Sexing The Cherry

It’s quite shocking to think that I first read this book back in 1990 when I was a mere 21 years old. It was always going to be interesting to return to it, as the passage of time can alter impressions so much. When I first read it, Jeanette Winterson formed one corner of a triumvirate of favourite authors, the other two being occupied by Anita Brookner and Julian Barnes. Barnes has stayed with me over the long journey of my critical apprenticeship, but the two women have both fallen away and it’s many years since I read a novel by either of them.

In 1990, I was dazzled by Winterson’s inventiveness. Sexing the Cherry is a slim novel, a mere 140-pages, but they are so full of event and imagination that it would be hard to digest more. It’s a tale of many strands and layers but at its heart it returns to London in the 1660s where the Dog Woman, a monstrous giantess, finds a young orphan boy, Jordan on the banks of the Thames and adopts him for her own. Together they embark on a life of adventure, the Dog Woman proving herself an adept ally for the soon-to-be deposed King, her natural talents for violence and loyalty put to use in slaying many a dissenting voice and in doing her best to alter the course of history. Jordan, by contrast, is a dreamer, and his destiny lies in magical voyages to impossible lands where he searches for love and the truth about time and space. In the later stages of the novel these characters find ghostly doubles in the future, in the form of Nicholas Jordan who devotes his life to the Navy and an unnamed woman whose vigilante actions to protect the environment (a theme that Winterson will return to in The Stone Gods) make her at once both heroine and madwoman. It’s typical of the topsy-turvy logic of the novel that these characters in the future are pale imitations of the Dog Woman and Jordan in the past. Winterson delights in turning everything on its head, not least the normal plot progression of a narrative. Sexing the Cherry is full of interpolates stories, mostly based on the principle of the fairy tale, but with morals and messages that are subversive. The Twelve Dancing Princesses, for instance, indulge in every kind of gender-bending activity you could dream up, and then some. There’s so much packed into its pages that this book can make your head swim, with its bawdy, rambunctious rewriting of history and its fragmentary, choppy progression through a wild range of stories and narrators, not to mention its fascination with the fantastic nature of time and space as seen through the veil of quantum physics. I think it’s a book that wants to set off sparks, rather than one that can be understood by coherent principles, and with that thought in mind, I’ll mention just a couple of points that occur to me.

The character of the Dog Woman owes a great deal to the giant, Gargantua, who was created by the French author, Francois Rabelais in the seventeenth century. Gargantua was also caught up in political battles and used his huge strength to literally destroy the opposition, but at the same time he is a comedy character, a vehicle for cartoon violence and toilet humour. Rabelais knew what he was doing when he employed a giant in his narrative. On the one hand he was a crowd pleaser for his audience of readers, and on the other, he could carry subversive messages about the state of government in France that would have been extremely dangerous for him to express clearly. If he had said what he thought, the Catholic church would have chopped his head off, and so it was a good plan, not to mention a real laugh, to have a ludicrous figure like a giant embody his message. Rabelais’s Gargantua is an example of what’s known as the ‘carnivalesque’, a style of literature in which chaos and humour present an opportunity to challenge dominant beliefs and turn all hierarchies on their heads. The carnival is the place of madcap entertainment that brings everyone together to celebrate common humanity. Hence the toilet humour, as people in Rabelais’ time thought that the lower half of the body was special and sacred, as it was the place of all fertility, the origin of the world. Bawdy jokes weren’t just rude, they reminded people that kings and peasants have excretion in common, and that the circle of life is a wonder and a marvel. We’ve rather lost that sort of belief nowadays, but Winterson’s use of a female giant is a good way to poke fun at a few shreds of taboos that cling to the female body.

Alongside the carnivalesque, Winterson’s novel appeals also to the modern genre of magic realism. This kind of narrative grew mostly out of Latin America in the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende. It concerns stories where fantastic and extraordinary events occur all the time, without anyone blinking an eyelid. Instead, magic suggests itself as a natural phenomenon, arising out of the real world as if it had been hidden inside it all along. Like the carnivalesque it’s always been seen as a way to challenge authority, or to rewrite history, including voices that would otherwise have been silenced. In the dictatorial regimes of Latin America, it was easy to see where the subversion was headed, but when magic realism crossed over into Europe, that sense of straining against the unreasonable restraints of an unjust political system was missing. Other sorts of confinements became the target. I was thinking about this as I was reading along and wondering what Winterson’s text rubbed up against, what constraints it was trying to loosen. And because of my recent interests, I found myself most caught up, in this reading, in the relationship between the Dog Woman and Jordan, the most realistic, natural and touching part of the narrative.

