Archive | November, 2011

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? ~ Jeannette Winterson

21 Nov

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By Zoe Williams, The Guardian

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir is written sparsely and hurriedly; it is sometimes so terse it’s almost in note form. The impression this gives is not of sloppiness, but a desperate urgency to make the reader understand. This is certainly the most moving book of Winterson’s I have ever read, and it also feels like the most turbulent and the least controlled. In the end, the emotional force of the second half makes me suspect that the apparent artlessness of the first half is a ruse; that, in a Lilliputian fashion, what appears to be a straight narrative of her early life is actually tying the reader down with a thousand imperceptible guy ropes, so that when she unleashes a terrible sorrow, there is no escaping it and no looking away.

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“Why be happy when you could be normal?” is the real-life question of her adopted mother, as Winterson is evicted, at 16, for taking up with a second girlfriend (the attempts to exorcise her sexuality after the first having been unsuccessful). There are passages and phrases that will be recognisable to anyone who’s read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: this is not surprising, since that first, bold announcement of Winterson’s talent was a roman à clef, and never claimed to be otherwise.

So anecdotes and jokes crop up in both books: the mother says the lesbian sweet-shop owners deal in “unnatural passions”, and the young Jeanette thinks it means they put chemicals in their sweets; the gospel tent, the CB radio, all the memorable details of the first fictional outing come up again, but the point is not that this is repetitive. Rather, that the documents are intended as companions, to lay this one over the last like tracing paper, so that even if the author poetically denies the possibility of an absolute truth, there emerges nevertheless the shape of the things that actually happened. I had forgotten how upbeat Oranges was; it may have been peopled by eccentrics, with a heroine held in alienation by the aspic of impotent childhood, but there were upsides. “I suppose the saddest thing for me,” Winterson writes now, “thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”

The upbringing as she tells it now is far bleaker; she was beaten, she was often hungry, she was left all night on the doorstep by a mother whose religious excesses might even have been a secondary influence on the household the first being her depression, which was pervasive and relentless. She was not well loved. However, the story’s leavened throughout by other observations. The geopolitics I sometimes found bold, and other times found too broad to be conclusive: “In a system that generates masses, individualism is the only way out. But then what happens to community – to society?” But it wriggles with humour, even as Jeanette describes Mrs Winterson, who, in between her violent homilies and dishonest violence, had like any good tyrant various crucial absurdities – “she was one of the first women to have a heated corset. Unfortunately, when it overheated it beeped to warn the user. As the corset was by definition underneath her petticoat dress, apron and coat, there was little she could do to cool down except take off her coat and stand in the yard.” There is Winterson’s quirky favourite hymn (“Cheer up ye saints of God,” it starts, “There is nothing to worry about”), her loving, impressionistic descriptions of classic authors, from TS Eliot to Gertrude Stein, as she first encounters them. And even with all this new, distressing detail, the story of her childhood ends well – it ends in escape.

Then there’s an odd page or two entitled “Intermission”, which finishes: “The womb to tomb of an interesting life – but I can’t write my own; never could. Not Oranges. Not now. I would rather go on reading myself as a fiction than as a fact … I am going to miss out 25 years … Maybe later …”

And suddenly we are on to territory which is alarming, moving, at times genuinely terrifying; skip forward a quarter century, and Winterson has just split up from her girlfriend, the theatre director Deborah Warner. She finds her adoption papers in the effects of her dad, when he’s moving to an old people’s home. She has a nervous breakdown and attempts suicide. “My friends never failed me and when I could talk I did talk to them. But often I could not talk. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place.” At times she describes the process with precision. Other times, though, the scars of this first abandonment are given in the most unadorned, uncharacteristic prose, as though she’s trying to gnaw her way through her own sophistication to get to the truth of it. In a way, the presence in the narrative of Susie Orbach, with whom Winterson started a relationship just before she started looking for her birth mother, acts as a reassurance to the reader as much as to the author, a fixed point to whom we can return, whose very inclusion means that, whatever happens, a fresh abandonment won’t be the outcome. Otherwise I genuinely think it would be unbearable. At one point I was crying so much I had tears in my ears.

There is much here that’s impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one’s sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start – her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father – emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her. The peace she makes with her adoptive family is, in this sense, more important and evocative than the more complicated and double-edged peace that comes with tracking down her birth mother.

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Moby Dick ~ Herman Melville

18 Nov

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well….I don’t even know how to review this epic novel…so I will share a NYTimes piece, by Kathryn Harrison. This article ran only a few weeks ago and though it addresses Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick?, she makes many observations and comments that I also shared during my read on Melville’s novel.

