attractive new voice, and I am paying attention.
The beauty of Winterson's books and the difficulty of trying to summarize them can be attributed to their density. And I do not mean that they are difficult to read. In fact, they read innocently even at the their violent, disturbing, and grotesque moments--almost like a friendly, yet omniscient stranger telling you a fairytale. Yet, the language is packed with meaning and profound insights into human nature happen in single sentences...Yes, I am nearly eating this book at the moment. Winterson's language is intoxicating and beautiful, even when her focus turns to that which is not. The sentences and the flow of ideas are always mesmerizing, and I sometimes have trouble closing her books, even when I have to go to sleep, or return to work after reading on my lunch break. Any words that I use to express the beauty of the novel will necessarily be less beautiful than the novel itself. As such, I would highly suggest that you read this.
The book is filled with densely illustrated passages that move us like water toward a truer understanding of all the myriad passions of the human spirit, many of them imperialistic (if only only a small scale) and selfish. We explore the passions that occupy the minds and hearts of individuals, as well as those of Napoleon, whose passions changed the course of modern history. However, as we come to realize over the course of this book, our own private passions can be just as consuming, and just as destructive, whether or not we conquer nations and cause the deaths of untold numbers. In Winterson, the fantastic world of the interior is exploded out upon the world, coloring everything, and an individuals' yearning sets in motion as much cataclysm as Napoleon's army.
To try and summarize the plot would absurd for at least two reasons, but what is important is the relationship that Villanelle and Henri share, and what each knows about the world. Though he has travelled the world with Napoleon's army, Henri is from a small village and is undoubtedly naive. He is a romantic. Growing up in venice, Villanelle is worldly and has had much experience with people and understands human passions. She works at a casino, cross dresses, and finds her pleasure with both men and women. Little seems to shock her and she handles what to most would find overwhelming shameful and scarring with a wise, calm strength. She knows what time of day it is, what she wants, and where she stands in the world. She seems to fear nothing. She possesses an enviable, almost zen-like understanding of the human experience and the universe, which is to say she moves through the world with ease and grace, unselfconsciously, without an overly analytical mind. With one exception, Villanelle is not attached to anything. Yet, there is that one exception: Villanelle falls in love with an older woman, with whom she has a brief affair that does not last. The woman loves her husband and will not leave him. Villanelle is heart-broken, but bears it nobly. As a result she will never give her heart away again, not even to Henri, with who she has a child.
Life, in the Passion, is presented as a game that is played not necessarily for the outcome, but for the joy, the terror and the thrill of playing. Villanelle seems to learn this lesson while watching the gamblers at the casino where she works. Henri never quite learns this. He is attached to outcomes, and heartbroken by Villanelle's refusal to marry him. When the novel ends, Henri lives in an insane asylum (where he is placed for killing Villanelle's murderously cruel ex-husband). In an absurd turn of events (that quite reminds me of my own past heartbreak) Henri refuses to see Villanelle when she visits him, refuses to leave when she bribes all the guards to let him escape, and eventually he finds peace in introspection while his beloved rows past his window at the island asylum everyday. Villanelle loves him truly, but can never be with him.
Loss, in The Passion, is realized quietly and accepted gently. Love, in Winterson's work, is focused upon the unnattainable--the wild, the solitary, the remarkable, the independent. The beloved is endeared toward, but not in love with the lovestruck. I imagine that Winterson's heart was broken by such a wild, free, unattached young woman. I think of Amos Lee's lyrics, "I'm in love with a girl who's in love with the world, and I can't help but follow, though I know some day she is bound to fly away, and live over the rainbow." The next line is, "gotta learn how to let her go..." And that's always the tough part isn't it? We can fight it or we can accept it as the way of the world. I don't believe I speak this out of bitterness or heartache, but rather out of perfect peace and contentment: we all need to believe that nothing really matters in life, save compassion towards others. I am not advocating some sort of nihilistic hedonism. In fact, I think we should all be honest but kind, and strive to be our best and truest selves. However, I don't believe anyone should place too much of themselves in their relationship with another. Learn how to find peace in solitude, experience, and friendships. Realize that everything is temporary. Those who are destroyed by heartbreak are ultimately foolish, though normal. Heartbreak exists to teach us how to play the game next time--without bitterness or naivete. For all of its romance unbridled passion destroys as much as it creates.
