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The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
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The Passion (original 1987; edition 1988)

by Jeanette Winterson

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2,612382,293 (4.09)120
Member:crimson-tide
Title:The Passion
Authors:Jeanette Winterson
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (1988), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 176 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Read & released (inactive)
Rating:*****
Tags:fiction, magical realism, R05, 1001, released, aw, love, risk

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The Passion by Jeanette Winterson (1987)

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The story is set in the time of Napoleon and features Henri, a young man who loves Napoleon and cooks for him and a young woman Villanelle, from Venice who loses her heart to another woman. Henri and Villanelle meet up in the snows of Russia. It is a story of passion. Passions of Napoleon, passions of Villanelle and passions of Henri. The writing is beautiful written and of a style, magical realism.

First words: It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.

Quotes: “I'm telling you stories. Trust me.”

“I think now that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love. To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

"the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. The one is about you, the other about someone else."

Last words: I'm telling you stories. Trust me. ( )
1 vote Kristelh | Dec 18, 2014 |
Several years ago, I read Jeanette Winterson's “Written On The Body,” which made a tremendous impression on me, and unfortunately I haven't found my way to another Winterson novel until now. What struck me most about her writing then and still what attracts me the most is her command of an innovative, unique style that reminds me of a melange of the best of Robertson Davies, Angela Carter, and Borges. It has a fantastical quality all its own that seems quite separate from magical realism, and in my opinion is much more engaging.

The novel comes in a tiny package, but there's plenty to think about. One of the leitmotifs is the idea of passion in all its forms – war, human love, gambling, the epicurean passions of the sybarite. The character of Villanelle, the daughter of a Venetian boatman who at night masquerades as a man in the Felliniesque casinos of her city, allows the novel just as openly to play with themes of identity and gender – a continuing them in Winterson's fiction.

Henri is a professional soldier in Napoleon's army, fatefully chosen to be the tender of the Emperor's larders as he makes the monomaniacal decision to invade Russia – in the winter, which the characters call “a zero winter.” Villanelle is a fascinating character: married to a vile man, she ends up getting sold into Napoleon's army as a prostitute for community use. Villanelle and Henry meet as Napoleon's army is finally collapsing under its own weight, and Henri has made the decision to desert, along with Patrick, an eccentric priest with a history all his own. During their journey back to Italy, Henri and Villanelle fall in love.

After they finally make it back home, he rescues her beating heart from a Venetian palace, places it back into her body, goes stark raving mad (like Emperor, like soldier), and is committed to a prison where he is forced to see his beloved row by in her gondola every single day. Just like the end of every other love story you've ever read, right?

Villanelle is also a body of paradoxes – a whore and a savior, a man and a woman, a warrior and a lover. Winterson uses religious imagery to highlight her, and successfully manages to make her dialogue with the character of Henri almost kerygmatic. (The passion of the gospels is possibly still another that Winterson is trying to unearth as the story develops.)

While I may very well go back to my old ways and not read her again for another several years, Jeanette Winterson's fiction deserves some serious attention. You can always expect her to be concerned with the mercurial nature of human love (and especially lesbian love), but beyond that, you will never know the set of tropes she will use to explore it – fantastic historical fiction here, physics in “Gut Symmetries,” a post-apocalyptic hellscape in “The Stone Gods,” or memoir in “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” But I hope I’ve learned my lesson and don’t neglect her again for nearly as long. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Sep 16, 2014 |
Better, and harder, the second time. ( )
  iliadawry | Feb 6, 2014 |
The story is told directly from two different perspectives, that of Henri, and that of Villanelle, and yet there is another character whose passion brings these two together: that of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. We never see the story from his perspective and yet it is all the more poignant seeing him from Henri’s doting perspective. Henri is Napoleon’s personal chef of sorts when he is with the army, serving him roast chicken (apparently Napoleon’s favorite dish) at all hours of the day and night. In Napoleon’s case, his passion for chicken emulates his passion for the world. Imagine him looking at a globe instead of a covered dish of roast chicken as “he [would] lift the lid and pick it up and push it into his mouth. He wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). His appetite for chicken is his appetite for conquering the world, just as unquenchable, just as unreachable. He is the Ahab of world leaders. His great white whale, his Moby Dick, is Europe, and in just the same way, his monomania consumes him until there is nothing left but a good story.

The passion of Villanelle is similar to that of Napoleon in its veracity, but whereas Napoleon sought to conquer whole civilizations to slake his passion, Villanelle’s desires are more earthly and attainable, and yet more transient. Hers are the passions of experience, of carnality, of youth. She seeks to enjoy everything, and she finds both her imprisonment and her freedom in this. Her passion has her teetering wildly on life’s knife-like edge, “somewhere between fear and sex” (55) at all times. Unlike Napoleon however, whose passion is like a wildfire that burns fierce and bright until it suddenly finds itself unable to sustain its ferocity and dies, Villanelle’s passion is tapered to a point, like a blowtorch, driven to unbearable heat because it is focused on one area at a time. Her description of kisses demonstrates this: “I like such kisses. They fill the mouth and leave the body free. To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure. Passion is sweeter split strand by strand. Divided and re-divided like mercury then gathered up only at the last moment” (59). I like that idea of Passion split strand by strand. It’s the idea of indulgence, but controlled enough to prolong the consummation of whatever pleasure is the end goal, like a tasting menu that builds up to some magnificent pièce de résistance. This is the secret to Villanelle’s flame: that she is able to prolong the completion of her passion to such a degree that she never runs out of fuel or burns herself up.