Their story is one of real love and tenderness, and also one of the inevitable misrecognition that lies between mother and child. ‘I want to be like my rip-roaring mother,’ Jordan declares, ‘who cares nothing for how she looks, only for what she does. She has never been in love, no, and never wanted to be either. She is self-sufficient and without self-doubt…. I think she loves me but I don’t know. She wouldn’t say so, perhaps she doesn’t know herself.’ Yet we, who are privy to the Dog Woman’s inner thoughts, know how she cares for him, and witness the wrench she feels when Jordan leaves for his thirteen-year long sea voyage. When finally he returns, washed up on the shores of the Thames for a second time, she is there, faithful as ever, to meet him. ‘I wanted to tell him things, to tell him I loved him and how much I’d missed him, but thirteen years of words were fighting in my throat and I couldn’t get any of them out. There was too much to say and so I said nothing.’ And in this way they remain loving, and tender, and unknown to one another.

The sense that we are more than the bodies in which we dwell, more than the span of time and space we occupy, more than anyone on the outside, looking in, could guess, is a recurrent theme in the book. The loving side of the Dog Woman is one example of the important parts of the self that remain hidden, the other is the imagination, where anything and everything is possible. Jordan’s voyage may ostensibly be to strange and wonderful lands, but he knows the real discovery he wants to make is to find himself. ‘Are we all living like this?’ Jordan wonders. ‘Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets? And poignantly he concludes ‘and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God.’ The magic in this novel concerns the extraordinary capacity of the imagination to create new worlds, and the elastic sense of space and time that governs our experience of existing. Inside us, I felt Winterson was saying, we have an infinite capacity, and our external appearance betrays us with its one dimensionality, its boring obviousness. Sexing the Cherry takes us on its own journey to the outer limits of possibility, to remind us that the marvelous is only ever a brief flexing of the imagination away, and that we all have secret lives we need to explore and experience fully to be at peace.

Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda

On John Updike

It was very strange to hear of John Updike’s death when I was slap bang in the middle of reading Rabbit, Run. Written back in 1960 when Updike was at the start of his illustrious career, I had such a vibrant young man’s voice in my head it was almost impossible to imagine him stripped of that innocent belief in dependable immortality. Curious, also, to think of him facing up to the religious implications that carve, like a silvery thread of stream, through the rocky layered walls of his prose. But what has been most surprising of all has been the lukewarm quality of the tributes that have been paid him. Perhaps I’m visiting the wrong sites, but the praise has repeatedly been qualified, as if admitting to liking John Updike isn’t quite the thing to do any more. Like the judges on the Costa panel who pointed out all the faults of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture after having just awarded it the best novel prize, it’s as if critics and readers don’t want to seem too enamoured of Updike, too accepting of the world he created for fear of looking… what, exactly? Naive? Misguided? It strikes me as very intriguing, not least because there is surely no question that Updike’s prose style is one of the most supple, lucid and effortlessly evocative of the great American twentieth century males, his dialogue fiercely entertaining, his characterization sharp and astute and his embrace of a certain kind of banal, ordinary existence so complete and perfect that to read his books is to live them. So what’s not to like?

The plot of Rabbit, Run is probably illuminating here. It’s the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, who was once upon a time a big shot star of the local basketball team. He has been cursed with a gilded youth, and so his failing marriage to his silly, permanently sloshed wife, Janice, and his mindless job demonstrating the MagiPeel Peeler seem to him pointless and worthless. So worthless, in fact, that within the first dozen or so pages of the novel, Rabbit has failed to pick up his two year old son, Nelson, as he’s been instructed, and has instead kept on driving with the vague intention of heading all the way down south. Rabbit hasn’t got a map, not so much a chance detail as a symbolic comment that will stand true for the entire length of the narrative, and all too often his instincts let him down. At some point in the middle of the night he accepts the inevitable and lets his car head for home. ‘Home’ in this instance being precisely not where his wife and child are, but where his old basketball coach, the unlovely Tothero, lives. This isn’t a mistake either; all Rabbit truly wants is to return to a place where he can still feel his former glory, and so Tothero’s charmless but nostalgic company is where he was headed all along. He just took the scenic route to get there. That evening, Tothero takes him out to dinner with his mistress and another young woman, Ruth, who is not exactly a prostitute, just a woman who hasn’t figured out the equation that balances love with housekeeping money. And Rabbit, effortlessly forgetting his pregnant wife, his child, his old, dull job, moves in with her that same night. That’s the kind of guy he is.

