Something Other Than the Given: on The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ Whenever I write about something that’s been published a while back, I always mull over the irony of the word “review.” In particular, I always think about how what I’m doing is putting my thoughts down on paper for the record, if not for the novelty of subject. Then again, even when writing about something new, I have my reservations about calling my piece a review–the word itself suggesting the never-before, the newness that is here to stay–and yet, precisely which grows old, and fast.

That’s what social media does to novelty, I think: the moment something enters the market, it’s spread thin–high on Twitter or crawling on Facebook feeds, tagged on Instagram, blogged on platforms, in such picture-perfect sensibility–such that in the time it takes to take a glance at the brand new dream of a brighter piece of the different, the sensation feels as dry as yesterday’s crumbs.

But so too, the reverse may be possible: when something has been given for so long, haunting bookshelves both private and public, one can presumably choose to do one from the three–hail it as it has been hailed in canon, develop neutrality towads it, or defy whatever compliment has been thrown at it for as long as it has existed.

Having first opened Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, I had the notion of falling headlong into the first option. For, after all, this work doesn’t hold back when it entices the reader. Even when it speaks of Napoleon and the casino at Venice it convinces the hand turning the page that the story is that of the reader’s: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me,” Henri says, and we do. In part what’s so captivating about this novel is that it begins not with romantic love, but with hero-worship. Henri has fallen in love with the idea of Napoleon, as has all of France–for how could they not love this man and his Josephine? And later on, as all kinds of hero-worship must, this love becomes bitterness, comes to face the foolishness of youthful idealism in the monuments we have built for ourselves.

The other way that this novel entices is through Villanelle, who is, quite simply, a character that stands for the very act of falling in love with life: she with the red hair and webs of flesh between her toes; she who can love her body despite all it has been through! She is Venice herself, the city of disguises from which she is banished and to which she returns with Henri, who has fallen in love with her. But Villanelle does not put her heart on the line for Henri, not when it already beats for someone else, because after all, for her, that is what it means to live: “You play, you win, you play, you lose.”

It’s difficult to say what this work is about: perhaps a city, perhaps escape, perhaps masquerade, perhaps insanity (but what piece of literature does not tackle a bit of all those, at any given time?). Perhaps then, it would be more efficient to describe its failure.

My disappointment is not in what doesn’t happen (although, if one is a firm believer in decoration as determinant of theme, then that would certainly be a source), but in the lack of its development. True: Henri finds his answer elsewhere, and so does Villanelle, seemingly trapped as they are in what once seemed the city of escape. But this so-called development seems more like a lackadaisical ending to a narrative that is otherwise beautifully written: the decisions made by the characters seem half-hearted. Worse, to me, nothing in the plot beforehand can ever support the validity of their (non)action in the novel’s ending.

I love(d) these characters for their sentiments, but cannot see them as anything more than two-dimensional, for the lack of their development.

This was a story, and I trusted it; having done so, I valued its emotion and risked falling for its language, only to be disappointed.

That, at least, stays true to one other thing the novel assures us:

You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It’s the playing that’s irresistible. Dicing from one year to the next with the things you love, what you risk reveals what you value. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in Nov 2014.