Written on the Body

by Jeanette Winterson

Paperback, 1994

Status

Checked out

Publication

Vintage (1994), 192 pages

Description

The most beguilingly seductive novel to date from the author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Winterson chronicles the consuming affair between the narrator, who is given neither name nor gender, and the beloved, a complex and confused married woman. "At once a love story and a philosophical meditation." --New York Times Book Review.

Media reviews

In the end, the narrator appears more touching than revolutionary. But that is no complaint. The novel finds its subversiveness in its central theme -- that love by its nature must make its own rules: "It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid."
2 more
This fourth effort from British writer Winterson ( Sexing the Cherry ) is a high-concept erotic novelette, a Vox for the postmarital crowd. The narrator, a lifelong philanderer (``I used to think marriage was a plate-glass window just begging for a brick''), has fallen in love with Louise, a pre-Raphaelite beauty. ... One wonders, as Winterson intends, and then wonders some more. For Louise--and the narrator's love for her--never seems quite real; in this cold-hearted novel love itself, however eloquently expressed, is finally nothing more than a product of the imagination.
Like The Passion, Winterson's clever, prize- winning novel, Written on the Body seeks to dazzle the reader with self-conscious brilliance but cannot conceal its cruelty, the bloody chamber behind its opulent facade.

User reviews

LibraryThing member AndrewBlackman
There is a lot of beauty in this book. Every sentence is like a poem. You can feel the care and attention that went into every choice of word. For the first few pages, I was blown away and thought I had discovered a new favourite writer. But towards the end my enthusiasm faded. I felt like a diner who’s gorged on desserts and longs for some plain old bread and water to settle the stomach.

I’ve felt this before, where writing is very ornate. Arundhati Roy comes to mind. It seems wonderful at first, but then comes to feel like too much of a good thing. I think I like a certain amount of directness, and this type of book tends to meander and obscure. We never find out the narrator’s gender, name or anything much about him/her, for example. This is an interesting idea, and the uncertainty is quite refreshing in a way. But it also contributes to a sense of fakeness, that this is not the way you would really tell a story.

It’s even more unrealistic when the literaryness creeps into direct speech. For example when the main character says to another, shortly after returning from a long absence:

“Don’t you think it’s strange that life, described as so rich and full, a camel-trail of adventure, should shrink to this coin-sized world? A head on one side, a story on the other. Someone you loved and what happened. That’s all there is when you dig in your pockets. The most significant thing is someone else’s face. What else is embossed on your hands but her?”

Now, maybe I just don’t know very many interesting, eloquent people, but I’ve never met anyone who would talk like that.

Having said all that, I did appreciate much of the beautiful writing and the wonderful, detailed meditations on love and passion. It was a book that took me away into another world and I did appreciate the care with which language was used. Although I did tire of it a little, I still enjoyed it and would recommend it to others. And I would like to read more of Jeanette Winterson’s work. Recommendations, anyone?
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LibraryThing member Laurenbdavis
Although I quite love Winterson's ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT and THE PASSION, and was very fond of SEXING THE CHERRY, I'm afraid I'm not quite as enthralled with WRITTEN ON THE BODY, which I first read back in 1992 and have just re-read.

Part of the problem I have with this novel is the assumption Winterson makes in the opening sentence: "why is the measure of love loss?" This assumes that the measure of love IS loss, and I'm not sure what a reader is supposed to do with the rest of the book if she disagrees with the opening premise. Still, I will allow that this is the position of the narrator, and not an authorial premise (although that's a bit of a hard sell, since Winterson so loves the authorial intrusion). This means I see the narrator -- whose gender is never reveals -- as a rather Romantic figure, wallowing in a tragedy, simply radiant with loss.

The plot, such as it is, is very thin. The narrator, who has a habit of seducing married women, seduces one more, Louise -- a woman characterized thinly, by only her beauty and a tendency to make rather overly-poetic statements. The narrator then gives her up with alarming ease when s/he discovers Louise is suffering a form of leukemia only her oncologist husband is able to cure. Granted, Winterson has said she has no interest in plot whatsoever, only in language, but a little effort would be nice. Language for its own sake begins to sound pretty self-indulgent after a while, no matter how pretty it is.

Then, too, there is something nasty about the word choices. When the narrator touches, or rather invades, Louise's sick body, this is what Wintersen writes: "Will your skin discolour, its brightness blurring? Will your neck and spleen distend? Will the rigorous contours of your stomach swell under an infertile load?" Good grief. And then the narrator turns into an embalmer who prepares "'to hook out your brain through your accommodating orifices," and to dissect Louise with "a medical diagram and a cloth to mop up the mess, I'll have you bagged neat and tidy. I'll store you in plastic like chicken livers."

