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Tuesday, 3 May 2005
Topic: May 2005
Some final random thoughts about THE PASSION:

Who wouldn't love that repetitive line completing this book? "I'm telling you stories. Trust me." It follows on the heels of Henri's plans to grow a "forest of red roses" on the hardpan of the island of San Servelo, the sanitarium where he rides out the end of his days fending off guilty dreams of murder. Henri at one point seems content to socialize with the ghost Patrick, that friend of his who was the extra-sighted soldier, as well as to write about and pine away for the unreachable Villanelle.

"I did not feel afraid to be in such strange company.

I only began to feel afraid when the voices started, and after the voices the dead themselves, walking the halls and watching me with their hollow eyes.

When Villanelle came the first few times, we talked about Venice and about life and she was full of hope for me. Then I told her about the voices and about the cook's hands on my throat.

'You're imagining it, Henry, hold on to yourself, you'll be free soon. There are no voices, no shapes.'

But there are. Under that stone, on the windowsill. There are voices and they must be heard."

Villanelle, too, cracks apart. When she learns the husband of her lover has left for parts unknown on a quest to find the Holy Grail, it is too late. Henri has already stolen back her heart. Instead, Villanelle recognizes the evidence of her own parallel lives. Timing, she sees now, is what either joins or separates such dual lives from one's dreams.

She posits: "Is this the explanation then when we meet someone we do not know and feel straight away that we have always known them? … Perhaps our lives spread out around us like a fan and we can only know one life, but by mistake sense others."

* * *

Through Henri's growing madness comes an intense clarity for the soldier that readers understood from page one. "Odd that a man should come to believe in myths of his own making," he says, referring to his zealous faith in Napoleon. Henri finally figures out the secret to his beloved leader's success, as well as the way in which Napoleon was ultimately dethroned: "They were clever, those Russians and English, they did not bother to hurt him, they simply diminished him."

Napoleon's ghost comes to visit Henri at San Servelo, taking up all the space and leaving behind the smell of chicken. (Perhaps we are what we eat, after all?) As well the dead dictator should, for the two decades of relentless duty Henri has already paid to him.

Best of all, we witness Henri's realization that the love he held for the great dictator was fabrication at nearly the same time we witness him realizing that his love for Villanelle is pure and real. In that sense, as readers we feel some closure for the poor fellow. He might be mad, but at least he'd found real love. And truth. There will be peace for Henri. He'll not likely roam the halls of San Servelo after he's dead.

"I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself. … My passion for [Villanelle], even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. … The one is about you, the other about someone else."

So we know Henri will die in peace, and isn't that what he truly wanted anyway? Perhaps not among the dandelions in France, but a forest of roses seems equally promising, don't you think?

As for Villanelle, she leaves behind the fantasy of her previous lover for the reality of bearing a child into the world without the webbed feet she'd been cursed with. Venice then seems to swallow them up inside its mysterious, unmappable canals, receding like the tide from Henri's memory.

* * *

I liked the ending of THE PASSION, which was a bit of a denouement, which I don't normally go for. Denouements can be tricky to write well; I remember the denouement in Stephen King's THE STAND was so long as to be annoying. And what can I say? I love to write and to read short fiction, where endings fall on half-notes or negative space, leaving the reader to wrap it up for themselves.

But Winterson's denouement made sense to me. In my mind, the fragmented (even if crystalline) views of the city, Henri's increasingly gauzy perceptions of reality, and the back-and-forth of POV were great ways to illustrate Henri's fade into madness, as well as to leave the reader with the feeling that the magical world of Venice was closing in on itself again, now that the war was over. That things were moving back to normal. (Well, in Venice, normal isn't.) But through the movement of intertwined plot and shifty perspective, we get the sense that this story is over and yet is timeless and will never actually be over. That is at the heart of love, is it not? The burn of its need, and then the residual coals when the flame loses to time and wind?

* * *

A final word about Venice: Winterson depicts the Italian city with more than a nod to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Writes Winterson at her website:

"Calvino was writing about Venice—all the Venices collapsed, folded or vanished behind the tourist facade. Anyone who loves Venice knows that its true life is half-glimpsed or dreamed, that the city reconfigures itself, yielding suddenly as you turn into a deserted square, snapping shut, as you walk past San Marco.…The only way to get at Venice is to use the water—its refractions, reflections, the play of light and shadow, and to re-create Venice where it has always been strongest—in the imagination."

I have never been to Venice, but I feel that, having read THE PASSION, I will know everything I need to know if I should ever go there. I absolutely loved the way she characterized this landscape. It's labyrinthine undulation recalls Borges.

I have a fondness for living landscapes to begin with; upon finishing this book I felt strongly that Venice was not really a place at all, but a character, or a nexus—one of those hotspots where humanity moves into a new dimension without being aware of it.

Winterson has such a fine handle on Venice's persona as a living landscape it's hard to believe she did not visit the place until after she'd written THE PASSION.

"The Venice I found when I arrived [after writing THE PASSION] was not a disappointment—it was unreal. Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. … No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value. … This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life—where the best fiction works, too."

Her tribute to Calvino is equally a tribute to those great writers everywhere who inform us as writers, readers and human beings:

"Reading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts."

Posted by at 2:10 PM PDT
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