The story of Rabbit is distasteful, if you will. It concerns uneducated, vulgar people who haven’t the first idea how to find hard-won pleasure in their lives, but who cling, for the most part shipwrecked, to rather uncomfortable notions of respectability. Although not, of course, Rabbit, who is living so deep down within his flesh and its imperative needs that he doesn’t have the distance required to erect a moral framework. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that Updike was deeply into Kierkegaard when he was writing this novel, as Rabbit seemed extraordinarily like a character out of a Camus novel to me. Rabbit, Run read like a transplantation of European philosophy into a very different system of blunt realism, a form of American existentialism that concerned a recognizable anti-hero, the lone, ostensibly immoral male, who is incapable of living by any other truth than his own. But Updike adds his own twist to this portrait by reintroducing God into the narrative. God has been a niggle in the back of Rabbit’s mind, the poorly understood but radiant promise of something better and more beautiful and perhaps necessary (although he’s not sure about that). Jack Eccles is the pastor who inserts himself into the rift between Rabbit and Janice with the well-intentioned and catastrophic desire to heal it. Eccles is a tremendous character, continually walking the tightrope between heroic intervention and dubious meddling, not sure himself, really, quite what he thinks he’s doing and deeply annoying his wife with his devotion to the job that seems to go beyond caring concern to something a little unhealthy. It’s a clever move by Updike to make Eccles and Rabbit resemble one another by the end, in their dedication to their separate causes, and their shameless neglect of the womenfolk. In this novel, the men are all catapulted towards some distant, unarticulated ideal, while the women have to stay home with the mess of domesticity. But this is the sixties, so what else would you expect?

And it really is the sixties in Rabbit, Run, brought to life on every exquisitely written page. Updike is brilliant at descriptions and even more brilliant at creating a feel of the times, an atmosphere that saturates every sentence without being located in any particular word. I’ve only read a few Updike novels, but they have all had this chameleon quality, of being able to bring to mind not just a situation, but a whole, distinct era. Reading Rabbit, Run, I wondered when we’d got so prissy about our characters that they have to be fundamentally nice people. Only detective fiction allows its protagonists to be fatally flawed these days, and even then, it has to be in ways that arouse our pity. Updike comes from a sterner school; he doesn’t want a narrative awash with sentimentality. He wants a sharper, more acidic response from the reader, a pure, raw horror, at times, for Rabbit’s appalling behaviour, and also, a clear-eyed, if rueful acceptance that we are all flawed, that we all act with ugly self-serving gestures when life is brutal and unrewarding. Updike’s characters come from a time before self-awareness was essential to literary identity, and so they ask neither forgiveness nor understanding for who they are. Instead, this is car crash reading, as we watch each member of the cast add their weight to a balance that will eventually tip into tragedy. And this, I felt, was at the heart of Updike’s endeavour in the novel, to show how even dull and lowly lives could be subject to the most powerful of forces. If sex and religion come up a lot in Updike’s work, it’s because the former provides the most intransigent drive of the body, whilst the latter exerts the purest pull over the mind. And that, Updike insists, is where the conflict that fuels all narrative finds its origins, in the opposing magnetic forces that work on the mind and the body.

Rabbit, Run is not in keeping with modern styles of narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily make it old-fashioned; at the very least, Updike provides a masterclass in literary realism.  It’s true that he doesn’t always appeal to his readers, he doesn’t fight to keep us, as we now consider authors must, and he doesn’t provide comfortable, or even palatable truths for us to digest. But that still leaves him with a great deal to say, all of it now a tremendous legacy to the literature of the modern Western world.

What Do I Know?

I don’t know much, but I know this much for sure.

1. Fears make very good self-fulfilling prophecies.

2. Having your dreams come true is a more ambivalent experience than you might think.

3. No amount of external love or admiration will validate you, if you do not already value yourself.

4. Community brings out the best in people, competition brings out the worst.

5. If you want to do something well, you have to practice, a LOT; it’s not negotiable.

6. Being is a much harder life skill to master than doing.

7. Change happens when you’re not looking.

8. Contentment is the art of being completely engrossed in the task at hand.

9. Giving up, walking away and letting go are more often acts of liberation than they are gestures of defeat.

10. Closure only happens in novels.

And I tag Charlotte, Emily, Stefanie, Doctordi and Pete, wise bloggers one and all – oh and anyone else who’d like to do this one.

