The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

★★★★★ (5/5)

I’m telling you stories. Trust me

How does one begin to review a tremendous piece of art? Where does one start from? A brief synopsis? A general praise for the wonderful and the evocative? The commendable characterisation, the enriched setting or the overwhelmed throbbing of heart the book leaves the reader with? Shall I commence with this story’s grandeur, the marvellous pace which kept me at the edge of my hypothetical seat, unable to put it down, fearful of losing the moment which grasped all my senses? What about setting off with the breath-taking details of an intricate city I have lived in and loved since reading this book? Or begin with the vivacity in which this incredible story thrives in, the vibrancy of the living and the dead, the unadulterated passions, the boundless and cosmic aura of war striking its chords against a myriad of other sins?

How is it that one day life is orderly and you are content, a little cynical perhaps but on the whole just so, and then without warning you find the solid floor is a trapdoor and you are now in another place whose geography is uncertain and whose customs are strange?

“The Passion” is a surrealistic romance novel at the centre of it all. It is peppered with Winterson’s personal philosophy of futility of war and passion as a prerequisite for survival, no matter what odds are stacked against one.

Synopsis

The novel is divided into four parts:

  1. The Emperor is narrated by Henri, from the battlegrounds. He is a simple-minded French soldier, disillusioned with his love and loyalty for Napoleon whom he serves as a personal waiter. To Henri’s plain mind, notions of war, victory and nationalism are greatly romanticized. Under Napoleon’s flagship hordes of men scuttle to get recruited in his army to fight for France, for freedom, for triumph and for peace. For Henri, passion is inextricably linked to nationalistic fervour.
  2. The Queen of Spades is narrated by Villanelle, from Venice, a city of mystical tunnels and strange mazes. She is a card-dealer by morning and pickpockets at night. A web-footed daughter of a boatman, she cross-dresses and seeks adventurous run-ins with her clients. For Villanelle, passion can be sought from love and carnal desires. Her yearnings are fulfilled through a hapless affair with a married woman.
  3. The Zero Winter brings forth Henri as a narrator once again as he along with Napoleon’s battalion are slogging through violent wintry Russian terrain; braving cold, hunger, pain and death to win an illusory war. Henri and his old friend Patrick, a defrocked priest, happen to meet Villanelle by chance who narrates her misfortunes as to how she ended up with Napoleon’s army as a prostitute. Henri is gravitated towards her as she brings him back to Venice. His disenchantment with war as a cradle for passion is transmuted into pure, unadulterated love for Villanelle.
  4. The Rock recounts Henri’s internment in a mental ward and Villanelle’s untiring efforts to help him escape back to France.

A Variety of Passions

It was a romance. Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life. Only a drama will do and while the fireworks last the sky is a different colour. He became an Emperor

Winterson weaves a myriad of passions in the tapestry of the novel, each passion with its own singular resonance and affectation. We have religious fervour conflicting with carnal appetites, we have love and adoration set up against revenge and murder, nationalistic zeal contrasted with appeal for humanity, desire for nostalgic expression pitted against acclimatizing to the present, freedom granted by love versus liberty promised through victory and finally, unrequited love set in contrast to reciprocated love.

On War

All folly, but I think if Bonaparte had asked us to strap on wings and fly to St James’s Palace we would have set off as confidently as a child lets loose a kite.

“The Passion” deals with futility of war by first exploring the loyalties and innumerable faiths attached to its notion. Henri, a guileless man, has deep affinities with his hometown. Through his devotion for Napoleon he aims to discover what it means to be a Frenchman and what do ideas of liberty and victory mean for the French.

We are a lukewarm people and our longing for freedom is our longing for love

Henri who does not want to simply exist, but live, finds the fervour of war as an example for passion in men. This blind commitment to sole leadership and authority eventually lends alteration to what men hold most sacred. Concepts such as victory and defeat, being the conqueror and the conquered can mould identities, personal and national both.

