Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Weight (by Jeanette Winterson)



Weight is part of Canongate publishing's series The Myths, a series of (fairly short) novels retelling myths in innovative ways, which includes Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Weight is a particularly short novel, and reads more like an extended prose poem than a story, though there certainly is plot and action in there.

Although nominally focused on Atlas, Weight also includes substantial material on Heracles, and Heracles (with Greek spelling - because even when your only source is Robert Graves, it looks more authentic with the Greek spelling!) is the liveliest, most interesting and most memorable character. His dialogue sparkles - well, maybe 'sparkles' is the wrong word - and he feels like a truly complete character. Atlas suffers a bit by comparison, being much less lively, but is reasonably sympathetic, which is essential to making the story work.

Some parts of the book didn't entirely work for me. The narrative perspective jumps around all over the place, and although I liked some of the astrological and cosmological sections towards the beginning and end, the sections where the story suddenly slips into a first-person, pseudo-autobiographical account of the narrator's childhood globe and parental issues left me pretty cold. Myth works perfectly well as a metaphor in itself (the final letting-go is especially satisfying) - it doesn't need these over-thought, overly poetical bits of introspection and naval-gazing interrupting the flow of the story. I also could have lived without some of the sexual content, not because I'm particularly prudish (I am, after all, a fan of both Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood) but because it often seemed both unnecessary and, at one point, implausible. I absolutely loved the section where Atlas rescues poor Laika the Russian space dog though.

I rather liked the intensely poetic feel to this story and somehow the strange mash-up of realistic astronomy and mythology actually works, for the most part. Although I love poetry, this sort of self-consciously literary fiction (I hate that way of branding fiction, as if everything written for pleasure and to entertain the reader is somehow worthless, but I can't think of another way to describe it) isn't really my thing, but still, I enjoyed this, and have resolved to read some more of Winterson's better-known work (probably starting with Oranges are not the Only Fruit).

6 comments:

  1. I hadn't heard about this series, Juliette. I'm going to have to keep my eyes open for them.

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  2. I really dislike self-consciously literary fiction. Between the pretension and a prose density that makes Dickens look like Hemingway, it tends to get in the way of actually telling a story.Not that literary fiction can't be quite good, but the stuff that says, "I am showing off how smart I am and if you don't like it then you are merely a plebe who doesn't understand," annoys me no end. It reminds me of Niven's Fifth Law: If you've nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing your lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn't get it then, let it not be your fault.

    Are you going to be reading through the whole series or perhaps at least those that are classical in nature?

    Also: well, maybe 'sparkles' is the wrong word. Obviously, you're being influenced by the subject of the previous post. ;)

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  3. RWMG, it's an interesting series, well worth a look, though perhaps a teeny bit pretentious at times!

    DmX, I hadn't even thought of that, good point! ;) Heracles' dialogue here is kind of, well, earthy is probably the word - it's lively but not pretty!

    I don't like literary stuff much either, I'd much rather read something entertaining (as you can tell by the previous post!). This wasn't bad though.

    My friends very kindly gave me three volumes from this series for my birthday a few years ago, so I'm going to read and look at those (I'm a slow reader! Unless it's a book about sparkly vampires....). The other two are The Penelopiad, which I'll definitely blog, and Dream Angus, which I might squeeze in since dreams are one of my things. After that, it depends how easy it is to get hold of the other volumes in the series!

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  4. I could have sworn you already did the Penelopiad. A lot of the other books seem to be from cultures well outside your brief (China, India, Africa), but there are a few other classical tales, plus one or two biblical stories. Lots of reprints in there too, so it ought to be possible to find most of them.

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  5. I really enjoyed the Penelopeaid. I also liked Pullman's The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, in the same series. I haven't read Weight, but will look out for it- I don't always find Winterson enjoyable to read, but I'll give it a go!

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  6. This is the first Winterson I've read - not bad I thought, allowing for the fact it isn't really my thing in the first place! Pullman's would just annoy me I'm afraid (though in fact I stopped reading him long before he decided to make it his life's mission to whine about my religion - ever since a certain character death in Shadow in the North, for which I've never forgiven him!)

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