Saturday, 28 December 2013

Week Fifty-One - Jeanette

Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson (1992)
Recommended by Anita

My body is written on.

I have three tattoos. Each is a carefully chosen design, patterns I knew I wanted indelibly inked upon me. The nuances shift, but their core meaning doesn’t: they represent transitions. I got each one during the final element of a pupa stage. They are memento moris of my past lives.

(We tattooed people do witter on about how deep ‘n’ meaningful the things are. Boring bores, the lot of us.)

But, lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s another, less highfalutin' reason for my tattoos. I think it’s also an expression of my background, a branch from the same root as liking amusement arcades and gaud at Christmas. Loads of people I grew up with have them. If you don’t tattoo the name of your child on your arm, well, what kind of mother are you? Don’t you love your kid?

I feel kinship with Jeanette Winterson. She has my name! There are precious few of us Little Jeans around. But, too, she was a working-class girl who found herself running with a different crowd when she went to university. For me, the process had already started before I left Norwich (a schoolfriend accused me of being a class traitor), but it certainly solidified after the age of eighteen. I never thought of it as a conscious denial of my background, although I’m sure others saw it that way. As I wrote in Week Sixteen, there are only two people from my pre-uni days involved in Two Readers.

It's a minor part of the book, but Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit captures this chequered experience well: the excitement and feeling of belonging with your new life, coupled with the sense of loss for the old. 

In her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson revisits the material she drew on for Oranges. Her conflicted feelings about her upbringing (and apart from the class aspect, her family circumstances are very different to mine) continue to be source material for her. Having read those two works, I approached Written On The Body with veiled autobiography in mind.

It was an interesting book to tackle directly after The Pursuit Of Love.

I had said them many times before, dropping them like coins into a wishing well, hoping they would make me come true. I had said them many times before but not to you. I had given them as forget-me-nots to girls who should have known better. I had used them as bullets and barter. I don’t like to think of myself as an insincere person but if I say I love you and I don’t mean it then what else am I?

The gender of Written On The Body’s narrator is never revealed, yet (perhaps because of my association of Winterson with memoir) I found myself thinking of that narrator as ‘her’ throughout. I assumed one of the country’s top lesbians must be mining her own relationships with women. But of course it could be a man, or a transgendered person. (There is no Smack My Bitch Up ‘surprise’ twist ending). I also suspect Winterson was drawing attention to the difficulty of expression without gender pronouns, critiquing how binary and constricting those categories are.

We begin by reading of the narrator’s back love catalogue. The prose is graceful, charged and often erotic, although it does sometimes spill into floridness.

I watched her break and butter each piece, soak it slowly in her bowl, let it float, grow heavy and fat, sink under the deep red weight and then be resurrected to the glorious pleasure of her teeth.

I do like it when Winterson gets a bit bawdier, too.

           June. The wettest June on record. We made love every day.

Most of the narrator’s women are flowing-locked anarcho goddesses (‘I had a girlfriend once who was addicted to starlit nights.’ Not addicted to Tetris, then?), but perhaps this is intended to show how the narrator idealises love objects rather than as a parade of unrealistic females. The Helenest of these Helens Of Troy is Louise: the pair embark upon an erotic and emotional odyssey until we discover that Louise’s body is more than honey-filled breasts and love-saturated heart. It has been invaded by leukaemia.

We are beholden to our bodies and, suicide aside, it is the body that has the ultimate control: the power of life and death. (That’s another reason why I decided to get tattooed. The body does enough stuff that you don’t want it to do, might as well get it to do something you do). The narrator now has to come to terms with this, and the book’s interlude, the extended prose poem ‘The Cells, Tissues, Systems And Cavities Of The Body’, explores Louise’s physicality as something more than sexual. It is an expression of the narrator’s love, framed by the new awareness of the cancer spraying graffiti on the inside and outside of Louise’s body.

Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you? Why can’t I dam their blind tide that filthies your blood? Why are there no lock gates on your portal vein?

Like Dennis Quaid in Innerspace, the narrator roams around: you can hear fingertips running on the corrugated roof of Louise’s mouth. But, when the narrator returns to the corporeal world, the hard fact of Louise’s illness is still there. What is more important, the health of the body or that of the heart?

One of us hadn’t finished, why did the other one go? And why without warning?

This novel didn’t, for me, have the personal clout of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit: the story seems deliberately not as strong, almost as if Winterson thinks that an abstract narrative is a more valid approach to literature. But I really enjoyed getting lost within Louise’s capilliaries, climbing her spine stepladder, being swaddled by her intestines. 

And while we’re thinking of bodies, what body do you picture when you hear ‘mermaid’? Ariel in The Little Mermaid? Daryl Hannah in Splash? Cher in fancy dress? Jerry Hall on the cover of Siren? Chances are it isn’t this…

Cryptozoology is a word I had never encountered before I met Anita. It refers to the study of fake or unproven creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, and Norfolk’s own Black Shuck. (Look at this fascinating list of cryptids – a Man-Eating Tree!). And then there’s The Buxton Mermaid, that beauty above.

Anita restored her. She is also her ambassador, telling her story to the press and to museums. Her care of The Buxton Mermaid goes beyond a job, and that is typical Anita. She will give her time and her support to those (and crypto-those) who she loves. She’s certainly done it for me. When I was in the midst of a crisis, Anita not only propped me up with words and hugs, she came to my place and did my washing-up. When everything is surreal because sadness is so huge, to have someone who can gently re-orientate your world, so you’re in no doubt it’s still worth living in because you have friends like her… it is a key to recovery.

I love conversing with Anita about books. (She's Tim's sister, equally as erudite as he) and as the year, and this project, has written itself on my body, I've realised I have my Two Readers friends to thank for more than just their book recommendation. It’s talking about the posts, sharing thoughts on the books in person, and to hear other interpretations of the stories and ideas that has been so incredibly inspiring, and the motivating factor in getting me to book fifty-one out of fifty-three.

Hold on to your hats. There are two amazing works coming down the Two Readers bridleway before midnight on the 31st of December, 2013.