Tag Archives: Jeanette Winterson

November verse 7 & Jeanette Winterson’s Weight

November verse 7: Pick your myth
Trump's confidence is his Achilles'
heel? He's sulking in his tent.
Freud's Oedipus was doomed to kill his
dad. Camus' Sysiphe was meant
to be heureux. And Jeanette Winter-
son: will Atlas represent her?
Did those old poets know us all,
no life too big, no fate too small?
I dip into the well of fable,
ornament of childhood days,
and find Perseus in the maze.
With Ariadne's thread, he's able
to find his way. But I'm not sure
I'm ready for a minotaur.

This verse was prompted by a piece of US political commentary and by:

Jeanette Winterson, Weight (©2005, Canongate 2018)

Weight is Jeanette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s series The Myths. Other titles in the series include Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus, the Scoundrel Christ and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy.

Weight is a lively retelling of the Greek myth of Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity. This being Jeanette Winterson, there’s quite a lot of rhapsodic testifying as to the myth’s deeper meanings and its personal significance for the writer.

The retelling focuses on Atlas’s relationship with Heracles, who briefly relieves him of his burden. There’s a bit of rough humour at Heracles’ expense and reflections on their different kinds of strength: Atlas can hold still and Heracles is a man of action. Heracles comes close to stealing the limelight as the narrative follows him to his marriage to Deianeira and his horrible death in the burning shirt of Nessus. But Atlas has his quiet surprises as well, such as when Laika, the astronaut dog, comes into his life.

I confess I didn’t quite follow a lot of the meditation on the myth’s meaning. Something about boundaries and desire, fate and decision. It becomes personal. Jeanette Winterson finds in Atlas an echo of her own adoption story, her ignorance about her birthparents (this was written before Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, where she writes about her birth mother), and her rejection by her adopted mother:

Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.
My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.

The task she took on, first as a rejected child and then as a writer, was to create a world of the imagination, a world that she has had to carry as a great weight.

I generally read Jeanette Winterson’s writing with a mixture of irritation and exhilaration. This book was no different. I’m irritated by the (presumably deliberate) false version of the myth that Atlas held up whole the world, when it was the heavens that he had to hold up in the original story. I’m irritated by the crude dick humour around Heracles (though maybe it’s not meant as humour but, even more irritatingly, as a version of male sexuality). I’m irritated by the way the prose sometimes feels like revivalist preaching, whether the subject is scientific cosmology or the pain of not know who your parents are. I’m irritated by occasional lapses of logic. But – and this is why I kept reading and am glad I did – I’m exhilarated by the way the book yokes together a scientific understanding of the universe with images from Ancient Greek myth (Laika nestling in Atlas’ shoulder, for example) and, in the final pages, I’m exhilarated at the notion of Atlas (and so possibly Jeanette) laying down his (and possibly her) burden.

Why would Jeanette Winterson be normal when she could be happy?

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape 2011)

20111227-185519.jpg I read this aloud to the Art Student (who insists, in the face of mounting pressure, that her nom de blog not progress to ‘the Artist’) on a leisurely drive from Sydney to Melbourne. We made it through all but 30 pages. It was a good choice for the gig.

The book is in two unequal parts. In the first, longer part Jeanette Winterson revisits territory she covered in her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: her relationship with her adoptive mother, a terror to Jeanette as a child but a gift beyond price to a novelist. The title of the book quotes the response of Mrs Winterson, as she is often called here, when teenaged Jeanette told her she was in love with a woman. Another of her striking utterances may have been almost as attractive as a title: ‘The trouble with books is you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late.’ The experiences recounted in this section have clearly been thought about long and deep. I haven’t read the novel, and don’t know what’s distinctive about this version. There are some colourful bits about her mother’s response to the novel, but at the end of this section, roughly two thirds of the way through the book, there was no obvious reason why it had been written at all.

And then, after a two-page ‘Intermission’, it takes off. In the second section, which a note at the end tells us was written as the events it describes unfolded – that is, without knowledge of the outcome – the author tells of a period of severe mental distress that followed the break-up of a long-term relationship and her discovery of some papers that seem to be her birth records. This leads to a search for her birth mother, which is eventually successful. The whole long first section provided necessary background and orientation: we need it to grasp the force of the emotional turmoil and the extraordinary effect of some key phrases, which might otherwise seem to be ordinary, even platitudinous. What we get is a revelation about the powerful feelings that can attach to an adopted person’s search for birth parents. We also get an account of an experience that in another person might have been medicated, but here is an extraordinary, if painful, process of discovery and blossoming.

This is a marvellous book.

You wouldn’t read about it

On Friday night my book club had its end of year meeting. That’s the book club where we swap books and keep discussion to a minimum. I missed the end of year meeting of the book group, where the rest of the chaps discussed a book of essays by David Foster Wallace which I hadn’t managed to read, so I didn’t miss anything but conviviality and shame (unless of course something happened that they’re being secretive about). The book club met at Anong in Kings Cross for the best Thai food I remember ever eating, and we had a wonderful night, helped by two of our number being on first name terms with the restaurant owners and several having had recent travel adventures.

Rather than the usual complex swapping, this meeting each year is the occasion of a bit of simple giving. Each of us brings a gift-wrapped book, and each goes home with one. Two years ago three of the six books turned out to be The Slap, which has become even more ubiquitous since then, if that’s possible. This year, despite all the double guessing and byway exploration that goes into the choice of books, there was another hat trick: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?