Books discussed in this essay:
• Weight Jeanette Winterson. Canongate. 176pp. $12.00.
• Art Objects Jeanette Winterson. Vintage. 208pp. $13.95.
• Sexing the Cherry Jeanette Winterson. Grove. 192pp. $14.00.
• “The Agony of Intimacy.” Granta 110 (Spring/Summer 2010), pp 279-285.
“I want to tell the story again” — Jeanette Winterson
“The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform.” — Jeanette Winterson
Making fiction must be one of the more mysterious of human activities. Why do we make it, how do we make it, and with what materials? These questions have once again become prominent as our literary culture has become preoccupied with “the real.” Reality television, the invaluable advertisement “based on a true story” that accompanies the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the recent spate of fake memoirs and the finger-pointing that followed—they all would suggest not only that we demand a certain amount of fact in the stories we are told but that we expect to be explicitly told when we’re getting “fact” and when fiction. Blends make us uncomfortable (the category “meta-fiction” helps assuage this discomfort), and lies incense the public (Random House offered refunds to those who had bought A Million Little Pieces after the James Frey debacle). David Shields is just one to recently attempt to probe these questions with his manifesto (if one can call it that), Reality Hunger, by cobbling together a collection of unattributed quotations with some of his own observations worked in. However, he ends up suggesting more about the unstable idea of intellectual authority and ownership of ideas than he does about the reader’s demand for “reality” at all costs.
Jeanette Winterson has been addressing these questions for years, in both her novels and her criticism. Not content simply to create fiction, she constantly frames it in such a way that she asks fundamental questions about the making of fiction. They are important questions, as Winterson recently argued in The Independent that the desire to make something is the most “satisfying” human activity:
Life is about relationship—to each other—and to the material world. Making something is a relationship. The verb is the clue. We make love, we make babies, we make dinner, we make sense, we make a difference, we make it up, we make it new . . .
True, we sometimes also make a mess, but creativity never was a factory finish.
The wrestle with material isn’t about subduing; it is about making a third thing that didn’t exist before. The raw material is there; the author was there; but the relationship that happens between maker and material allows the finished piece to be what it is.
This is a key issue in reading Winterson’s work, which so stridently calls out to be read as autobiography—the heroine of her first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, is called Jeanette and lives through more or less the same events Jeanette Winterson herself lived through—and equally stridently denounces attempts to read her work that way. 1 She works the blend of fact and fiction in such a way that both are transformed.
Winterson has always told and retold the same fictions: of parents and children; of origins, and adoptions; of differences, of margins; of love; of passion; she has always manipulated rhythm and language as an excavation of sources. Much of her fiction mirrors what we know of Winterson’s own story, but she agitates against the idea that her work has to be considered as fiction or autobiography, laying claim to both. In Art Objects she writes: “The question put to the writer ‘How much of this is based on your own experience?’ is meaningless. All or nothing may be the answer. The fiction, the poem, is not a version of the facts, it is an entirely different way of seeing”; a “separate reality.” At every turn she eludes the critic, the interviewer, the reader; she offers truth, but not the truth. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
She militates equally against being read as a “lesbian writer,” as if reading lesbian writers as lesbian writers were “the golden key to the single door of our work.” Winterson’s work has many doors, she would have us understand; many ways in. But even an autobiographical approach—one which does, for example, take note of a writer’s sexuality—can get in through many different doorways. As many critics have pointed out, autobiography is as much of a fictional construct as fiction itself. Which door will it be today? How can I understand my story today? Which way in? Telling the truth, or writing fiction: these are not two distinct acts. They are bound in one single act, which, I argue, is the driving force behind Winterson’s writing: the act of translation.
The problem of autobiography will always be there, Winterson acknowledges; this problem is one, she writes, “that each artist solves for themselves.” And trying to parse what is lived from what is invented is not only “irrelevant,” it is “impossible”: “We cannot work backwards from the finished text into its raw material.” So, then, the artist must become a “translator,” must learn “to pass into her own language the languages gathered from stones, from birds, from dreams, from the body, from the material world, from sex, from death, from love.” Making literature is an activity of transformation, turning the raw material of authorial experience into readerly experience.
Anyone who learns a foreign language will tell you to beware of false friends—faux amis, a too-easy displacement from the source language to the target language. Translation, as Edith Grossmann has written recently, is an art that works by analogy—the translator works “by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.” Even in autobiography or memoir, it is not enough for an author to recount what they have lived, even if it were possible to write precisely what happened. The story has to be remade before it can have meaning in the idiom of fiction.
This is not unique to Winterson: all artists are translators (Plato was right about that, though wrong about much else). But for Winterson, the act of translation seems bound up not only in the creative act but in a particular imperative to retell familiar stories.