New recruits cry when they come here and they think about their mothers and their sweethearts and they think about going home. They remember what it is about home that holds their hearts; not sentiment or show but faces they love. Most of these recruits aren’t seventeen and they’re asked to do in a few weeks what vexes the best philosophers for a lifetime; that is, to gather up their passion for life and make sense of it in the face of death

The first chapter is peppered with Henri’s musings on how men are ready to die at the Emperor’s whim. They don’t question the ideals set before them since the idol has already established himself as an ideal. Men die in large numbers, giving Napoleon validity to his claim to throne. Their deaths leave value of life almost negligible among army barracks, but it is the family back home who suffers the most.

No one wants to be killed but the hardship, the long hours, the cold, the orders were things we would have endured anyway on the farms or in the towns. We were not free men. He made sense out of dullness.

Traversing through violent Russian landscape, pursuing an abstract notion of victory over the Russians, Henri becomes increasingly disenchanted with his vocation and passion. His journals anticipate a pessimistic stance unbecoming of him.

There’s no such thing as a limited victory. Every victory leaves another resentment, another defeated and humiliated people. Another place to guard and defend and fear

The inanity of the act of war comes as a final surge of certainty for Henri, who not only begins to despise his condition and whereabouts but begins to abhor his idol Napoleon. Like strung puppets, the French have been played, all in order to fulfil some fantastical impulses of one man, one man for whom war is a perpetual truth.

I had been taught to look for monsters and devils and I found ordinary people

On Venice

This city was built on wit and wealth and we have a fondness for both, though they do not have to appear in tandem.

Villanelle’s account on her city of Venice is a thing of infinite beauty. As a reader I immediately fell in love with Venice, a city I have never physically travelled to, but through her vivid descriptions I’ve lived and existed in. It’s a city whose mazes befuddle me, the reeking sewers make me cringe in displeasure, the carnivals arouse in me trepidation and exhilaration simultaneously. It’s a city where carnal tensions ferment, love agitates and pleasure is enigmatic for eternity. Forbidden lusts morph into heart-wrenching love, romantic affairs adapt to the looming threat of being overheard. Home to Villanelle, Venice soon becomes a refuge for the disheartened Henri who now finds definition to his passions transforming.

One of my most favourite passages from the novel is an account by Villanelle on Venetian life thriving in darkness:

I like the early dark. It’s not night. It’s still companionable. No one feels afraid to walk by themselves without a lantern. The girls sing on their way back from the last milking and if I jump out on them they’ll shout and chase me but there’ll be no pounding hearts. I don’t know why it is that one kind of dark can be so different from another. Real dark is thicker and quieter, it fills up the space between your jacket and your heart. It gets in your eyes

The Dark only lets you take one step at a time. Step and the Dark closes round your back. In front, there is no space for you until you take it. Darkness is absolute. Walking in the Dark is like swimming underwater except you can’t come up for air.

And again:

I love the night. In Venice, a long time ago, when we had our own calendar and stayed aloof from the world, we began the days at night. What use was the sun to us when our trade and our secrets and our diplomacy depended on darkness? In the dark you are in disguise and this is the city of disguises

I used to think that darkness and death were probably the same. That death was the absence of light. That death was nothing more than the shadow-lands where people bought and sold and loved as usual but with less conviction. The night seems more temporary than the day, especially to lovers, and it also seems more uncertain. In this way it sums up our lives, which are uncertain and temporary. We forget about that in the day

For Villanelle Venice is a city of disguises, but for Henri Venice is a city of madmen.

Not even Bonaparte could rationalise Venice. This is a city of madmen.

In the second chapter, Villanelle portrays Venice as a city of infinite mazes, tunnels and canals. Each turn unveils a new face of the city, previously unexplored, unidentified and discreet. In the bowels of the city live the exiles from around the world who present a completely different lifestyle in respect to Venetians. Venice has an impenetrable veneer which conceals roots of its old history and mystique. For Villanelle, this immense spectacle of masquerade is but life and living itself. But for Henri, this parade of deception and discretion is overwhelming. He is devastated by advances towards his object of affection, and having been already struck by violence of war, he resorts to a life in the madhouse.