It’s a hard sell Nathaniel Philbrick has undertaken in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” The novel’s plot has been recycled for decades, inspiring films, radio dramas, cartoons, comic books, a television mini-series, a couple of heavy metal albums, a music video and a rap rendition. How many potential readers approach the masterwork of Herman Melville without already knowing the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale? Any? And why would such an overly exposed audience embrace a work of such heft, especially as almost every edition carries the added weight of ponderous academic commentary? “Moby-Dick” would appear to be one of those unfortunate books that are taught rather than enjoyed.

But who knows how many teeter in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, both drawn and repelled by the promise of edification? It’s the historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s intent to give those uncertain consumers a gentle shove toward the “one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.” He wants “you — yes, you — to read . . . ‘Moby-Dick.’”

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

It’s too bad. More capacious than ponderous, “Moby-Dick” has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself, more than enough to heave its significance out of what Melville called “the universal cannibalism of the sea” and into the light. Melville challenged the form of the novel decades before James Joyce and a century before Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Calling for tools befitting the ambition of his task — “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” — Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose. He halted the action to include a parody of the scientific classification of whales, a treatise on the whale as represented in art, a meditation on the complexity of rope, whatever snagged his attention. Reporting the exact day and time of his writing in a parenthetical aside, he “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition,” the moment Philbrick identifies as his favorite in the novel. Melville may not have called this playfulness metafiction, but he defied strictures that shaped the work of his contemporaries, including that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick,” calling it a “token of my admiration for his genius.”

Ahab doesn’t appear until the 28th of its 135 chapters. The vestigial plot is of the train-wreck variety. There is no conflict moving toward a crisis in “Moby-Dick” because the crisis is long past, the battle for the soul of the antihero won in a summary flashback made even more remote by the delirium that followed the castrating bite that took off Ahab’s leg. The one emotion returned to him is vengeance, Ahab now “shaped in an unalterable mould.” The die is cast; what’s left of the narrative is denouement, all the characters save the narrator, Ishmael, dragged inexorably toward destruction.

Philbrick reads the captain as a demagogue blinded by his profane quest. Ahab manipulates his crew into squandering both his investors’ funds and their own lives to satisfy his immoral agenda — piloting his ship toward a doomed conflict with a murderous, uncontrollable, unstoppable monster variously interpreted as nature, God, fate and, on a level particular to the history of the United States, slavery. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab admits, supporting Philbrick’s suggestion that “instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology.” Purer in his pride than a mere mortal, his grandness “plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep,” the captain is more Icarus than Tom Joad or Rabbit Angstrom. Melville’s America hurtles toward civil war, hobbled by slavery, as Ahab has been deformed by his first encounter with the evil that will drag him down to his death. His vision is both intimate, examining the intricacies of the tattoos on a savage’s leg and, sometimes, exalted.

For Ishmael, “a dreamy meditative man,” the vantage from the masthead “is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea. . . . The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; every­thing resolves you into languor.” The description is what Philbrick calls a “little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.” But if the ship is becalmed or blown off course by one flight of fancy or another, each diversion is just a little stay of the end’s certain execution.

If light and life are composed of color, the whiteness of the whale is the “pallor of the dead” and “the shroud in which we wrap them.” The color is “the most meaning symbol of spiritual things,” Melville wrote, and “Moby-Dick” belongs as much to the 20th or 21st century as to the 19th. Fascism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism — every failure of humanity can be projected onto the blank canvas of the beast’s unwitting head.

Melville sailed on whaling expeditions and understood well the crushing labor required to sustain America’s prosperity — to keep the whale oil burning in a rich man’s lamp — as well as the delicate maneuvering required to pilot a crew whose “demographic diversity,” as Philbrick calls it, predicted America’s future. Caucasians, Indians, African-Americans, varied islanders, all are, Melville wrote, “federated along one keel” of the “death-glorious” Pequod, a ship both “hearse” and “fading phantom.” A misdirected melting pot, it sails on, as Philbrick notes, under “a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him,” one who heedlessly sacrifices all those who have pledged their allegiance to him.

“The mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed,” in Philbrick’s words, “by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted,” we are a nation, and a species, ever poised on self-destruction. “Listen to every word” Philbrick says of what might be read as a cautionary tale, betraying an optimism he cannot have drawn from Melville. After all, the ending he saw was unavoidable extinction.

~ Kathryn Harrison, NYTimes 21 October 2011

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