**spoiler alert** I loved this book. At the level of plot, we read about a gigantic woman who finds a small boy, Jordan, on the banks of the Thames in**spoiler alert** I loved this book. At the level of plot, we read about a gigantic woman who finds a small boy, Jordan, on the banks of the Thames in London in the 17th century. She raises this boy and watches him grow to develop a passion for boats, sailing, and exploring, knowing that she will lose him to his passions, and knowing that he will lose his heart to a woman who will not return his love.
At the core of this novel, though, are metaphysical and philosophical explorations--both for us as readers, and also for Jordan as an explorer. Winterson sets out two ideas that guide the metaphysical inquiry of the novel in a brief preface: that all time might exist simultaneously without the traditional divisions of past, present, and future, and that matter is largely empty space and points of light. And so even though Jordan travels the world, he comes to realize that the true journeys are inward, into our own minds and our own hearts. Along with these post-modern ideas that undercut traditional, rationalist notions of the truth of the world, we also explore the bafflingly complex affairs of the heart. Is it possible to find true love in a world where matter and time do not exist as we have previously believed them to? Was it ever possible to find true love? Does it even matter? Is it possible to find more a more fulfilling life exploring our more solitary desires? According to one of the most well-received portions of this novel (according to many of the Goodreads reviews I perused), The Story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, it seems clear that traditional love existing in marital life is largely a fiction. Instead, these women find fulfillment in a lifestyle more fitting to their hearts--and ultimately, living together--than the arranged marriages they lived in briefly as young women. And their individual stories bear this out. All were slightly touched by magic--elegant dancers because they were born with the capability to fly, and were finally able to find their own joy, rather than live in a world that sought to restrict the natural, magical freedom of their hearts and their bodies.
Yet the characters in this novel still seem to desire love, as I believe we all do. Jordan's mother doesn't seem to have given up believing in it, though she is never able to find a suitable male companion. Jordan, after meeting his love one night, and without even speaking to her at dinner, searches the world to find her again. He does finds her, but like Artemis on her island (the myth of she and Orion, slightly re-imagined here by Winterson), needs no man. She has found peace in her own life, and sends Jordan back upon his way with a necklace and a kiss. Damn... I feel him, there. He spends the rest of his life exploring the world, and when he lands in London, he has been gone for 13 years. He reunites with his mother, but it is clear that he still thinks of Fortunata, the object of his heart's longing.
In this case, the epic journey narrative is somewhat inverted. And Winterson's characters reflect on this over the course of the novel, as well. Rather than the heroic, man's man fulfilling his hearts desire to explore the world and find adventure while his beautiful wife and loving children send him off tearfully and wait for his return, Jordan is more sensitive--more in touch with his feminine side, if you will. He only loves one woman, and she does not want him the way he wants her. Further, he considers that for all his traveling, the journeys of the world are not worth more than the explorations of the mind, and that the more he journeys he took, the more of the world there was, and the more mystery crept into his mind. And in this novel, we see three travelers in this novel who seem slightly unsatisfied, who seem always to be searching. As such, this idea recurs. Jordan postulates that in travel we are really searching for ourselves, and that finally, this can be accomplished living in a muddy hut, and raising dogs in the bank of the Thames. In fact, his gargantuan and endearingly murderous and grotesque mother (to whom he returns after his journey), seems to have a much better grasp of who she is than almost anyone I know, and to find peace in it. Many in her situation would find only depression, but she raises fighting dogs, and lives life as she pleases. She seems to hope for love, and companionship, but also seems to find peace in its absence.
This book is fantastically imaginative, and at moments reminds me of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (in fact, strikingly so in Jordan's description of some of the places that he visits. The humor and grittiness of the plot, as well as the insightful explorations of time, space, matter, meaning, love, and life make this short novel as rewarding as it is dense, while still effortless to read. This book leaves me more peaceful in the face of complexity in the world. I do not think I ascribe to fairytale notions of love or what sort of life I ought to lead, and this book makes me feel better about that. I feel confident that finding ones' self is the true task in life, whether that takes us around the world, or occupies our hours in the same place for a lifetime, and that the attendant chaos is to be welcomed. And while our passions are worthy indulgences, we should also know that our passions for others are bound to be temporary and somewhat tragic--for that is their nature, and we should only accept it as part of our larger journey to discover self, "unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain." ...more