We became an enchanted island for the mad, the rich, the bored, the perverted. Our glory days were behind us but our excess was just beginning

Another aspect of Venice brought to my attention by Villanelle are the bridges and their innate existence as the lifeblood of the city.

We didn’t build our bridges simply to avoid walking on water. Nothing so obvious. A bridge is a meeting place. A neutral place. A casual place. Enemies will choose to meet on a bridge and end their quarrel in that void. One will cross to the other side. The other will not return. For lovers, a bridge is a possibility, a metaphor of their chances. And for the traffic in whispered goods, where else but a bridge in the night

I push on, under the Rialto, that strange half-bridge that can be drawn up to stop one half of this city warring with the other. They’ll seal it eventually and we’ll be brothers and mothers.

Bridges join but they also separate.

On Love

Passion is not so much an emotion as a destiny

 Ah, where to begin? Winterson’s portrayal of love in all forms is no less than transcendent. Her wonderful treatment of pure human emotions is sublime and unforgettable. From Henri being evaded by prostitutes throughout his stay with the army to being finally enamoured by one, from Villanelle’s haunting affair with a married woman to her submission to a horrible man in matrimony which leads to her final deliverance – on every step love is dealt with caution and abandon.

I say I’m in love with her. What does that mean? It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly, she explains me to myself

Lyrical Prose

As an incredibly strong, sensual and sensible piece of art, “The Passion” has no end to beautiful, rich passages. Winterson’s writing is exceptional and evocative. It arouses buried passions within the reader’s heart and mind. I could find no end to highlighting passages, words threaded into splendid sentences, enthralling the five senses, as I caught myself time and time again being carried away by the profusely magnificent and vibrant narrative.

How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

Conclusion

The crux of this novel tills the soil of passion in all forms and glory. The speculation of passion embodied in the spiritual, the sexual, the emotional and filial needs of humans is crafted with great grandeur and subtlety through the two main characters and their circumstances. Here the surreal is fused with the real to produce a beautiful fairy tale of sorts. Love is dealt with a melancholic intensity, witnessed with brevity in poetry. This novel is undoubtedly a force of dynamic interplay between love and tragedy. Highly recommended!