This certainly doesn't sound like the language of love to me. (Is it possibly some revenge dream of the author, larded over with a fictional front?) I admit to not being a fan of post-modernist writers, who I feel often opt for clever over compassion (and I'm rather big on compassion and empathy in fiction), but in the other Winterson works I cited above, I felt the cleverness was matched by the authors affection and yes, compassion, for her characters. The poetic language and imagery was in service to the characters. I don't find that here. WRITTEN ON THE BODY tries to hard to be enchant the reader with all that glittering prose, but it's too self-conscious, too self-serving and too cruel for my taste.
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LibraryThing member keristars
I originally read this book for an introductory class on literary criticism and theory, for which it is well suited. But beyond that, it's quite an enjoyable novel. One of the main themes is that the narrator has no identity except in relation to the various relationships he/she has - and since it's told from a first person perspective, the reader can't even know if the narrator should be referred to as "he" or "she."

I've seen this technique elsewhere, where a character is meant to be mysterious and given know descriptors, but in most cases it seems pretty stilted and stupid. Not so for Written on the Body! With this novel, the importance isn't placed on who the narrator is, but on how the narrator interacts with lovers and what happens with those relationships.

It was kind of fun to read this in class and hear about the judgments on the sex that my classmates made. Some were absolutely convinced that the narrator is a man while others were equally certain that the narrator is a woman, although any sex acts could involve either (and the relationships are with both men and women, further blurring the lines). It was an interesting look at why a particular voice can sound masculine or feminine and readers' prejudices.

All this is more of a reason for why it's a good novel for a literary criticism class, I suppose, but it's also why I enjoy rereading it. Maybe it's not a "fun" book and it requires a bit more thought than beach reading, but it's well worth the effort.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
Jeanette Winterson is definitely a prime example of why I continue to read books from the list of 1,001 books to read before you die. She is an author I probably wouldn't have found otherwise, yet I thoroughly enjoy everything I read by her. "Written on the Body" is no exception -- and may be one of my favorites by her to date.

Our unnamed narrator, which (given Winterson's own story -- told in memior form in "Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? and in fictionalized form in "Oranges Aren't The Only Fruit,)appears to be a fictionalized version of Winterson herself, is more interested in the opening passion of relationships than buying in to a long lasting love. Until she meets Louise -- who is married, and dying. Our narrator believes she chooses love this time -- or at least the pining for it.

There is beautiful imagery in this book, which is about the ache and longing from someone who really isn't able to commit. At times it gets to a level of sap that is a tad overwhelming, but I generally enjoyed the places this book went.
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LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Winterson's use of the language is peerless and, if that were all I needed to enjoy a book, I would certainly have enjoyed this one. Really, though, I like a plot somewhere in my novels and there was none to be found here. This one just wasn't quite my thing.
LibraryThing member iayork
Infatuated and Infatuating: This is barely a novel in the traditional sense.
The first-person narrator sounds at first like a man
then later, like a woman. He/she has no particular
characteristics of her/his own.
The plot is also barely there. Narrator is having an
affair with one woman, meets another, falls in love.
Lover leaves husband. Narrator learns that lover has
cancer and that only Estranged Husband can cure her.
(No surprise in an English novel, the semi-vile Husband
just happens to be Jewish.)
Narrator leaves lover, regrets her decision, goes looking
for her. Hero on a quest theme music. The End.

This lack of plot and person(ality) makes it easier
for her (we have to end up thinking of the narrator
as 'her')to observe the world without being particularly touched
by it. It also clears the way for some observations
about a deeply felt love that seems to spring up,
seize her by the throat and carry her off. Our narrator
barely acts, but she keeps a very sharp eye on that
which acts on her.

It is that eye, plus the poignancy of her analysis of what
she sees that makes this such a remarkable book. Love
and Loss are often partners-it's easy to imagine their
names painted on an office door-but in this book, they
are dancing partners. Love and Loss are the Fred and Ginger
that tease out the reader's recollections of the universal
feelings of being in love and take us quickly to our very
particular memories.

It's a pity that this book is printed in such an unattractive
paperback edition-it would make a perfect gift bound in leather,
no dust jacket and with a little pocket to hold a rose.


--Lynn Hoffman, author of [[ASIN:0131186361 New Short Course in Wine,The]] and
the completely infatuating [[ASIN:1601640005 bang BANG: A Novel]]
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LibraryThing member Miss-Owl
Winterson has been the kind of writer whose works I've flicked through in bookshops, but never got around to actually reading in full.