A Question of Style

A quick question: which of the following passages do you like better?

1. The Louis Philippe café overlooking the Seine became my favourite restaurant – not because of the food but because of the owner’s statuesque Great Dane, who frequently rests his wet jowls on diners’ tables. We make the mistake of taking visiting friends there, an American fellow and his Finnish wife.  They are scandalized. In most civilized countries such a creature wouldn’t get one paw inside a restaurant without the health inspectors arriving, they cry, amazed that we are not scandalized ourselves. I find myself bristling, wishing their horror wasn’t so apparent. Privately, I embrace the laid-back Latin approach to hygiene which doesn’t equate canines with uncleanliness. And, although in other circumstances I would never admit it, I admire the owner’s audacity: if you don’t like his dog snoring beneath your table go eat elsewhere. This nonchalant take-it-or-leave-it attitude is infuriating at times. But there is, at least, something upfront and honest about the French lack of compulsion to please clients.

2. [Taken from a story about the narrator recovering from an illness that temporarily makes her lose her sight.] On my last morning on the verandah between the soft interior of the house and the steep descent of the cliff, I woke early to the sound of Ettie’s feet on the bare boards as she walked to the kitchen. I heard the hiss of steam and the chink of china as she made her morning tea, the gurgle of the steam radiators as she switched the heating on. I heard the spring of the back door screen and her voice whispering to the birds, and to the day unfolding around her. Lying there, contemplating my return to the filaments of a life I’d abruptly left, it came to me that the folded-over intricacies of language and sight in which I had felt myself to be immobilized, were both impediment and blessing: a complicated birthright. The task I faced was not to surmount the impediments as if they were a mountain range to be scaled, nor to refuse them, retreating into a sanctuary that could as well be a prison, so much as seeing them through, and seeing through them.

Of course, you might like them both equally well. But the difference between the voices (and it’s a difference that accumulates over the course of each book) became very apparent to me. The first voice is highly personalized, the character of the narrator very vivid, very unapologetically present. The whole event is portrayed from a point of view dominated by an opinion. In fact the whole point of the event is to present the narrator’s opinion in all it’s glory. Much like the restaurant owner, there’s a take-it-or-leave-it quality at work here. If you don’t agree with her, you can go read some other book. And it’s not exactly unclear what she thinks, or unclear what her lively and loud emotions are doing – she’s bristling, or being infuriated, others seem to her amazed or scandalized. The use of that word ‘privately’ strikes me as perhaps not entirely truthful. This is a narrator who invites us to look at her life alongside her, in solidarity if we agree, in opposition if we don’t.

The voice in the second passage is introvert as opposed to the first narrator’s extroversion. This narrator watches, listens, records. Rather than confronting the life that surrounds her out of her sense of what it ought to be, she is trying to assess and judge what is, to find universal truths and understand them in their complexity. The point of this scene is to draw together (the way that existence draws together, our narrator suggests) the small, the quotidian, the habitual, with the bigger questions of what constitutes a good life. This time, as reader, we are drawn into the inside of the narrator’s mind and invited to view her thinking in a quiet moment of contemplation in a place where she feels safe and soothed. Nothing much is happening, ostensibly, and so space opens up for more abstract and profound thought. We can’t picture the scene so well, but then we’re not being asked to think about it through our emotions and gut reactions; we’re being asked, in fact, to think a little ourselves. This narrator doesn’t want to tackle life head on, she wants to slip gently into its flow, to align herself to something real and fundamental, and we as readers are invited to enter that quest, not alongside her, but inside her.

I wonder whether the way that readers respond to first person narrators is a question of their own individual character? The first book is Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, the story of an Australian who moves to Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman. She is a bold, outgoing sort of person who chafes against the uptight, restrained culture of Paris, charging in to hand drinks out at a polite early evening cocktail party because, to her mind, her hosts aren’t doing it quickly enough (the Parisians find this breach of etiquette rather horrifying). Much as there is a lot to enjoy in this travel narrative, I felt I had to like her, or rather, to be like her, to enjoy the book, and I am not. The second passage comes from Drusilla Modjeska’s book, The Orchard, which I read last year. It’s altogether more academic, more thinky, than the first, which suited me better. But then, that’s more who I am. And I prefer less vivid personalities. I don’t know – what do other people think?