On Passion

  • Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment
  • Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all
  • This is not all. Whatever you have set store by, your dress, your dinner, your poetry, will go wrong.
  • Kissing in this way is the strangest of distractions. The greedy body that clamours for satisfaction is forced to content itself with a single sensation and, just as the blind hear more acutely and the deaf can feel the grass grow, so the mouth becomes the focus of love and all things pass through it and are re-defined. It is a sweet and precise torture.
  • She buried my head in her hair and I became her creature. Her smell, my atmosphere, and later when I was alone I cursed my nostrils for breathing the everyday air and emptying my body of her.
  • For a time she only saw one act of everything. In the interval she came to me.
  • Is this freedom delicious because rare? Is any respite from love welcome because temporary? If she were gone for ever these days of mine would not be lit up. Is it because she will return that I take pleasure in being alone?
  • Hopeless heart that thrives on paradox; that longs for the beloved and is secretly relieved when the beloved is not there
  • I know all this and it makes no difference. She’d never be faithful. She’d laugh in my face. I will always be afraid of her body because of the power it has. And in spite of these things when I think of leaving, my chest is full of stones. Infatuation. First love. Lust. My passion can be explained away
  • I didn’t know what hate felt like, not the hate that comes after love. It’s huge and desperate and it longs to be proved wrong. And every day it’s proved right it grows a little more monstrous. If the love was passion, the hate will be obsession
  • You see, I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.
  • I thought of myself as a civilised woman and I found I was a savage. When I thought of losing her I wanted to drown both of us in some lonely place rather than feel myself a beast that has no friend.
  • There is no sense in loving someone you can never wake up to except by chance
  • So it goes and the weeks pass waiting for the tenth night, waiting to win again and all the time losing bit by bit that valuable fabulous thing that cannot be replaced
  • What a nonsense we make of our hatreds when we can only recognise them in the most obvious circumstances.
  • Do all lovers feel helpless and valiant in the presence of the beloved?
  • Sinful places are always so much more sinful in the imagination. There’s no red plush as shockingly red as the red you dream up. No women with legs as long as you think they’ll be. And in the mind these places are always free
  • It may be that you are settled in another place, it may be that you are happy, but the one who took your heart wields final power.
  • That is one choice. Another is to learn to juggle; to do as we did for nine nights
  • What am I interested in? Passion. Obsession. I have known both and I know the dividing line is as thin and cruel as a Venetian knife.
  • We fear passion and laugh at too much love and those who love too much. And still we long to feel
  • Where would I go? I have a room, a garden, company and time for myself. Aren’t these the things people ask for? And love? I am still in love with her
  • And I slept the sleep of the innocent and did not know that Villanelle kept silent vigil beside me all night
  • People who have everything. Money, power, sex. When they have everything they play for more sophisticated stakes than the rest of us
  • Is this the explanation then when we meet someone we do not know and feel straight away that we have always known them? That their habits will not be a surprise
  • I was angry. Whoever it is you fall in love with for the first time, not just love but be in love with, is the one who will always make you angry, the one you can’t be logical about
  • When passion comes late in life for the first time, it is harder to give up. And those who meet this beast late in life are offered only devilish choices.
  • After nine nights must come ten and every desperate meeting only leaves you desperate for another
  • If I give in to this passion, my real life, the most solid, the best known, will disappear and I will feed on shadows again like those sad spirits
  • He touches my heart, but he does not send it shattering through my body. He could never steal it
  • To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free
  • This is not a barren place. Villanelle, whose talent it is to look at everything at least twice, taught me to find joy in the most unlikely places and still to be surprised by the obvious. She had a knack of raising your spirits just by saying, ‘Look at that,’ and that was always an ordinary treasure brought to life
  • My passion for her, even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love
  • Anything now to relieve the ache of never finding her

 On Napoleon, Regimental Life and War

  • He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird. In the morning I’ll be lucky to find the wishbone.
  • Patrick said he could see the weevils in the bread. Don’t believe that one.
  • The horse he loved was seventeen hands high with a tail that could wrap round a man three times and still make a wig for his mistress
  • He doesn’t notice me, he goes on turning the globe round and round, holding it tenderly with both hands as if it were a breast
  • I wrote about her or tried to. She eluded me the way the tarts in Boulogne had eluded me. I decided to write about Napoleon instead.
  • Soldiers and women. That’s how the world is. Any other role is temporary. Any other role is a gesture.
  • No one’s on your side when you’re the conqueror
  • Could so many straightforward ordinary lives suddenly become men to kill and women to rape?
  • They marched into winter and we followed them. Into the Russian winter in our summer overcoats. Into the snow in our glued-together boots. 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
  • Men and women whose futures had been decided for them. They were not articulate thinking people, they were people of the land who were content with little and zealous in their worship of custom and God
  • I can hear Bonaparte; he didn’t last long on his rock. He put on weight and caught a cold, and he who survived the plagues of Egypt and the zero winter died in the mild damp
  • I like to know that life will outlive me, that’s a happiness Bonaparte never understood

