April 21, 2009

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

I read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson as an undergrad in a feminist lit. course. I remember thinking it was all right, although I was absolutely conscious of the fact that I wasn't really getting it. Still, I liked it well enough to hang on to my copy for nearly ten years. Being at an absolute loss for something to read, I picked it up again and I'm incredibly glad that I did. This time I had enough experience and perspective to not only get it, but to actively enjoy everything that I had missed the first time through.

The Passion is, at its heart, a meditation on passion - sexual, spiritual, filial and emotional. The story itself is a simple one set in Europe over the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The first chapter follows Henri, a simple French soldier who follows Napoleon with unquestioning faith. The second chapter introduces Villanelle, a Venetian woman who literally loses her heart. The third chapter unites these two separate threads and the fourth chapter ties them together. But far from being cliched or even predictable, Winterson weaves the narrative with so much of the surreal, the questionable and the casually fantastic that the reader ends up feeling caught in a strange sort of tapestry. Her style turns a seemingly simple story into a grotesque and beautiful fairy tale told through a looking glass.

While The Passion is worth reading for the language and imagery alone, I especially loved Henri's ruminations on the nature of passion - that there is no hate like the hate that comes from passion disappointed, that to be in love is to live one's life in the service of the beloved, that the beloved bears a mirror, and only in that mirror can the lover see himself. None of these ideas are new, but to read them in Henri's vulnerable, earnest voice, to think of them after the book is done and his fate completely known is a lovely, melancholy experience, one that I couldn't have hoped to understand as a young, inexperienced girl.

Ultimately, The Passion can be read in many ways - as a magical realism, a fairy tale, a literary experiment, even, if one squints, as a feminist track, although, looking back, I think that the only reason it qualified for a course in feminist lit., is because Villanelle genders-bends and loses her heart to a woman. The queer material is presented casually, very much not the express point of the novel except in that it illustrates the way in which passion neither respects nor requires restriction (honestly, the fact that Villanelle has webbed feet is given more narrative attention).  That said, regardless of how you chose to read The Passion, regardless of where you place its weight, it is very much worth reading, if only as a doorway to ruminate on the role of passion in your life.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps what I'm about to say isn't relevant to the story you've read, but I find it very relevant to reading as you touched on it.

One's experiences greatly change what one gets out of a book. Books that I read as a teen or college student I look at very differently now, and books I read but didn't quite get in college but was required to read I now REALLY understand with life experience behind me. So while books allow us to vicariously live through others and flex our imagination, it's not until you've tasted some of those experiences does the book really connect. Sometimes it's just a passage you read before when younger that you quickly read and didn't think anything of. You read it again and it sets off memories and experience and then you really get what the author was writing about.
Or so I think anyway. Sometimes the re-read is unique to the reader and nothing more profound than that. But I would bet if you read the book again later in life and look back at what you wrote here you'll find another opinion again on what was written.

Madeleine said...

I absolutely agree with you on every point. While a book remains relatively constant (barring re-edits and special editions), the material is necessarily filtered through a reader, who is, by nature inconstant. This makes reading a really dynamic experience for all of the reasons you mentioned. In fact, one of the primary reasons I keep this blog is as a record of what I've read and how I've read it, because how I filter a story is guaranteed to change given enough time.

JimDesu said...

complete agreement with Axl

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Yanny'sYak said...

I totally know what you mean. I have read several books as an undergrad that I have only somewhat enjoyed. However, I feel like if I were to read it in my own time, at my own will, I would enjoy this much more.

Yanny'sYak said...

I totally know what you mean. I have read several books as an undergrad that I have only somewhat enjoyed. However, I feel like if I were to read it in my own time, at my own will, I would enjoy this much more.