Henri’s passion is of an entirely different breed than that of the latter two. His is passion tempered with rationality and self-sacrifice, which is ironic considering of the three Henri is the only one to end up in a madhouse, though happily, it would seem. Henri is the martyr. He gives all of himself to the people he loves, first to Napoleon and then to Villanelle, who loves him back in her own way but cannot reciprocate in the manner Henri needs. He is carried along on the fast-moving Lethe-like rivers of other people’s passions until he almost loses himself. There is a moment when he gets a taste of the more destructive and violent strain of passion when he kills Villanelle’s creepy, abusive husband. He describes it as follows:

Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse (68).

Unlike Villanelle, whose being has been virtually fireproofed in order to sustain the strength of her passion, part of Henri is burnt up in this act. It is after this that he relinquishes any hold on Villanelle. He very calmly takes responsibility for the murder and is sent to prison, and then to a madhouse. This madhouse becomes his haven, the four walls of his cell confine his existence in a way that comforts him. And it is within these walls, where Henri sometimes looks out his window to see Villanelle rowing her boat by his window, his small passion all but smothered while hers still burns with white-hot intensity, that the story ends.

For more book reviews (err... book musings?), visit my blog For Love and Allegory at http://www.forloveandallegory.wordpress.com/ ( )
1 vote stixnstones004 | Oct 10, 2013 |
I devoured this book in just a few days because it was so engaging, but I wish I had read it slower and taken the time to savor it and think about it - there is a lot of food for thought here. Winterson's writing style is very plain, not one unnecessary or out-of-place word, yet very powerful and vivid. The descriptions of Venice, in particular, are amazingly evocative.

The book tells the story of a soldier in Napoleon's army and a woman who works in a Venetian casino. Both characters' stories explore how passion shapes their lives: passion for Napoleon, passion for life, passion for home, family, a woman. It also explores how they cope when their passion fails them, or when they can't have their passion.

I need to reread this and take the time to savor and ponder it. ( )
  Gwendydd | Aug 16, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
We know from her first two novels that Jeanette Winterson is not lacking in a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd, but these qualities are greatly attenuated in The Passion, and one must hope that she does not renounce them altogether in pursuit of romantic high seriousness. In other respects The Passion represents a remarkable advance in boldness and invention, compared to her previous novels,
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, David Lodge (pay site) (Nov 29, 1988)
 

» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jeanette Wintersonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tamminen, LeenaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
You have navigated with raging soul and far from the paternal home, passing beyond the seas' double rocks and now you inhabit a foreign land.

Medea
Dedication
For Pat Kavanagh

My thanks are due to Don and Ruth Rendell
whose hospitality gave me the space to work.
To everyone at Bloomsbury, especially Liz Calder.
To Philippa Brewster for her patience.
First words
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.
Quotations
I'm telling you stories. Trust me.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802135226, Paperback)

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson won the Whitbread Award for best first fiction for the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an often wry exploration of lesbian possibility bumping up against evangelical fanaticism. She was 25. Two years later, The Passion, her third novel, appeared, the fantastical tale of Henri--Napoleon's cook--and Villanelle, a Venetian gondolier's daughter who has webbed feet (previously an all-male attribute), works as a croupier, picks pockets, cross-dresses, and literally loses her heart to a beautiful woman. Written in a lyrical and jolting combination of fairy tale diction and rhythm and the staccato, the book would be a risky proposition in lesser hands. Winterson has said that she wanted to look at people's need to worship and examine what happens to young men in militaristic societies. The question was, how to do so without being polemical and didactic? Only she could have come up with such an exquisite answer. In the end, Henri, incarcerated on an island of madmen, becomes aware that his passion, "even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. The one is about you, the other about someone else."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:22 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Henri had a passion for Napoleon and Napoleon had a passion for chicken. From Boulogne to Moscow Henri butchered for his Emperor and never killed a single man. With a de-frocked priest and a midget groom, Henri witnessed the scourge of Europe. In Venice, the city of chance and disguises, a great beauty was born with the webbed feet of her boatman father. In the casino, Villanelle learned that what people risk reveals what they value - she gambled her heart and lost. For eight years the soldier-chef watched young men die and his love for Napoleon turned to hate. Passion does not take disappointment well. He found the Venetian beauty whose heart was lost and together they fled frozen Russia to the canals of darkness and paradox.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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