On Memory, Passage of Time and the Past and Present

  • By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things. There is only the present and nothing to remember.
  • 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
  • It was after the disaster at sea that I started to keep a diary. I started so that I wouldn’t forget. So that in later life when I was prone to sit by the fire and look back, I’d have something clear and sure to set against my memory tricks. I told Domino; he said, ‘The way you see it now is no more real than the way you’ll see it then.’
  • I knew how old men blurred and lied making the past always the best because it was gone.
  • Our ancestors. Our belonging. The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours
  • The rush of it along my tongue and into my throat brought back other memories. Memories of a single touch. How could anything so passing be so pervasive
  • Eight years of talking about the future and seeing it turn into the present
  • So the past had gone. I had escaped. Such things are possible.
  • I’ll plant some grass for Patrick and I want a headstone for Domino, nothing the others will find, just a stone in a warm place after all that cold. And for myself? For myself I will plant a cypress tree and it will outlive me. That’s what I miss about the fields, the sense of the future as well as the present
  • I’m only still when I’m unhappy. I don’t dare move because moving will hasten another day. I imagine that if I’m absolutely still what I dread won’t happen
  • Would time pass if I refused to let it?
  • Domino said it was in the present, in the moment only that you could be free, rarely and unexpectedly

Philosophy of Life and Other Generalities

  • 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 being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you
  • Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness. We gamble. Some do it at the gaming table, some do not.
  • The impulse to be reckless again, to go barefoot, like you used to, before you inherited all those shoes.
  • There’s a warder who’s fond of me. I don’t ask why, I’ve learnt to take what’s there without questioning the source
  • He doesn’t understand I want the freedom to make my own mistakes
  • They’re so preoccupied with getting out they miss what’s here.

On Landscape

  • There’s a restlessness in the trees, out at sea, in the camp. The birds and we are sleeping fitfully, wanting to be asleep but tense with the idea of awakening. In maybe half an hour, that familiar cold grey light. Then the sun. Then the seagulls crying out over the water
  • Ever I saw a stern disappearing down a black, inhospitable-looking waterway, I followed it and discovered the city within the city that is the knowledge of a few
  • He’s never thought it odd that his daughter cross-dresses for a living and sells second-hand purses on the side. But then, he’s never thought it odd that his daughter was born with webbed feet. ‘There are stranger things,’ he said. And I suppose there are.
  • I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who’d walked across the canal like it was solid.
  • Snow doesn’t look cold, it doesn’t look as though it has any temperature at all. And when it falls and you catch those pieces of nothing in your hands, it seems so unlikely that they could hurt anyone. Seems so unlikely that simple multiplication can make such a difference.
  • Arriving at Venice by sea, as one must, is like seeing an invented city rise up and quiver in the air
  • To have swelled like yeast in a shape of its own
  • There is a frost tonight that will brighten the ground and harden the stars

Humorous Instances

  • I never told my mother that the priest had a hollow Bible with a pack of cards inside. Sometimes he took it to our service by mistake and then the reading was always from the first chapter of Genesis. The villagers thought he loved the creation story. He was a good man but lukewarm
  • I was optimistic that, with so many heads looking up, so many pockets would be vulnerable
  • Such weather drives away the foreigners and that’s the only good thing that can be said of it
  • She knew her husband should have been the one, but he had no grave. How like him, she thought, to be as absent in death as he was in life
  • Fined meant no money that week instead of hardly any money

On Religion

  • I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best
  • I thought again about a life with God, thought of my mother, who would now be kneeling too, far away and cupping her hands for her portion of the Kingdom

On Gambling

  • We gamble with the hope of winning, but it’s the thought of what we might lose that excites us.
  • The astute gambler always keeps something back, something to play with another time; a pocket watch, a hunting dog. But the Devil’s gambler keeps back something precious, something to gamble with only once in a lifetime

Vivid Imagery

  • This morning I smell the oats and I see a little boy watching his reflection in a copper pot he’s polished. His father comes in and laughs and offers him his shaving mirror instead. But in the shaving mirror the boy can only see one face. In the pot he can see all the distortions of his face. He sees many possible faces and so he sees what he might become.
  • On the table was an earring. Roman by the look of it, curiously shaped, made of that distinct old yellow gold that these times do not know.
  • His mouth is the clearest image I have. A pale pink mouth, a cavern of flesh and then his tongue, just visible like a worm from its hole
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