Written on the Body

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Read 06/10/2016-11/10/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve never read a Jeanette Winterson novel before. I read her autobiography. I didn’t like her. I haven’t felt compelled to read any of her fiction, but a work colleague convinced me to give it a go. Written On The Body is on the 1001 Books list, so I thought why not?

I wish I hadn’t read Winterson’s autobiography. I don’t care who she is as a person, other than that it informs her fiction, her turn of phrase, the beautifully cynical outlook of her characters. I don’t want insight into where she is from, the struggles she’s had in life. I don’t want that knowledge because, for me, it diminishes her as a writer. Those whose talents we love should remain mysteries.

Page one. The language. The richness. The way she makes words fall over each other, kiss each other. The pure sexual charge of them. She slayed me.

I am thinking of a certain September: Wood pigeon Red Admiral Yellow Harvest Orange Night. You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to each other is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first, and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.

This is a treatise on love. How it is measured in units of loss. How it hunts you down. How it is expressed in cliché. I think about love a lot. Not romantic love, not the heat of pheromone driven desire, not the preferring of one person over all others. Love that can’t be described but only felt. I think it doesn’t exist because I have only felt it once, and I let it go. And yet I long for it to return. I let it go because it frightened me, that feeling that I would disappear into it. The book’s protagonist knows what I’m talking about. She calls it a precise emotion. It is terrifying. She doesn’t want to be seen by it. She wants the diluted version described in sloppy language and insignificant gestures.

I wonder why the clichéd, diluted version is the one that wins. Is it because we aren’t strong enough to withstand the precision of love’s full terror?

Winterson made me laugh out loud with the way she nailed relationships of convenience, where the two parties settle and don’t expect passion. It’s funny reading someone else’s words and thinking you could have written them yourself. I like Winterson now. She’s my kind of bad.

The narrator’s relationship with Jacqueline was a prize when it came to Winterson’s observations.

I didn’t love her and I didn’t want to love her. I didn’t desire her and I could not imagine desiring her. These were all points in her favour.

And on other people’s need for love to be something other:

Maybe most people gloss their comforts with a patina of romance but it soon wears off. They’re in it for the long haul; the expanding waistline and the little semi in the suburbs. What’s wrong with that?

The narrator’s friends know the truth, though.

They regarded Jacqueline with wary approval, regarding me as one might a mental patient who has been behaving for a few months. A few months? More like a year. I was rigorous, hard working and … and … what was that word beginning with B?
‘You’re bored,’ my friend said.

A book can be close to the bone sometimes.

You never give away your heart; you lend it from time to time. If it were not so how could we take it back without asking?

When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I mean it in spite of the formalities, instead of the formalities. If I commit adultery in my heart then I have lost you a little. The bright vision of your face will blur. I may not notice this once or twice, I may pride myself on having enjoyed those fleshy excursions in the most cerebral way. Yet I will have blunted the sharp flint that sparks between us, our desire for one another above all else.

The narrator meets another woman. She betrays Jacqueline. She falls into the abyss of love, is frightened by it, consumed by it, impelled by it into a different state of being. She is made new by it, all her past encounters made irrelevant. She is the other woman, destroying a marriage that is already dead but which has carried on as a thing of convenience until she arrives as the spark that wakens Louise into honesty. Winterson writes achingly well about what it is to love with such intensity. She has the narrator tell us about how her lover smells. Louise is a perfumer, she is a bottle of wine to be uncorked, she is a gun, she is the incense of death and faith. She writes about how she tastes, salty and sharp like an olive.

The book also addresses grief, the loss of those dear to us. After all the trouble Wild gave me, I hardened myself while reading this. Somehow, though, Winterson doesn’t nail grief in quite the way she nails love. I think it was because the narrator was paralysed by her sense of loss and wallowed a bit too much. Winterson writes interestingly on the death of love, which is what the narrator’s grief is bound up in.

What then kills love? Only this: Neglect. Not to see you when you stand before me. Not to think of you in the little things. Not to make the road wide for you, the table spread for you. To choose you out of habit not desire, to pass the flower seller without a thought. To leave the dishes unwashed, the bed unmade, to ignore you in the mornings, make use of you at night. To crave another while pecking your cheek.

I won’t spoil it, but the book didn’t end the way I thought, or hoped, it would. That’s the only thing that stopped this being a perfect novel.

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9 thoughts on “Written on the Body

  1. Wonderful review. I love her books but have not read this one. Interesting how your experience reading about the author made you less interested in reading her books. What do you make of the whole “unmasking” of Elena Ferrante and the reasons cited for her anonymity?

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    1. I feel appalled for Ferrante. She made a creative decision to write under a pseudonym. The journalist seemed to have hunted her down out of anger and jealousy, which makes it even worse, but the fact that she had chosen a persona through whom she thought she could better channel her creativity and he has now shattered that will surely affect her writing. I have yet to read her books, but have the first one waiting.

      I had a conversation with a musician recently about that weird line that exists between the artist and the fan, where the artist is loosely public property by having a public persona and the fan confuses this with actually knowing the person behind the artist. It’s why I don’t like meeting or approaching the people whose creative output has significance for me. I would be awkward, they would be however they choose to deal with the expected intrusion, it would all be horrible! He said pretty much the same thing, but from his perspective.

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      1. I agree. I found it rather awful and felt pretty angry but also interesting from the perspective of thinking about how much potential knowledge of an author’s life may influence our reading of their texts. I have mixed feelings about meeting authors I love and have been reluctant to meet some of my favorites for the reason you mentioned

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      2. Yes, as I was reading this book, I occasionally pictured the narrator as tiny, curly haired Jeanette. I don’t think she is Jeanette, though. With all art there’s an element of autobiography – the artist’s own experience has to be the starting point which is then embroidered and embellished. The skill is in tricking the reader/listener/viewer into forgetting what they know of the artist and allowing them to become immersed in the work.

        I’ve been reflecting on it a fair amount recently, and I wonder whether people generally become so consumed by the lives of those in the public eye because something is lacking in their own lives, perhaps tied in with the media pushing aspiration on us – be more Beyoncé, more Angelina, go on a talent show, have your own fame – and demanding more of public personalities, so that line between reality and presentation becomes increasingly blurred. There’s something about validation as well that is fed by social media. The need to collect friends and likes and followers, and the increased kudos is someone famous befriends, likes or follows you.

        Oops! Went off on a tangent there!

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  2. I haven’t read any of her books either, but I just bought Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit maybe two weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m curious now to know why you didn’t like her after reading her autobiography, but I’m not going to look into it until after I read her books. 🙂

    And I felt the same way about Elena Ferrante. My first feeling was sadness when I found out she’d been outed, which went straight to rage when I learned how it had happened. I’d be the same if I were ever published (which of course I’ve always dreamed about); I would want to be completely anonymous, or else just a recluse like Salinger. I’m an intensely private person and the fact that someone would specifically violate her life that way is just so upsetting to me.

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    1. She wasn’t the person I expected to meet, based on what friends had told me about her books. There were elements of her personality, especially in relation to her birth mother, that I really didn’t like. It’s not particularly well written, either. She’s definitely a better fiction writer.
      I was so angry about Ferrante. I did my best not to read much in case I read about her private self, but then I read an article by a silly journalist who said, as a massive Ferrante fan, she was angry about being forced to know Ferrante’s true identity against her will (that was the headline so I thought I’d be safe reading the article) THEN REVEALED IT IN HER OWN ARTICLE! So I know who the private person is against my will, too.
      I’d go the Salinger route – leaking scurrilous stories about myself and hiding away in the mountains.

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