Sunday, August 3, 2008

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I adore Jeanette Winterson. I came to her through an interview I had seen on a Bill Moyers' PBS special called "Faith and Reason." The program wasn't really about either faith or least the episodes I saw, which focused a lot on mythology and the role that it can play in our lives today. This was probably around the same time that I had become interested in Joseph Campbell. Winterson had recently written a retelling of the Atlas myth called Weight (which I own but have not yet read). I immediately fell in love with Winterson. I printed out the transcript for the show and kept it on my kitchen table for a long time. What a life she had! Winterson is someone who understands the importance of reading...she understands what it can mean in a person's life, and that was evident in the Moyers interview:

My mother was terrified of any secular influences entering our lives. My father is illiterate and every day my mother used to read to us from the King James Bible and only six books were allowed in the house. The Bible was one, and the other five were books about the Bible.

Although in our house books weren't allowed, because I had a job on the market stool I began to buy books with the money that I was earning and smuggle them in secretly and hide them under the bed. Now anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 77 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. And this is what I did. And over time, my bed began to rise visibly. And it was rather like The Princess & The Pea.

And one night when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother came in, because she had a suspicious nature. And she saw a corner of the book poking out from under the counter pen. And she tugged at it, and this was a disastrous choice, because it was by D.H. Lawrence and it was WOMEN IN LOVE. She knew that Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer, because my mother was an intelligent woman. She had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives. And when challenged with her defense, she always used to say, "Well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." How true.

The books came tumbling down and me on the top of them onto the floor. Mrs. Winterson gathered up the piles of books, and she threw them out of my bedroom window and into the back yard. And then she went and got the paraffin stove, emptied the contents onto the pile of books and set fire to them.

And I learned then that whatever is on the outside can be taken away. Whatever it is that you think of as precious can be destroyed by somebody else. That none of it is safe. That there is always a moment when the things that we love, the things where we put our trust can be taken away, unless they're on the inside. And that's why I still memorize text, because if it's on the inside, they can't take it away from you, because nobody knows what's there. And I think that one of the reasons that tyrants hate books, ban them, burn them is not simply what they contain though that's often the obvious reason, but what they represent. Because reading is an act of free will, and it's a private act. It's an intimate dialogue between you and the text. And in there is all kinds of possibility.

I knew that this was an author I had to seek out.

My first encounter with Winterson's writing was Written on the Body. I was completely blown away by the power of that novel and the author's writing. It was like a punch in face. Winterson is known for being arrogant and confident about herself and her writing. She has declared herself heir to Virginia Woolf. She has nominated her own books for literary prizes and she has declared herself her favorite living author. Usually, that would get on my nerves. But I believe that Winterson has good reason to be so confident. She is a very powerful, gifted writer, and one of my favorites that is currently writing.

So, when this not feeling well thing came around, and the only book that I had to read was Ulysses, which gives me headaches on its own, I knew that I needed something in between... something that wouldn't be too difficult to read, but something that I could enjoy...something comforting, that I could curl up with in bed and not feel overwhelmed or lonely. And there is Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, starting up at me from the pile. I picked it up, took it into bed, read the first paragraph and thought, yes...this is what I needed.

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.

Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms); Next Door; Sex (in its many forms); Slugs

Friends were: God; Our dog; Auntie Madge; The Novels of Charlotte Bronte; Slug pellets

and me, at first. I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn't that she couldn't do it, more that she didn't want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next est thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me.

For some reason, Oranges evoked for me the same landscape as Charlie Bucket's house in Willy Wonka. This poor, industrial wasteland, where the streets are nothing but mud, and the sky is always gray or orange-ish. It is always fall or winter, and the Winterson's live in a shack at the end of the road. There is nothing in the book that describes the place as that (except for the outdoor plumbing), but that is what it evoked for me. Bleakness. And on top of this bleakness is Jeanette, like a fireball.

Oranges isn't exactly autobiography. It's a way of using yourself and the past to create a fiction around all of that. She is telling stories...but there's no reason for us to believe that they are entirely true, even in a book cast as a memoir. (Winterson's mother was mad about her portrayal in Oranges because she said it wasn't true. Wintersons' response was, "Who said it was supposed to be true?"). The story is interspersed with fairy tales to show how Jeanette is dealing with her problem: her family is crazy Pentecostal religious, and she is a lesbian.

Winterson is fabulous in this book, as she was with Written on the Body. She is forceful and aggressive, both personally and in her writing. A quotation:

As it is, I can't settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me...Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original, written on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have...

There is just something about the prose that knocks you over. The punch in the face.

Winterson takes her work very seriously. It's not just writing to can tell by the way that she talks about the importance of reading and the role that books played in her life that she has reason to take her craft seriously. I will leave you with some Winterson quotes, from her website:

"Opening a book often opens a door."

"The books we love say something about us, and about our friends. Scanning someone's bookshelf can tell you as much as reading their diary. The quickest way to intimacy is not to share a bed or a holiday, but to share a book."

"What is certain is that we could no more be parted from the books we love than be parted from ourselves. It's not even a question of re-reading them often. I like to touch their spines from time to time, or pull out a page here and there, and just look at it for pleasure. When I'm in a mess, I go to my books, and out of the fairly large number I like to have around me, there are a few that are as close as any living friend. "What shall I do?" I ask, and there is always an answer, though not always the answer I want."

"The best comfort, as ever, is wide reading, so that when you need that poem, it is already there."


Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant representation of Winterson.

I have had her 'Written on the Body' for quite sometime but I ended up reading her latest 'Weight' recently. And that has been my introduction to her.

I am itching to read Written on the Body and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I found her use of language immensely powerful and enchanting.

Kristin said...

If you find her powerful and enchanted, you will not be disappointed by Written on the Body. It was overwhelming. And Winterson plays tricks - you never know if the narrator is a male or a female. I think she likes to do that type of thing.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was written with humor at points, but yet the story is very serious.

Anonymous said...

I love Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! It's a fantastic book. Did you know that it has been made into a TV movie by some British TV channel? (Maybe BBC?) just as brilliant as most British telvised drama tends to be.
I haven't yet read Written on the Body, but I guess I really should...