In this novel I'm somewhat ambivalent about her style - at times incredibly moving and poetic, shunning conventional limits - reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf - yet at other times somewhat bloated, maudlin and over-written for my taste. Let me look on the positive side, however, and say that Winterson certainly delivers what the title promises - some portions are truly quite anatomical!

To remain positive, here are a few passages I really enjoyed. This one comes from the first page of the novel:

"You said 'I love you.' Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another 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.

CALIBAN:
You taught me language and my profit on't is
I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.

Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid. It is no conservationist love. It is a big game hunter and you are the game. A curse on this game. How can you stick at a game when the rules keep changing? I shall call myself Alice and play croquet with the flamingoes. In Wonderland everyone cheats and love is Wonderland isn't it?"

I also liked this visual imagery, from near the end of the novel (but with Winterson I get the feeling that plot doesn't really matter anyway, so no spoilers here).

"Lights in ribbons where the road runs. Hard flares far away at the industrial estate. In the sky the red and green landing lights of an aircraft full of sleepy people."

Ultimately, then, a striking novel of impressions for me, but a little less coherent as a whole.
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LibraryThing member KRaySaulis
I like books that leave me wanting more. If the last chapter of a book simply wraps it up in a neat little package I get bored and simply want to rush to get it over with.

This is not one of those books. The romance, poetry, action and movement continue right to the last word.
LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Picked up and bashed my way through this book because I was frustrated at the amount of books I had on the go that I was unable to finish - including the latter pages of Les Mis. Was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Some irritating bits: the first world angst is occasionally too contrived (up all night drinking gin ≠ tragedy) and Elgin is too much a pantomime villain - but the language was beautiful, and the depiction of love very compelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member shanaqui
Oh, Jeanette Winterson, I do try to love you. But Written on the Body doesn't have much to hang on to except Winterson's prose, her brilliant imagery. It's like sinking into a warm bath of words, because she really does know how to use them.

But then the bath water gets cold and you have to get out.

Really, that's how I felt about Written on the Body. I like the neutral gender of the narrator-protagonist, and I like the intimacy of reading the book, the confessional nature of it.

But I don't even want to keep this one to read my favourite passages later.
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LibraryThing member rmostman
The book states, "the narrator has neither name nor gender", but it is clear within twenty pages the narrator is a woman. It is my theory that Winterson decided to do this so the would not be defined narrowly as "lesbian literature" but more mainstream and appeal to a wider audience.

The writing was very enjoyable, filled with prose and philosophy. Though the narrator does some terrible things, breaks a wonderful woman's heart, I still found myself cheering for her and the success of her current relationship with Louise. Sometimes the writing style was not always linear, which made it difficult to follow the detours of the narrators past. The narrator would be describing a present relationship, and then without notice start talking about previous affairs.

A great read!
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LibraryThing member WarBetweentheBooks
Cover. I do not like this cover. It is the angle of the body that does noting for me. The person looks more like a blob of flesh than an actual human. The only redeeming quality in my eyes is the lettering but I dislike the weird highlighting action that is going on. It just bugs me. My appreciation for this book does not get any better than this.

Plot. I was not even one chapter in when I realized that I was not the intended target for this book. The writing is almost all done in a poetic way. I am not a fan of poetry. The language is to flowery and ambiguous for my liking. I am also a huge proponent for fidelity. I don't like books or movies that have cheating as a plot point and I can't bring myself to feel bad for the cheaters even when they feel that they have a good reason. It is called breaking up or divorce. Don't go behind your partner's back.

Characters. The Narrator is not said to be either a male or a female. It is supposed to have some kind or symbolism but to me it just felt like the author trying and failing to be clever. The only characters that we really meet are either cheating on their husband/wife or in an affair with somebody's husband/wife. I can't like any of them. Especially the narrator or his main love interest Louise. The entire book is supposed to be how much the love each other and it felt more like lust, infatuation, and obsession to me. My opinion for this book is probably not the best to take because of how much I thoroughly disliked it but I hope that I can stop someone who would feel the same way about the book from reading it.

