marginalia || Written On The Body, by Jeanette Winterson

It took a while for me to get comfortable with Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. Although the first page of the book welcomes you with a gem–Why is the measure of love loss?–and then an entire quotable paragraph a few blinks away–

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. (p.09)

one gets I got overwhelmed soon enough. Is there such a thing as “too much lyricism”? I like to think so, yes–especially when I’m bombarded with it page after page after page. Metaphor after metaphor after metaphor had me saying WTF one too many times.

But I ended up liking it. It took a while for me to do so, but I liked it well enough. Which puzzles me, really.

In the novel–and I use that loosely, mind you–we have the Unnamed, Un-Gendered Narrator, a person intent on loving and lusting and obsessing, although one who confesses that, he/she is “addicted to the first six months.” Following a string of lovers (I once had a boyfriend, I once had a girlfriend) and a partner named Jacqueline, UUGN meets Louise, the beautiful and very much married Louise. [I would be remiss in my duties as (as what exactly?) whatever–if I didn’t talk about the significance of gender in this piece. UUGN’s anonymity–his/her vagueness–allows the reader to examine what exactly gender means, the expectations attached to it. My own image of UUGN flickered from that of a woman, to that of a man, over and over. But I didn’t mind. In fact, that was one of the things I loved about this book.]

Heartbreak abounds. Of course. The measure of love is, after all, loss–weren’t we warned? Heartbreak and ruminations and manifestos and wistful This Is What Love Is declarations.

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. (p.09)

You never give away your heart; you lend it from time to time. (p.38)

It tends to lean toward the surreal, this narrator’s monologues. Philosophical, yes, but I like my dose of philosophy delivered with restraint. There’s just too much. One paragraph, the lover is an olive, the next she is a field, the next she is a sun and the narrator weeps because of this.

Wait a minute, I groaned at the page. Are you kidding me? There’s beautiful language, and then there’s language that glares at you under direct sunlight. (I do not know where that metaphor came from.) It succeeded several times, but unlike the drunkenness I felt with the lyricism of, say, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Winterson’s novel manages to be both dense and vague. It’s a veritable Attack of the Metaphor, that we hardly see what is really being talked about.

And UUGN keeps repeating,

It’s the clichés that cause the trouble.

[Let me talk about the evolution of my preferences when it comes to language and narrative–until a couple of years ago, I was a staunch supporter of the Faulkner side of the argument: the lyric over the plain-spoken, the “poetic” over the “prosaic.” I devoured Wilfrido Nolledo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short fiction, Isabel Allende. I was in love with language, fascinated with how these authors presided over controlled chaos. And then I discovered Raymond Carver. And Lorrie Moore, and Alice Munro, and Richard Yates–and now Hemingway is on my shelves. I’ve developed an appreciation for more direct storytelling, an expertly pulled-off Tell Than Show. Does this mean I now scorn upon a well-executed field of purple prose? No, I still love my Nolledo and my Faulkner (although Allende has taken a backseat, sorry). Do I now valiantly raise sparse prose on the pedestal? Only if done well. I like to think I’m still figuring myself out.]

But, like I said, I ended up liking it. Generally speaking. Which tells me that I will always look favorably upon the author’s glee with the treatment of the language, no matter how many times I grimaced while holding the book.

+ + +

LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT A QUASI-SPOILER: A note to those who have read this before–that very last page? That second to the last paragraph that actually stands for the novel’s long-anticipated conclusion? [Winterson really made us wait for it, didn’t she?] What really happened? Did they get back together? Or was it all in the UUGN’s head? Email me, I am baffled. :| I don’t care if it’s supposed to be as ambiguous as the UUGN’s gender–I just want a consensus, haha.

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23 comments

  1. I have this one sitting in the ever-growing stack of books to read. I confess that I bought it because I loved the opening line that you quoted, so I found your experience with the book really interesting. I wonder if I’ll feel the same as you, ultimately liking it…

    1. I guess I liked it because it is an impressive book, although it has taught me to be wary of Winterson’s writing in the future. Can’t wait to read your thoughts when you read this, maybe your experience will be different? :)

  2. Okay.. so I looked away. But I’m glad you ended up liking ze book. I’ve not read this one, but I’ve liked every other Winterson that made its way to my bookshelves so far. (I’m still averse to Oranges are not the Only Fruit, despite it being her, um.. THE novel.)

    Am hoping to read this one in the next couple of months or so. And then I’ll come back and read those last few lines?

    1. I actually read Oranges are no the Only Fruit years ago, and I suppose I like it that it’s more straightforward than this one (more plot?).

      Yes, please do come back for my question, haha. :] [PS–New blog address! I’ve updated my reader na.]

  3. Hello Sasha:
    Thank you for commenting on my post. I have just finished reading several of your posts and I really enjoy your voice. Intelligent, witty and sharp. And man…you sure can plow through books. I wish I had your stamina. I’m working on it. I’m finding (a bit late) that books and stories are really a saving force for the world and It’s refreshing to see voices such as yours existing in a world that I had begun to think was filled with knuckleheads! (perhaps they just all live in America). I look forward to reading more about your reading and your thoughts. Take care and best of luck with your studies – jakon

    1. Hello, Jakon — Thank you so much. Your comment made my day. Although I am waiting for the battle-axes to come out with that knucklehead comment, hahaha. I’m a fast reader, and I’m aware that it’s less about stamina than it is momentum. But I’m blabbing because I’m terrible at accepting compliments. :]

      Looking forward to your thoughts, too. I’ve been hunting down what copies I have of the BASS series, and trying to use them as a guide to figuring out what you mean. You’ve launched a fascinating project–a lot more people should know of it. :]

  4. I get what you mean. I too, am sometimes (make that a lot of times) flustered by Ms. Winterson’s too-lyrical style, which ended in me not finishing Gut Symmetries, and skimming over Oranges are not the only fruit. I read this at a very sad time in my life though, with my heart needing some comforting words which Ms. Winterson so generously provided. :)
    If you prefer a bit of beautiful yet direct prose, you might want to try Ali Smith. I only recently discovered her, thanks to my gf and her fan-fiction community haha, but I am reading Free Love, a collection of her short stories and I am blown away.

    There’s this story there which says:
    “What a time, a time of covering myself with your smell, the time the telephone rang unanswered and we moved to the rhythm of it subconsciously then realised what we were doing and broke apart laughing, the time we reached down to look at my watch and somehow in some violence of love we’d cracked the glass of its face into a mosaic and time had stopped.”

    I am actually reminded of Winterson and her tendency not to reveal who is speaking and the gender of the narrator, but Smith is more straight-forward for me. I love her. You might want to try her books :)

    1. I’m still going to read Winterson, even though she can be overwhelming. But not immediately. :] I read Oranges a couple of years ago, one of many books that I read in trying to figure out my sexuality (Sasha also likes girls–haha, mag-share daw ba?), so I suppose that factored into why I will always like that book of hers best.

      I’ve seen Ali Smith around, but I’ve never been compelled to pick her up. If I see her the next time I sashay into a BookSale, I’ll take a look-see. :) Thanks! :p

  5. I love this book, despite being also drawn to the concise later in my life. Still, the language in this just tastes really good and I adored the fact that I never did (even after a couple of re-reads) decide on a gender for the narrator – that alone makes it a really interesting, cool read.

    1. I’ll always have a soft spot for the lyrical. But it makes me a little thankful that most of Winterson’s novels make thin books. :)

      And, yes, I think one of the more impressive things about this book is the narrator’s gender. I keep watching if Winterson would slip, but she never did.

  6. Haha natawa lang ako sa sharing portion :) I saw a copy of The Accidental in Booksale, but di pa ako interesado sa kanya at that time. If ever you see a copy, could you also tell me? Hehe :)

    Thanks in advance! Ooh, I also sent you an email, btw. :)

  7. […] Winterson, Jeanette (Author Site, Wikipedia) Written on the Body: Reviewed at Sasha and the Silverfish […]

  8. Hi Sasha. I’m wondering if you’ve read Jeanette Winterson’s “Art Objects?” If not, I can’t recommend this book enough. It speaks of why she writes as lyrically as she does. To her, all art is transformation. When I read Winterson, I am excited to be alive. (As she says in “Art Objects,” art is transfusion.) And as a fledgling writer, she leaves me hopeful. I find her writing to be un-limiting.

    1. Hello, Kathryn. I haven’t read Art Objects–although your comment’s making me want to hunt it down (I promise to keep an eye out for it). I’m always curious to know a writer’s poetics.

      And I love what you said: “When I read Winterson, I am excited to be alive”–I love it when a certain author makes me feel that way, and thanks so much for sharing so beautifully that Winterson’s that author for you. :)

  9. Surgia · · Reply

    I am still wondering about the ending. Could you e-mail me the consensus you got?
    I know what I wanted to happen. But did it? argh it’s open-ended, it seems.

    1. Well, the few people that emailed me were pretty much on the fence about that ending too. It’s annoying a lot of people, haha.

      And thanks for dropping by! :)

  10. Kathryn · · Reply

    Hi Sasha. I’m almost at the end of “Art and Lies,” another Winterson book. If you haven’t read this one…don’t. You may end up in a WTF coma by the end of the first Sappho chapter, and there are 3 of them. Someone called it high octane prose poetry. I’d say it goes beyond that. Of course, I’m loving it; but you know me and my Winterson…

    1. Okay, I laughed so hard at that “WTF coma” quip, ahahaha. And yes, thank you for your non-rec. And for the fact that I laughed like a nut at 5 in the morning.

      That said, I do remember liking Winterson a lot. Years ago, I stayed up all night reading Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and I loved that to bits. It wasn’t Attack of the Metaphor–at least I don’t remember it being so.

      Steering clear of Art and Lies, that is, until I feel more welcoming to that WTF Coma.

  11. Kathryn · · Reply

    Good news, Sasha: it’s only 2 Sappho chapters. 2 impossibly lyrical, lyrically impossible chapters. My mistake. Still…Don’t… Perfect practice for dating women, though. Good threshold builder. Glad for your laughter. Now go back to bed :-)

    1. Definitely setting aside the WTF coma for another five-ish years. Winterson and I are complicated.

  12. […] Smith was recommended to me in one of the comments. I kept her in the cluttered brain-file of To-Hunt, and a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a […]

  13. I read this ages ago, so I can’t exactly remember what happens. But I recall that I really liked it, and how ambiguous it was – the narrator, the ending – which is very unusual for me. I usually like my books a little more cut and dry.

    1. I liked it, yes, and months after, the ending rests well with me. I would still want to know how people supposed that ending actually meant, though, haha. Just for a consensus. :]

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