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An Adventure of the Passions
on 12 March 2008
I read Oranges are not the only Fruits a long time ago and was impressed. Since then I have always wanted to read a second novel by Jeanette Winterson. The Passion, first published in 1987, is now 21 years old. At long last what finally prompted me to read a second novel by Winterson was the fact that in 2006 the Observer newspaper, following the New York Post, published a list it regarded as the fifty best novels from 1980 to 2005 written by British, Irish or Commonwealt novelists. Miss Winterson's The Passion featured in the list. In reading The Passion, did I ultimately regret the long delay in reading a second novel by Winterson?
The Passion is a very short novel that outline the fantastic adventures of its two main characters - Henri and Villanelle. The adventures are set against the backdrop of Napoleon's campaingns which effectively gives some shape to the novel. The story is structured in four parts with two first person narrators. This in itself demands a careful read especially as in the final part the narration suddenly shifts back and forth between Henry and Villanelle.
In a short preface to the 2001 edition, Miss Winterson tells us that: "The Passion was written in 1986, boom time of the Thatcher years." It appears that part of Miss Winterson's aim was to counter the Thatcherite culture of boom and get rich quick city boys. She states: "I wanted to write a separate world, not as an escape, as a mirror, a secret looking glass that would sharpen and multiply the possibilities of the actual world." So in this world that Jeanette Winterson sets out to create she reveals to us the extremes of human desires and behaviour. There is cross dressing, theft, prostitution, gambling where the stakes are very high, murder, but above all, and perhaps the saving grace there is falling passionately in love.
There is no doubt that this is a highly imaginative piece of writing. There are some acute observations but one must admit that within themselves do not always add up to much. Take for example the following: "I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don't have to ask a child about happy you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about happy because largely they are not." If you are therefore looking to read something that is grounded in realism then this is not for you as it was, broadly speaking, not for me. However, one must admire Miss Winterson's boldness to attempt something 'new'.
The text, narration and structure of this novel is very self-conscious. It could be said that the text is a writely one. Winterson wants to cast herself in the tradition of the great writerly novelists - I won't give any example. Her novel therefore attempts to draw attention to the mechanism of the story just as much as it does the story itself. In doing so Miss Winterson forces us, the reader, to produce meaning from it.
Ultimately, The Passion strikes me as a book that attempts to reveal the extremes to which humans are prepared to go to achieve their passions. The passions we pursue are alternatives to the drudgery of our mundane daily activities. But they can be dangerous to pursue. As Winterson says you could find yourself "among the desperate".
I sturggled to decide whether or not to rate this novel a two or three stars. In the end I opted for three stars because some of the final passages are quite moving as we realise that in the final analysis love conquers all. Henri locked up in prison tells us: "I think now that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love." Henri also reveals that even in prison one can still have the verve for life. In oxymoron fashion he says: "I like to know that life will outlive me, that's a happiness Bonaparte never understood."