Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Passion

In my course of quickly rectifying my lack of experience reading Jeanette Winterson I picked up The Passion. It takes place in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars. One character is a cook in Napoleon's kitchen. Another is a Venetian woman, the daughter of a gondolier, who works in a casino. I don't think I'll ruin it by saying their paths cross eventually.

Both of the Winterson books I read are slender books, but best read slowly and thoughtfully. They're crammed full of big ideas, and each led to a crescendo of language and thought at the end.

In The Passion, Winterson lambastes the heartlessness of war:
Home became the focus of joy and sense. We began to believe that we were fighting this war so that we could go home. To keep home safe, to keep home as we started to imagine it. Now that our hearts were gone there was no reliable organ to stem the steady tide of sentiment that stuck to our bayonets and fed our damp fires. There was nothing we wouldn't believe to get us through: God was on our side, the Russians were devils. our wives depended on this war. France depended on this war. There was no alternative to this war.

And the heaviest lie? That we could go home and pick up where we had left off. That our hears would be waiting behind the door with the dog.
(p. 83)
and the importance of love, or passion:
I think now that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love. To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free. The mystics and the churchmen talk about throwing off this body and its desires, being no longer a slave to the flesh. The don't say that through the flesh we are set free. That our desire for another will lift us out of ourselves more cleanly than anything divine.
Some people go absolutely batshit over Venice, and I suppose they have every reason to. Her descriptions of Venice were exciting and mysterious and made me want to return there. Oddly, this book occasionally reminded me of this goofy Anne Rice book I read a long time ago called Cry to Heaven about a castrati opera singer, due to the lush descriptions and the decadent lifestyle of the Venetians. But it made me think about (I'm not done yet) the difference between "high" and "low" literature.

Not unlike an Anne Rice novel, some of Winterson's characters are not hetero-normative. Winterson's young woman often dresses as a man, for safety and for fun, and moves somewhat freely between the masculine world (particularly as a boater) and a more feminine one. I think one of the main differences, however, between Winterson and Rice is that Rice's characters exist in a hyper-fantasy while Winterson's are more grounded in reality. Winterson's treatment of the female character's sexuality is pointedly easy; she loves.

Often Winterson's writing takes my breathe away. I love her repetition, the acknowledgment of story-telling, the poetry, and the grand themes. I intend to read everything she's ever written.

No comments: