Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, by Jeanette Winterson.
Part of the ongoing Myths Series from Random House (which I adore) – Winterson takes on the myth of Atlas and Heracles. I mentioned in another post that I think Winterson could definitely be a kind of post-modern Edith Hamilton. I have always felt that her strength, as a writer, lay in the evocation of magic and myth and fairy tale in the middle of more straightforward narratives. It’s what I most love about her. Because even with all her invention and unconventionality – she actually is one of the most traditional of writers. Meaning: she respects tradition. She ADORES it. It lives and breathes around her, and she finds new ways to put those traditions and old tales into her stories – because they mean that much to her. It’s not an act or a gimmick (having read her book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery – essays on art, from paintings to books to poems – I can say that she sees herself as PART of a tradition, not outside it. Many of her more radical fans don’t like this about her because they “need” something from her. They want her to buck the system, they want her to be only one thing. Reject the tradition!! Jeanette Winterson is a lesbian. She’s quite open about it. But she also is quite open about the fact that because of her sexuality – which has little to do with who she is as a writer – people project things onto her, and have expectations that are, frankly, retarded. I suppose any writer from a minority struggles with that. They need to be all things to all people.) Winterson tells a funny story about being berated by some random woman on the street because she shaved her legs and wore heels. It’s that kind of nonsense I’m talking about. My friend Alex often deals with nonsense like that. Her lesbian fans want to OWN her and then get all insane and jealous when Alex expresses a thought that doesn’t line up with the expected lesbian attitude. I’ve seen it happen on her blog – it’s nuts!! Anyway, Winterson is elusive, in many ways. She resists classification. I understand why a certain group of people would latch on to her work. I really do. But she’s an independent person, an ARTIST, not a person on a poster representing a cause.
Her imagining of the myth of Atlas and Heracles is marvelous – and is representative of what I am talking about her. I really get the sense, with this book, that Winterson was able to retreat to a private space (in her mind, I mean) – where she is most creative, most in touch with her dreams and her thoughts, and wrote from that place. Sometimes Winterson’s work is self-conscious. Nothing wrong with that. Virginia Woolf was a self-conscious writer. James Joyce was a self-conscious writer. Being aware of you, the artist, in the act of creation is part of the 20th century literary tradition. Winterson can sometimes go off the deep end with it, and the references become lost – it becomes a truly private work, not accessible to me, the reader – but here, with the myth of Atlas and Heracles, she is in true storyteller mode. She is sitting around the fire with members of her tribe, telling a tale they all know well, but never get tired of hearing about. Because there are lessons in it for all … Winterson has truly thought about this myth, and its larger metaphors … and so she goes for it.
I had been vaguely disenchanted with Winterson’s books for a couple of years. Burnt by Art & Lies (excerpt here), Gut Symmetries (excerpt here) and The PowerBook (excerpt here) , although all of them have some quite lovely writing. But within 2 or 3 pages of Weight, I felt that prickle at the back of my neck, that goosebump-y feeling … of being in the presence of a writer at the top of her game. It is a spare book, not too much fat on it, but I found myself totally lost in the pages. I know the myth of Atlas and Heracles, but here is a new voice telling that old familiar tale. She turns it into a first-person narrative, which I love – because we can enter into their experience in a new way.
More than anything, I just got the sense that Winterson had a BALL writing this. Like she could have kept writing forever, it was that fun and satisfying to her. It’s a really fun book – I highly recommend it. If you’re into Greek and Roman mythology, then the “Myths Series” is something you should definitely check out. I haven’t read all of them – just Winterson’s and Atwood’s – but what a great idea, I think.
EXCERPT FROM Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, by Jeanette Winterson.
The war between the gods and the Titans was a war we had preferred to avoid. There are several versions of this war. One thing is certain; what began as just cause became just excuse. We fought for ten years.
Some say that my father was Uranus and that my brothers and I, especially Cronus, plotted to attack him and castrate him. It is certain that Cronus cut off the genitals of Uranus, and then took power himself. It is certain too, that Cronus bore a child, Zeus, who likewise dethroned his father and gained control of the heavens. Zeus had two brothers, Hades and Poseidon, and while Zeus became Lord of the Sky, Poseidon had his kingdom in the waves, and Hades was content with what lies beneath. The earth was left to mankind.
It was mankind who attacked quiet Atlantis, and Zeus who helped them to destroy my people. I escaped, and joined the revolt against the heavens. I was the war-leader, the one who had lost most and little to fear. What can a man fear with nothing to lose?
In the long fighting, most of us were killed, and my mother, out of her secret nature, promised victory to Zeus. What Titans were left were banished to Britain, where the cold inhospitable rocks are worse than death. I was spared for my great strength.
In a way I was allowed to be my own punishment.
Because I loved the earth. Because the seas of the earth held no fear for me. Because I had learned the positions of the planets and the track of the stars. Because I am strong, my punishment was to support the Kosmos on my shoulders. I took up the burden of the whole world, the heavens above it, and the depths below. 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?
It was the day of my punishment.
The gods assembled. The women were on the left and the men were on the right. There’s Artemis, worked muscle and tied-back hair, fiddling with her bow so that she doesn’t have to look at me. We were friends. We hunted together.
There’s Hera, sardonic, aloof. She couldn’t care less. As long as it’s not her.
There’s Hermes, fidgety and pale, he hates trouble. Next to him lounges Hephastus, ill-tempered and lame, Hera’s crippled son, tolerated for his gold smithy. Opposite him is Aphrodite his wife, who loathes his body. We’ve all had her, though we treat her like a virgin. She smiled at me. She was the only one who dared …
Zeus read out his decree. Atlas, Atlas, Atlas. It’s in my name, I should have known. My name is Atlas – it means ‘the long suffering one’.
I bent my back and braced my right leg, kneeling with my left. I bowed my head and held my hands, palms up, almost like surrender. I suppose it was surrender. Who is strong enough to escape their fate? Who can avoid what they must become?
The word given, teams of horses and oxen began to strain forward, dragging the Kosmos behind them, like a disc-plough. As the great ball ploughed infinity, pieces of time were dislodged. Some fell to earth, giving the gift of prophecy and second sight. Some were thrown out into the heavens, making black holes where past and future cannot be distinguished. Time spattered my calf muscles and the sinews in my thigh. I felt the world before it began and the future marked me. I would always be here.
As the Kosmos came nearer, the heat of it scorched my back. I felt the world settle against the sole of my foot.
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. I was dumb and still as a mountain. Mount Atlas they soon called me, not for my strength but for my silence.
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.
I do not know how long I crouched like this, petrified and motionless.
At last I began to hear something.
I found that where the world was close to my ears, I could hear everything. I could hear conversations, parrots squawking, donkeys braying. I heard the rushing of underground rivers and the crackle of fires lighted. Each sound became a meaning, and soon I began to de-code the world.
Listen, here is a village with a hundred people in it, and at dawn they take their cattle to the 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.
Someone is scrambling up a scree slope. His boots loosen the ground under him. His nails are torn. He falls exhausted on some goat-grass. He breathes heavily and goes to sleep.
I can hear the world beginning. Time plays itself back for me. I can hear the ferns uncurling from their tight rest. I can hear pools bubbling with life. I realise I am carrying not only this world, but all possible worlds. I am carrying the world in time as well as in space. I am carrying the world’s mistakes and its glories. I am carrying its potential as well as what has so far been realised.
As the dinosaurs crawl through my hair and 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.
Listen, there’s a man telling a story about the man who holds the world on his shoulders. Everybody laughs. Only drunks and children will believe that.