Recommend? No.
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LibraryThing member amandacb
Written on the Body is an extremely poetic detached narrative about romance, erotic love, and passion. The novel is unique in that one does not know if the narrator is male or female, and it can never quite be deduced from the textual details. Thus, one can take away from the text that the passions evinced thereon are human, male and female, not consigned to just one sex.… (more)
LibraryThing member M.Campanella
A quick look through my library would tell you that I happen to truly enjoy (and I was tempted to use ‘love’) Winterson’s books. I enjoyed this one as well, though not as much. That part of her prose that makes her books feel almost magical was not there. This one was much more grounded in reality. Not that that is a bad thing, but I felt as if I wanted to read Winterson for what I had known her for.
She did, however set herself a very ambitious goal in this one, and executed it fairly well.
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LibraryThing member twp77
The passion, pain, longing and regret of Winterson's genderqueer protagonist is as palpable as her words are lyrical. This is true quencher for the thirsty soul with its insightful look at love, desire and despair. It really is a must read, a true masterpiece.
LibraryThing member bridgetZsweet
Poetic, engaging, and haunting narrative that stays with the reader long after the book is finished. Sensual and sensational!
LibraryThing member lena_kate
Possibly my favourite book of all time. The way Winterson offers a love story with a difference... just fantastic. Truly touching, intense, and poetic. Also, its just incredible how the ambiguity of the narrator is maintained throughout the entire text! I wish I could write with such skill.
LibraryThing member c5nest
A work that describes the palpable and obsessional nature of grief. Perhaps my favorite of Winterson's books--I reread it every couple of years.
LibraryThing member peajayar
Reading this makes more sense of "Why be happy when you could be normal?" It has the same intensity. The protagonist, whose gender is never fully revealed, though I think "woman," sees fidelity as cottonwool, and promiscuity as failure. Talk about a cleft stick! The novel explores this paradoxical position in ways that makes sense of the "choose life! always choose life!" sense of the memoir. No wonder JW was a fan of Katherine Mansfield's writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member EverydayMiracles
Written on the Body isn't the sort of book I would normally read. As a Christian I don't read a lot of explicit fiction (though I do occasionally read a romance novel or two!) and I try to avoid books that have a "gimmick," particularly if the "gimmick" doesn't appeal to me. This book fits into the "explicit" and "gimmicky" category.

The narrator of Written on the Body is genderless (though most readers are aware of an underlying femininity to the character). My understanding is that this is meant to make the reader think about the way that we define gender roles. The problem for me was that the narrator didn't come across to me as being "of ambiguous gender" but as being "androgynous" (or not having an assigned gender at all).

I like gender roles. In fact, I have written off and on about the importance of gender roles in society and in our relationships with one another. I strive constantly to achieve deeper femininity and am the antithesis of a feminist.

Where I try to be soft and curvy, this book is all angles and skinny elbows, jutting against everything that I believe in and stand for. From the early pages of this short book when the narrator and one of his/her girlfriends blow up a public toilet as an act of militant feminism; to the point when the narrator begins to describe The Lover's body, including the internal organs and absolutely horrifying odors from the genital region, this book disgusted me.

There isn't much of a story here, only the obsessive love that the narrator shows to his/her married Lover, Louise, followed by the consequences of that love. It was difficult to follow and the language was overly flowery and prosaic. The poetry was unnecessary and detracted from the story as though it was meant to be a replacement for an actual story line.

I tried hard to enjoy this book, since it was recommended to me by my best friend. Initially I gave it two stars in an effort to give some credit to both Winterson and the friend who recommended the book, but in the end the truth is that I couldn't read the book straight through and put it down for several months before finally finishing it.

I am in the deep minority in my distaste of this book, but it is also not the kind of book that I would have voluntarily picked up on my own. I can sympathize with the book club members who also did not enjoy this book, and I wonder if some of the difference is in the liberal vs. conservative or secular vs. Christian.

Written on the Body is widely believed to be Winterson's best: a triumph. If this is the best of her books, I won't be reading another one of them in the future.
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LibraryThing member girlsgonechild
Brilliant. Flawless. One of the greatest books of all time. Winterson's very best.
LibraryThing member missizicks
This novel is a treatise on love, lust, loss and grief. Mostly on love, though. That precise emotion that terrifies. Winterson's writing is also a precise emotion, by turns caustic, funny and beautiful. I loved almost everything. Only the ending let the book down.
LibraryThing member LizaHa
When I was 15, this book was my sexiness bible. When I was 19, I tried to recommend it to someone else, re-read it in the process, and realized the moment had passed. When I was 24, I read Wittig's The Lesbian Body, and wondered whether JW was doing that thing of taking something strange and original made by someone else, then just adding water and sugar to make it more palatable and selling it to a lot more people.… (more)
LibraryThing member atreic
A short book, with rich prose, about love and loss, adultery and cancer. The gender of the protagonist is never made explicit.
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a very interesting love story, never sure if the main character is a man or a woman! certainly is bi-sexual as the character re calls past lovers. falls deeply in love with a married woman, but leavers her believing that was the right thing to do. of course ends up doubting that decision

Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

1992

Physical description

192 p.; 5.19 inches

ISBN

0679744479 / 9780679744474

Other editions

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