Thank you to Bibliographing for introducing me to Jeanette Winterson. I’ll be dutifully tracking down every single one of her fourteen or so books, both fiction and non-fiction. Any suggestions on where to begin from those of you that already know her work?
It took me all of two days to read The Passion. Not only because it is a slender little book, but mostly because I was loathe to disrupt the atmosphere the book created. It was both highly realistic and extremely magical, and I love a book that can embody that paradox without becoming awkward. It managed to accomplish this feat by embracing those emotions we continue to consider mysterious – namely, love, but also trauma and how humans cope with a full range of disappointments and disillusions.
I don’t want to give away the details of the story except to say that The Passion is an historical fairytale – set in Napoleon’s France as well as in Venice. It’s about Henri, an earnest young Frenchman, and Villanelle, an unusual Venetian, and their respective passions. Despite the historical nature of the story, reading The Passion felt more like reading contemporary, experimental fiction. Another reason I enjoyed it so much.
Someone else will have to tell me if this is characteristic of Winterson’s style but the prose in the novel had a weighted and lyrical quality. Key phrases were repeated throughout, each time accruing slightly more meaning. This is a risky technique, because often the opposite can occur and the phrases can come off sounding cliché. This didn’t happen with The Passion and I think this is mainly due to Winterson successfully creating a fantastic, fabulous, nearly-carnival ambiance.
On her website, Winterson writes this:
The past is strange. We have never been there and we can never go there. I have never recognised the past as a document, rather I understand it as a kind of lumber room, full of trunks of old clothes and odd mementoes. There are as many narratives as there are guesses.
She writes this in a description of her other novel, Sexing the Cherry, but it strikes me as relevant to The Passion as well. I love this idea of the past as something a writer can re-construct both faithfully and unfaithfully – precisely because we can only guess and invent and imagine. We can never visit the past, we can only be bold enough to try to give it meaning and shape. To attempt to make something out of the remnants which make their way forward into our present as clues.