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Old 20th Dec 2004, 17:36   #10
rick green
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Join Date: 4 Sep 2003
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The Passion

A title this suggestive deserves a story with some meat on its bones. At a mere hundred & sixty pages, Winterson’s book seems wretchedly thin. I guess this is natural, considering her undernourished prose. Aggregations of meager sentences form meager paragraphs. Meager paragraphs add up to meager chapters and so on. It is somehow fitting that in this book of magic & miracles, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. Other reviewers have justly remarked on The Passion’s similarity to fairy tales. The brother’s Grimm cared little for psychological truth in their characters. For better of worse, neither does Winterson. She is content to play with paper cutouts. That’s fine with me. I don’t need psychology in a novel, so long as there are other rewards to be had.
Hang on…
Allow me to take that back. I do need psychology in a novel. To me, that’s what it’s all about. If there’s no humor, no pathos, nothing to latch onto with fellow feeling, why bother? The Passion is an allegory at heart. I’m a little surprised at myself for not liking it because I usually admire allegory in a novel. The thing is, I like it when an author adds a symbolic element to the characters, events, or settings that make up a novel. When that happens, it’s almost like getting two stories for the price of one. The problem with The Passion is that it’s not a novel with a layer of allegory on top. It’s an allegory with the novel knocked out from under it. Gil’s quip that there’s such a thing as too much minimalism applies perfectly.

Domino the midget says that being near him [Napoleon] is like having a great wind rush about your ears. He says that’s how Madame de Stäel put it and she’s famous enough to be right. She doesn’t live in France now. Bonaparte had her exiled because she complained about him censoring the theatre and suppressing the newspapers. I once bought a book of hers from a traveling pedlar who’d had it from a ragged nobleman. I didn’t understand much but I learned the word ‘intellectual’ which I would like to apply to myself.
Domino laughs at me.
At night I dream of dandelions.

As you can see, subtlety is not one of Winterson’s virtues. Having a character dream of dandelions or read de Stäel does not make him interesting. Not even having him admit to intellectual vanity elicits my sympathy as a reader. Why not? It just seems too obvious, too gauche--like painting by numbers.
The short sections that make up each chapter read like prose poems… without the mystery that’s at the heart of such writing. Sometime they read like anecdotes… without a point. I can think of two cases of an author using similar means to greater effect: Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Olga Turkoczuk’s House of Day, House of Night. The former is a mosaic of short pieces on the real-life enigma Buddy Bolden—progenitor of New Orleans jazz. It’s been ages since I read it, but I remember it hanging together like a cubist canvas by Picasso or Braque. The fragmentary form suited the subject, jazz, that music that smashes melody, tossing the pieces about with glee. Turkoczuk’s book is also made up of apparently unrelated fragments. Beyond the levels of plot and character, however, there are certain images, ideas & themes that repeat. An invisible web of association is constructed by the diligent reader. This is certainly not a traditional novel, but it is very interesting nonetheless. There is mystery & pathos to spare.

In conclusion, I feel like I’ve failed to completely understand my annoyance with The Passion. To put the whole issue in other terms, it’s Coelho’s Alchemist in the disguise of Calvino’s Non-Existent Knight.

P.S. Then again, maybe it’s not as dire as all that. I can’t do it justice reading it hard on the heels of War & Peace—the epitome of pathos, the paragon of sympathetic characterization, the justification of the novel as an art form.
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