The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson
The Passion is not history, except in so much as all our lives are history. The Passion is not romance, except in so much as all our lives are marked by the men and women with whom we fell in love . . .
After reading a book I hadn’t loved and a book I positively hated I needed my next to be something I could rely on. Something that I knew would be good.
Back in March I read my first Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I loved it. I thought it superbly written, beautifully observed, compassionate and generally just a little bit of a triumph. All that and it was funny too. What better to turn to then than another Winterson?
The Passion is set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s grand campaigns in Europe and Russia, but it would be misleading to call it a historical novel (in fact Winterson specifically disavows that it’s a historical novel, not that her opinion on the point proves anything either way). What’s interesting about Napoleon here isn’t that he conquered much of Europe, created a legal system still used to this day and lost an army in Russia; what’s interesting is the passion he inspired in others that allowed him to do all those things.
Henri is a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He works in Napoleon’s kitchens, and serves him his chickens. Napoleon devours chickens, eating almost nothing else (was that true? I have no idea, I wouldn’t be surprised if Winterson has no idea, it doesn’t matter). The first part of the novel tells Henri’s story. Henri loves. He loves Napoleon, so much so that he leaves home and family and risks his life for him. Later he loves a woman, Villanelle, but she does not love him.
It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment. During the days that Bonaparte stayed in Boulogne there was a feeling of urgency and privilege. He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives.
The second part of the novel tells Villanelle’s story. She too loves. She loves another woman, but that woman is married and will not leave her husband. Villanelle also loves her city, Venice. Villanelle’s Venice isn’t the Venice that a million tourists arrive in each day by train or cruise ship, chugging through the same few streets to take their pictures of Piazza San Marco before complaining about the cost of a coffee and the smell from the canals. Villanelle’s Venice is the one that brings all those tourists, the dream of Venice.
The reason by the way most of those tourists don’t find the Venice they’re looking for isn’t that it isn’t there (though strictly factually of course it isn’t), and isn’t because it’s not in them to find it. It’s the nature of the cruise experience, the day trip. My first time in Venice was a day trip. We came out of the station, walked crowded streets crammed with other tourists and Piazza San Marco was heaving and overpriced. I hated it.
When I eventually went back, years later, a different we stayed overnight. We didn’t plan to remain long. We had flexibility though (I had just left one job and had a few weeks before starting my next), and Venice in the evening was a revelation. Given time, we stepped off those few streets and found an entire city of canals and back alleys. The city emptied out of an evening, the day trippers and cruise ships gone, and became a different place. It’s a city for me built for twilight, perhaps fittingly since while it’ll probably outlive me I doubt it’ll do so for very long. We extended our stay, and have returned several times. I hope we shall again.
THERE IS A city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face. This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you. Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.
Of course none of that exists. Winterson herself has said that she hadn’t been to Venice when she wrote the book. It’s not a city where the boatmen have webbed feet and can walk on water (as Villanelle can, being a boatman’s daughter).
Winterson chose her dream-city wisely, because nobody goes to Venice for its shopping or its restaurants. It’s draw is something much less certain than that. It’s an atmosphere. It’s Henry James, Italo Calvino, Death in Venice, Casanova’s history of his life, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In a way, it’s like Napoleon. It’s real, but the reality of it seems a small thing to explain the passion it inspires.
The first two sections of The Passion tell Henri and Villanelle’s individual stories. The third and fourth tell of how those stories join together and each become a part of the other. The two meet as Napoleon’s great doomed dream of capturing Moscow collides with the cold reality of the Russian winter. Winterson does not avoid the horror of war:
When our horses died of the cold we slit their bellies and slept with our feet inside the guts. One man’s horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn’t free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn’t stop screaming.
This is a story filled with the most extraordinary characters and images. Napoleon’s midget groom. A de-frocked priest turned soldier who if he closes one eye can see 20 miles with the other (“I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.”). Villanelle’s stolen heart is kept by her lover in a jar. Henri is given a thread of gold frozen in an icicle that doesn’t melt even in the Venetian heat. This is not a literally minded book.
Running through all of it, like that golden thread embedded in its icicle, is the theme of risk. What really matters to you? What are you willing to risk? Life is risk. At home in Venice Villanelle works as a croupier. At various points she repeats her mantra, her philosophy: “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.”
In a casino of course you have a choice in that. You can choose not to play. You can choose not to risk. In life though the only way not to play is to die. As long as you’re here, you play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. The only choice you have is how much you’re willing to risk. What Henri and Villanelle have in common, with each other and with Napoleon, is that they would choose to play even if there was a choice and that they’re willing to gamble what they most value.
At risk of sounding hackneyed, the point being made here is that the act of love is itself a gamble. You place your life in the hands of another person, and sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they don’t love you back. Sometimes they betray you. Sometimes they hurt you terribly, in ways only they know how since only they know you so well. Most of us, me included, think the risks are worth the throw of the dice. It is though, however you cut it, a hell of a wager.
The Passion takes place against a backdrop of war. However terrible that war is, and however much it transforms the characters lives (and ends several of them), it is ultimately still just a backdrop. The war defines their times, but it does not define the characters themselves.What makes their lives is their passions. Their friendships. Their loves. What they choose to risk.
I’ll end on a final quote, not because it particularly illustrates anything I wanted to say but simply because I liked it too much to leave it out and what’s the point of having my own blog if I can’t use quotes that don’t otherwise fit? It is, of course, about Venice.
I got lost from the first. Where Bonaparte goes, straight roads follow, buildings are rationalised, street signs may change to celebrate a battle but they are always clearly marked. Here, if they bother with street signs at all, they are happy to use the same ones over again. Not even Bonaparte could rationalise Venice. This is a city of madmen. Everywhere, I found a church and sometimes it seemed I found the same square but with different churches.
Jeanette Winterson’s own page on The Passion is here. I’m not aware of any blogosphere reviews, but if you have reviewed it I’d love to read your thoughts so please let me know in the comments.