She looks to the old stories, the ones that seem indispensable: the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, stories that articulate our fears and our hopes, that explain. She looks to more recent stories, too: those of the Brothers Grimm, the English Civil War, Napoleon, Picasso, Handel. Echoing Howard Bloom’s concept of “strong poets,” Winterson calls these “strong texts,” which “work along the boundaries of our minds and alter what already exists. . . . Of course, strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people that have never read them, that they become part of what exists.”
As she writes in the introduction to Weight, her retelling of the myths of Atlas and Hercules, the power of storytelling lies in its “mythic not its explanatory qualities.” Retelling these “strong texts,” Winterson hopes “in the noisy echoing nightmare of endlessly breaking news and celebrity gossip, other voices might be heard, speaking of the life of the mind and the soul’s journey” (xvi). The “life of the mind and the soul’s journey”—there is an incantatory quality to Winterson’s writing, the legacy of being brought up as a missionary. Any preacher, parent, or poet will tell you that the essence of transmissability is in the rhythm and repetition of the story or speech. Winterson’s language breaks through the hum of everyday noise not through the specialness of her diction, but through her use of rhythm and repetition.
But if the point is to break through the hum and speak of the “life of the mind and the soul’s journey,” why tell these stories? What exactly are the mythic qualities of storytelling? How does retelling these stories break through the daily cacophony of news and gossip and images and soundbites? I would suggest that the answer to these questions lies in the potential danger wrapped up in the heart of the story—the devastating results we find again and again of loving too much, and seeking too far. Winterson goes back to these stories to find the danger in them, and to harness it in order to mount her attacks: against the stasis of being read autobiographically; against the linear temporality of a patriarchal narrative; as a form of feminist historiography, reinserting women into the march of history.
Rewriting mythology is a well-established literary sub-genre with a history going back to Ovid and Virgil, but a nearer literary ancestor for Winterson would be Schowb’s niece, Claude Cahun.
Cahun and Winterson have much in common: both refuse a too-easy identification with any particular group. Both write about chance. Cahun, like Winterson, renounces autobiography even as she uses it as cannon fodder—Cahun’s genre/gender-bending magnum opus of an autobiography is called Aveux non avenus: Disavowed confessions.
Cahun, like Winterson, rewrites “strong texts” in her collection Heroines, in which the stories of Penelope, Judith, Delilah, Helen, and Goethe’s Marguerite are translated into a collection of monologues that turn the conventional stories inside out. Cahun’s discovered heroines are inevitably sado-masochistic, manipulative, cross-dressing, fiercely independent women who take advantage of their proximity to powerful or famous men to get what they want. Her Cinderella celebrates the cruelty of her stepsisters, yet lamented her father’s dull marriage: “I will do anything to avoid a marriage like that. . . . But how would I do it? I with my loving nature, and so submissive?”
Feeling the need for daily humiliation, our “submissive” Cinderella turns to her fairy godmother to learn how to seduce the prince.
He had a passion for women’s shoes. To touch them; to kiss them; to let himself be trampled underneath their charming heels (pointed heels painted scarlet to look like splashes of blood); it is a modest joy that he has sought since he was a child.
Attracting the Prince with her absurdly small feet (she “regularly squeeze[s] them into a vise of stiff linen and rigid lace, as the Chinese do. This exquisite, and habitual, torture fills me with pleasure . . .”), Cinderella becomes the Princess. Having attained this social position, she uses it to further her submission: “approach passersby (there’s no lack of poor men or ugly men or even dishonest men), and the better I play my role for the dear Prince, the more marvelously intense for me will be this contract and these humiliating encounters.”
Cahun’s Cinderella is sounds remarkably alike in tone to the narratives of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. I quote at length:
He called me Jess because that is the name of the hood which restrains the falcon.
I was his falcon. I hung on his arm and fed at his hand.
He said my nose was sharp and cruel and that my eyes had madness in them. He said I would tear him to pieces if he dealt softly with me.
At night, if he was away, he had me chained to our bed. It was a long chain, long enough for me to use the chamber pot or stand at the window and wait for the late owls. I love to hear the owls. I love to see the sudden glide of wings spread out for prey, and then the dip and the noise like a lover in pain.
He used the chain when we went riding together. I had a horse as strong as his, and he’d whip the horse from behind and send it charging through the trees, and he’s follow, half a head behind, pulling on the chain and asking me how I liked my ride.
His game was to have me sit astride him when we made love and hold me tight in the small of my back. He said he had to have me above him, in case I picked his eyes out in the faltering candlelight.
I was none of these things, but I became them.
At night, in June I think, I flew off his wrist and tore his liver from his body, and bit my chain in pieces and left him on the bed with his eyes open.
He looked surprised, I don’t know why. As your lover describes you, so you are.
