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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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]]
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.
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.
This is not one of those books. The romance, poetry, action and movement continue right to the last word.
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.
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!
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.
She did, however set herself a very ambitious goal in this one, and executed it fairly well.
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.