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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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2,574362,328 (4.09)111
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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English (29)  Swedish (3)  Dutch (1)  Catalan (1)  Finnish (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (36)
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
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 |
This is one of the best books I ever read. History with a touch of magic, a love story, a bit of philosophy, and beautifully written. ( )
  AliceWonders | Jul 1, 2013 |
I have a strange relationship with Jeanette Winterson's writing, really. I think her use of imagery is amazing, and I could get lost in the webs she makes with words, but at the same time, I don't read her work for story or characters -- and when I read, I generally am reading for story or characters, or out of academic interest. Since I'm a medievalist, this doesn't satisfy that latter urge, either.

The Passion has some beautiful imagery, and some fairytale dream-like stories that sparked my interest, and there is a narrative -- perhaps more solid than that of Sexing the Cherry -- but again, it didn't interest me with the story. The character of Villanelle is interesting, and I was reminded for some reason of Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest.

Unlike Sexing the Cherry, though, I don't think it's something I'm going to return to just for the imagery or the language. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (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.
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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)

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