The Books: “The Passion” (Jeanette Winterson)

0802135226.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

The Passion is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s one of those books, too, that I can read, and read again, and again, and never get sick of. It always weaves its spell. Fantastic. To me, it is Winterson at the height of her powers. When she started getting introspective (in my opinion), when her imagination started turning inward – I lost interest a bit. Not forever, mind you – but I kept waiting for, you know, a story – in her next couple of books – something that was on the extraordinary level of Sexing the Cherry and The Passion … and it wasn’t there. Now, Winterson has no obligation to me, specifically. It is just my taste speaking. She obviously had other things to say, and wanted to try other things in her writing – and kudos to her for feeling free enough to do that. Winterson is nothing if not ambitious and fearless. I guess it’s tough when you count a book as your all-time favorite, one of your beloved books. I don’t THINK I sat around waiting for her to write another Passion – that’s not really my thing either … Oh well. Who knows. All I can say is: The Passion is a terrific novel and a book I hold very dear to my heart. There are characters in those pages – Villanelle, Domino, Napoleon – who will stay with me forever. Winterson creates scenes that will forever be emblazoned on my memory: the frigid Russian winter, the casino in Venice, the eerie prison/mental hospital on the island at the end … These are WORLDS she creates. A writer really is like a god in that way – she creates worlds. Winterson’s world has logic and magic, walking hand in hand … and you may not believe something happens logically – but you believe in the magic. It’s just great stuff – and I can’t recommend The Passion highly enough. I love love love this book.

There are two narrators: Henri, a young kid who ends up being Napoleon’s personal cook – and Villanelle – a cross-dressing web-footed red-headed woman from Venice. Napoleon Bonaparte has begun his World Takeover Campaign and Henri, a farm boy with no life experience, finds himself swept up in it. He believes in Napoleon. Napoleon is his hero (although you can kind of tell, from the prose of his narration, that his idol has fallen off the pedestal … and he is writing about this in some kind of terrible retrospect). Henri believes in what Napoleon says. It is after the winter campaign – going in to Russia – when Henri realizes that Napoleon is mad, that any ends justify the means … and that his idol is actually a maniac. You get the sense that Henri is actually quite fragile. He has not recovered, emotionally, from losing his idol. There is something terrible in a world that crashes your idols. But anyway, that’s part of Henri’s side of the story.

Villanelle is one of the great literary creations. I find her, frankly, impossible to resist. So I guess I’m like all the men (and women) who fall down like ninepins at her feet, dying for love of her. She lives in Venice with her mother and stepfather – who is a simple kindly baker. The sections on Venice – and what Venice is like, and what it means to Villanelle (whose family have been Venetians for centuries) – and how the city is a shape-shifter, the watery alleys and roads never in the same place, a city to get lost in … anyway, the Venice sections are among the most spectacular in the book. Winterson (Villanelle) seems to be writing about a fantastical place where magical things can happen … not an actual city on the globe … but that is how Villanelle sees it. She was born under strange circumstances – and she knows that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio (etc.) … She, too, is a shape-shifter. At night, she dresses up as a boy and goes and works in a huge casino. She puts a beauty mark on her face, to kind of mess with gender expectations … and she pickpockets people to get extra cash. Men fall in love with her/him. Perhaps they look at the boy working the roulette wheel, or the blackjack table … and find something appealingly feminine about him … who knows what … and they find themselves rubbing up against her. Women openly fall for this small red-headed boy … and Villanelle enjoys a rich (if insane and complicated) sexual and romantic life. But it is not until she meets one particular elegant woman at the casino that all hell starts to break loose. Villanelle has never been in love. She has plenty of experience – but no experience of the heart. She meets a woman in the casino and is immediately smitten. This woman is married – to a distracted man, a shipbuilder (if I remember correctly) – and Villanelle and she begin a passionate affair.

Okay, so there’s that.

Meanwhile. Napoleon is still on his rampage. He has taken over Venice. This, to Villanelle, is sacrilege. Disgusting to her. Things begin to break down with the woman of her heart – perhaps she is not willing to risk all, who knows … but their liaison begins to end, and Villanelle realizes that her heart has been stolen. Literally. She puts her hand on her chest and feels no heart beat anymore. She becomes convinced that it is SOMEWHERE in her ex-lover’s house, and she must get in there to get it back.

Villanelle never knew her father. Her father was one of the mysterious class of people known as the “Venetian boatmen” – those who propel the gondolas through the streets and alleys, and have been doing so for centuries. The boatmen have their own rites, as secret as the dead, and stories – terrible and beautiful – are passed down through generations. The legend is that all boatmen have webbed feet. But if anyone outside the charmed boatman circle ever SEES the webbed feet – they will go mad. There are stories of such encounters. Villanelle’s mother found herself pregnant – and before the baby was born – the father disappeared. When the baby was born, alas – it was a girl (women are not allowed to carry on the boatman tradition) – with red hair … and ohmygod – webbed feet. In the entire history of the Venetian boatmen, there has never been a woman with webbed feet. So it is apparent from Day One that things will be different and difficult with this small red-headed girl. Villanelle’s mother marries again – this time a baker – and they seem to accept that every night their daughter puts on men’s clothes and stays out all night in casinos.