The motivation seems similar—to give voice to a fairytale princess whose story is usually told for her. The difference is in the underlying motivations for each woman: Cahun’s Cinderella comes across as innately violent, whereas Winterson’s Princess is violent because her Prince imagines her that way. These differences are paralleled in each writer’s relationship to her own otherness: Cahun walked around Paris with a shaved head wearing velvet cloaks, trying to freak out the Surrealists and refusing any stable identity. Winterson, on the other hand, casts herself in the media as a defender of homosexuals yet disavows the importance this has for her work; like her Princess, she admits that we are as we are described, even as we are not these things at all. 2
Winterson has also chosen to blend a comparatively recent fairytale with an ancient myth; this lends a paradoxical kind of power to the Princess’s story, rooting it in the archaic while casting her (and her sisters) as resolutely modern. Cahun’s Cinderella stays in her proper temporal moment (even as some of the other “heroines” of her collection, such as Eve and Helen, are transposed to the early 20th century), but the modern turn comes in the recognition of the fetish and the cruelty at the heart of the fairytale.
“I want to tell the story again” is a motif that recurs throughout Weight. It is the title of the first section, and it appears right after the introduction, as a means of linking the author’s critical statement and the imaginative work that follows. Winterson’s novels are full of these refrains. “Why is the measure of love loss?” (Written on the Body) “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” (The Passion). Like metaphorical touchstones, the refrains recur as in a song: to interrogate a problem, to insist on a point. They take nothing for granted. They ask sincerely, each time, And what now? And what now? Is it any different now?
Winterson foregrounds the reiterative quality of fiction; the refrain provides a means of interrogating our foundational fictions. What lies beneath the stories we tell? What— or who—is holding them up? Winterson’s book Weight offers two answers: the mythical answer is “Atlas.” Atlas is holding everything up. The metaphorical answer is that our belief in fictions sustains them.
The introduction to Weight reads as a statement on Wintersonian retellings. “Choice of subject,” she writes, “like choice of lover, is an intimate decision.” In that decision, there is recognition. “I recognize you; I know you again, from a dream or another life, or perhaps even from a chance sighting in a café, years ago.” When she received the call to participate in the Canongate Myths series (launched in 2005 with the aim of retelling 100 myths by the year 2038), Winterson says she realized the story she would choose was already present in her mind on some unconscious level, “waiting to be written.” “Re-written,” she qualifies.
Weight is a novel about Atlas, who holds up the world on his shoulders, and Heracles, who bore the weight for awhile. Atlas, a Titan, angered Hera and was cast out of the Edenic garden where he lived with his wife and daughter. A war between gods and Titans ensued, and the Titans were defeated. Atlas was spared because of his great strength, and as punishment he was assigned to support the Kosmos on his shoulders. The novel plays with notions of boundaries, as well those of as space and time. (Winterson’s interest in cosmology runs through Gut Symmetries, Sexing the Cherry, and The Stone Gods.)
All that there is, is mine, but none of it in my control. This is my monstrous burden. The boundary of what I am.
And my desire?
Atlas’s burden comes to feel like an allegory for writerly anxiety: the Titan taking the world on his shoulders, the writer accepting the burden of writing the world. Atlas’s transformation from Titan to world-bearer is described in the manner of the writer’s initiation into his craft.
Then, without any sound, the heavens and the earth were rolled up over my body and I supported them on my shoulders.
I could hardly breathe. I could not raise my head. I tried to shift slightly or to speak. […]
There was a terrible pain in the seventh vertebra of my neck. The soft tissue of my body was already hardening. The hideous vision of my life was robbing me of life. Time was my Medusa. Time was turning me to stone. […]
At last I began to hear something.
As the sounds multiply, Atlas learns to “de-code the world.”
Listen, here is a village with a hundred people in it, and at dawn they take their cattle tot he pastures and at evening they herd them home. A girl with a limp takes the pails over her shoulders. I know she limps by the irregular clank of the buckets. There’s a boy shooting arrows—thwack! Thwack! Into the padded hide of the target. His father pulls the stopper out of a wine jar.
Listen, there’s an elephant chased by a band of men. Over there, a nymph is becoming a tree. Her sighs turn into sap.
But although it is tempting to read Weight as allegory—and Winterson does seem to push the reader in that direction in her fiction in general— other readings prove more useful in light of Winterson’s other fiction. Unlike allegory, Weight does not use the story of Atlas to make a larger point about our world. Atlas is not separate from the world; he comes to realize he is the world: “As the dinosaurs crawl through my hair and the volcanic eruptions pock my face, I find I am become a part of what I must bear. There is no longer Atlas and the world, there is only the World Atlas. Travel me and I am continents. I am the journey you must make.” This curious metaphysical state, at once in the world and outside of it, mirrors the role of the Wintersonian author, who is both autobiographer and fiction writer, subject and creator. If there are many ways in, there are no ways out.
