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A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Weight - Jeanette Winterson

Aside from reading books by female writers, I am also exploring mythologies so I was overjoyed when a friend reminded me of the fantastic series, Canongate myths. In this series, Canongate Books have asked various writers to exploit and retell their favourite myths. There’s a real range in the series which ranges from retelling of well known stories like Theseus and the minotaur, to more controversial retellings like Philip Pullman’s ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ (which I’m getting to) to lesser known myths, at least to those of us in the Western world, like Binu and the Great Wall and the Japanese myth of Izanaki and Izanami. In total there are 17 myths (one of which has not been translated) and sadly it doesn’t appear that Canongate are doing any more.  

My starting point was one that was recommended to me: Weight by Jeanette Winterson. Weight is Winterson’s take on the myths of Atlas and Heracles, the two strong men of Greek history. But this is no ordinary story. Winterson has woven very loosely together the Titan’s and hero’s stories and injected to it her own idea of how those two beings might have been. What results is Atlas the philosopher meeting Heracles the grunt man who, through their meeting, suffers a strange kind of crisis of identity after offering to bear Atlas’s burden and then later reneging on the deal. Interwoven into this, somehow, and almost as an afterthought, is Winterson’s own story in a short, final piece which explains, cajoles perhaps, the reasons why she writes. It is a strange blend which in less capable hands wouldn’t work. But Winterson shows herself, here, to be a masterful storyteller. She translates the tale of Atlas, the story of Heracles, and makes them real conveying a great deal with real economy.  

 One of the great successes of this book is how distinctly Winterson conveys the characters of Atlas and Heracles. Take the following, a typical musing of the philosopher, gentle Atlas:

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. 

and contrast with the introduction we receive to Heracles:

Here he comes, the Hero of the World, wearing a lion-skin and swinging his olive club.

‘Have a drink Atlas you old globe. We’ve all got our burdens to bear. Your punishment is to hold up the universe. My punishment is to work for a wanker.’”

But it is the philosophy and beauty of the book which is its true strength. I have, frequently, been critical of female writers on account of their failure to engage with the world of ideas, but here Winterson is all ideas. The book is philosophically heavy, but it is a philosophy delivered with such a light and masterful touch that it is easy to become lost in its beauty. There are so many passages in this book to which I could return and return. As Winterson says ‘I want to tell the story again’ as I want to read the story again and again. To return to this:

“Always boundaries and desire...

It is fit that a man should do his best and grapple with the world. It is meet that he should accept the challenges of his destiny. What happens when the sun reaches the highest point in the day? Is it a failure for morning to become afternoon, or afternoon to turn into peaceful evening and star-bright night?

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed-of-light power – to break that gravitational pull.

How many of us ever get free of our orbit? We tease ourselves with fancy notions of free will and self-help courses that direct our lives. We believe we can be our own miracle, and just a lottery win or Mr Right will make the world new.

The ancients believed in Fate because they recognised how hard it is for anyone to change anything. The pull of past and future is so strong that the present is crushed by it. We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.

And that, in essence, is what this book is about: the burden of weight we carry with ourselves. In Atlas’s case the burden was physical, and yet there is a recognition that the burden is somehow self-imposed, that Atlas is complicit, even defined by his burden of the world on his shoulders. In Heracles’s case the burden is one of birth, his Fate to be the Hero of the World, and to die as one too. The burden of his birthright, his parentage, the anger of a goddess he had no power to change. In our case it is our lives that are a burden, as Winterson says “We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour”. We are burdened by ourselves. The weight is inescapable.

Yet in the end there is a message of hope. Atlas joins forces with another being, Laika the dog propelled into space by the Russians, another being who escaped the pull of past and future. Like Atlas, who in the end accepted his fate. Who carried the burden with care and love and attention and who, in the end, decided to let it go.

A stunningly wonderful book, beautifully written and intricately woven. Weight receives a mythological 5 out of 5 Biis.