Villanelle’s love affair eventually crashes and burns, and she finds herself without a heart. Nothing matters anymore, so she joins up with Napoleon’s army – or, should I say, becomes one of the throngs of prostitutes who follow the men around, from country to country. Love doesn’t matter anymore. And her country has been taken over by an insane Frenchman. Nothing matters. Villanelle is a gambler at heart. Her whole thing is: “You play. You win. You play. You lose. You play.” That’s it. THAT is the game of life.

It is in her time as a prostitute that she meets Henri.

Henri, like many men before and probably after, falls head over heels in love with her – although his true love is, of course, Bonaparte.

You just get the sense that whoever ends up being with Villanelle will have to be worldly, in some way. Henri, with his sweet farmboy innocence, has no idea what he is getting himself into. But isn’t that how “passion” often is? Passion is not safe. Passion does not hedge its bets. Passion doesn’t look before it leaps.

I hesitate to say anymore about this book – the way it all unfolds has a terrible inevitability … and Winterson really has things to say about love. Her voice (like I mentioned) is distinctive. No one can write about love and come up with anything new. Impossible. But to find a way to write about passion (sexual, romantic) that feels new – well, that is quite an accomplishment.

There are scenes of Villanelle – at midnight, 1, 2 a.m., in her gondola, parked outside of her ex-lover’s house – where the ex-lover is ensconced with her husband – Villanelle knows that her heart is in there somewhere and life cannot continue for her until she gets it back

You know. That feels new. It is logical, too. Winterson writes the fantastical as though it is the most normal thing in the world.

It is my favorite of all of her books. I’ll probably do one or two excerpts.

But here is the opening of the book. It is Henri’s first section. I read this even now – even after reading the book multiple times – and I want to keep reading. It’s hypnotic. What on EARTH is going to happen?

EXCERPT FROM The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.

Odd to be so governed by an appetite.

It was my first commission. I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Josephine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.

No one over five foot two ever waited on the Emperor. He kept small servants and large horses. The horse he loved was seventeen hands high with a tail that could wrap round a man three times and still make a wig for his mistress. That horse had the evil eye and there’s been almost as many dead groom sin the stable as chickens on the table. The ones the beast didn’t kill itself with an easy kick, its master had disposed of because its coat didn’t shine or the bit was green.

‘A new government must dazzle and amaze,’ he said. Bread and circuses I think he said. Not surprising then that when we did find a groom, he came from a circus himself and stood as high as the horse’s flank. When he brushed the beast he used a ladder with a stout bottom and a triangle top, but when he rode him for exercise he took a great leap and landed square on the glossy back while the horse reared and snorted and couldn’t throw him, not even with its nose in the dirt and its back legs towards God. Then they’d vanish in a curtain of dust and travel for miles, the midget clinging to the mane and whooping in his funny language that none of us could understand.

But he understood everything.

He made the Emperor laugh and the horse couldn’t better him, so he stayed. And I stayed. And we became friends.

We were in the kitchen tent one night when the bell starts ringing like the Devil himself is on the other end. We all jumped up and one rushed to the spit while another spat on the silver and I had to get my boots back on ready for that tramp across the frozen ruts. The midget laughed and said he’d rather take a chance with the horse than the master, but we don’t laugh.

Here it comes surrounded by parsley the cook cherishes in a dead man’s helmet. Outside the flakes are so dense that I feel like the little figure in a child’s snowstorm. I have to screw up my eyes to follow the yellow stain that lights up Napoleon’s tent. No one else can have a light at this time of night.

Fuel’s scarce. Not all of this army have tents.

When I go in, he’s sitting alone with a globe in front of him. He doesn’t notice me, he goes on turning the globe round and round, holding it tenderly with both hands as if it were a breast. I give a short cough and he looks up suddenly with fear in his face.

‘Put it here and go.’

‘Don’t you want me to carve it, Sir?’

‘I can manage. Goodnight.’

I know what he means. He hardly ever asks me to carve now. As soon as I’m gone he’ll lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird.

In the morning I’ll be lucky to find the wishbone.

There is no heat, only degrees of cold. I don’t remember the feeling of a fire against my knees. Even in the kitchen, the warmest place on any camp, the heat is too thin to spread and the copper pans cloud over. I take off my socks once a week to cut my toe-nails and the others call me a dandy. We’re white with red noses and blue fingers.

The tricolour.

He does it to keep his chickens fresh.

He uses winter like a larder.

But that was a long time ago. In Russia.

Nowadays people talk about the things he did as though they made sense. As though even his most disastrous mistakes were only the result of bad luck or hubris.

It was a mess.

Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye.

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

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2 Responses to The Books: “The Passion” (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. Sean Polite says:

    I enjoyed your review of “The Passion”! I’m reading it for a class, but have become quite enamored with it. You hit Villanelle right on the head. Her appeal is for the ages, and her style and presence puts her in the pantheon of classic literary characters. I was recommended by a clerk at a local video store to watch the movie “Les Enfants du Paradis” (Children of Paradise). I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I can only pass along the recommendation in good taste. There’s a character by the name of Garrance, whose actress’ performance won the heart of a young Marlon Brando. Garrance’s alluring, sensuality and frankness echoes much of Villanelle. I’m glad I got assigned this book to read.

  2. Hazel Lawrence says:

    The Passion’ is one of my favorites as well. It’s a story that approaches truth through weaving reality and fantasy. The beauty of the book comes from Winterson’s words which are so perfect that they not only support that truth but become part of it.

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