“Weight has a personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know and the myth I have re-told,” Winterson writes. The retelling blends the myth and the contemporary story, each enhancing the other and becoming inseparable. The distance between time and place is dissolved even as it is held in place by the structure of the story. A brilliant chapter in Sexing the Cherry explores this continuum: “Thinking about time is like turning the globe round and round, recognizing that all journeys exist simultaneously, that to be in one place is not to deny the existence of another, even though that other place cannot be felt or seen, our usual criteria for belief.” Winterson collapses the binaries of time and space, here and now, me and you, fact and fiction. She does it because binaries were invented to make rational sense of what Winterson invites us to understand on another level. Binaries organize the world we can feel and see, but Winterson encourages her readers instead to let themselves be “drawn into the art [and] out of ourselves. We are no longer bound by matter, matter has become what it is: empty space and light.”
“As a character in my own fiction,” Winterson writes towards the end of Weight, “I had a chance to escape the facts. There are two facts that all children need to disprove sooner or later; mother and father. If you go on believing in the fiction of your own parents, it is difficult to construct any narrative of your own.”
Perhaps this is why so much of Winterson’s fiction is taken up with issues of parentage, boundaries, and self-making. Weight’s pitting of the personal (autobiography) against the universal (myth) opens a space for reflection on what is really driving Winterson’s writing. “Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important,” she writes. “I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.”
Exposure and vulnerability touch on the one central force which animates Winterson’s fiction: love, or, more precisely, passion. A good example of this comes in the latest issue of Granta, where Winterson retells the familiar stories of Leda, Daphne, and Helen in order to assert certain truths about the act of loving.
The setting is the present-day. Daphne is a cautionary tale told by the schoolgirl narrator’s mother: “Don’t have sex with the gods. . . . Look what happened to Daphne,” who, after being pursued by Zeus, was saved by being transformed into a tree. She has been “dug up and relocated by the school as a warning to the rest of us.”
Leda is a tattooed barkeeper who runs a pub called The Swan and lives with an ex-model called Helen Troy, who, “for all her beauty, had a lot of testosterone.” Leda is blind, the narrator realizes; “‘Swan pecked her eyes out,’ explained Helen Troy. ‘Judge awarded her 50k per eye.’”
The mythical stories are reduced by resituating them in our own cautionary litigious moment. But when the narrator asks Leda herself about what happened to her, what follows is a stunning description of Leda mating with the swan, who transforms back and forth from swan to man, seemingly both at once. Her mistake: “And then I did something stupid. I turned over and I looked at him, and he changed like a trick of the light—swan/man/man/swan. I pulled him into me but I looked at him, and in the looking was the agony of intimacy.
‘He reared up. Feathers fell from him. His long soft heavy neck hardened into a cosh. I tried to move. It was too late. No desire now, only fear and rage. Pain. The black beak plucked out each of my eyes and I screamed through my open sockets. He broke my pelvis with the force of his thrust. When they found me the ground was litter-deep in bloodstained feathers.
‘They blamed me. You looked at a god, they said, and the gods come in disguise.’
“I listened to Leda and Helen Troy. I wondered how anyone finds closeness when violence is so near to it. Maybe the gods come in disguise because they know that—that it is better to take what’s there, take what you can, than risk yourself for what will burn or drop you.”
The narrator—who could be everywoman—looks to each of these mythical models and decides “I don’t want to be [any] of them.” “If love is going to be done differently,” she writes,
“I will have to do it. . . . I want to look into your eyes and not get blown up. I want you to see me as I am and not destroy me. I don’t want to retreat into plant life, or have the same bad dream every night. I don’t want to watch a city burn because I was there.”
The narrator wishes to take an active role in loving and demands an equality rooted in recognition— a love that is not an eluding, or a daring to look, but a mutual regard. A translation that respects the unending, untraversable otherness of the Other, a translation from aloneness to the terrifying risk of looking the Other in the eyes will have to pass through the “agony of intimacy.”
The narrator unzips her jeans and begins to masturbate as nearby a spade digs a new location for Daphne. The only clue to loving, to living, she thinks, is: “don’t regret it.” In an intertext of Molly Bloom’s final monologue (another mythologically inflected text), the story concludes: “Love me let me love you come near me get inside me carry me let me carry you risk it risk everything the stars have been travelling this light all this time let you lie on your back legs open and see it really see it so that it touches you. Touch me.” The sublimely submissive Yes I said yes I will yes has become reflexive: Love me let me love you.
There is always, for Winterson, the self, and the loved one, who is always the same, and always other: swan and god, god and man; there is what is lived, and there is what is not (yet) lived; everything is part of the same continuum. If Winterson comes back to the same stories again and again, she writes in Weight, it is to “return to problems I can’t solve, not because I’m an idiot, but because the real problems can’t be solved. The universe is expanding. The more we see, the more we discover there is to see. Always a new beginning, a different end.”
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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