Weight by Jeanette Winterson
|Publisher(s):||Canongate Books Ltd|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book|
|Release Date:||July 6, 2006|
Weight is, at its heart, a re-imagining of the myth of Atlas and Heracles (also known as Hercules in Rome and the modern west). As punishment for siding with Cronos against Zeus, Atlas has been compelled to carry the weight of the celestial sphere upon his back. Heracles, the only other strong enough to shoulder Atlas’ burden, is nearing the end of his labours but needs Atlas’ help to recover the Golden Apples of Hesperides, and so a deal is struck.
The book is short, barely 150 pages, and is easily read for the prose is often delightful. Fresh and energetic, almost in defiance of its theme it meanders in a compelling, unexpected way, invigorating the mythology from which it draws its ammunition. Take, for example, Atlas’ internal monologue as Heracles, half man half god, first asks for Atlas’ help recovering the Golden Apples:
Help. He comes for help at the hinge of the world. Heaven and earth fold away from each other, but here they lie edge to edge. To this doubleness he comes for help, this man of double nature, the god in him folded back in human flesh.
Occasionally Winterson stumbles with a clumsy or slight turn of phrase, but these are easily forgiven for there is much to admire.
Weight’s prose-poetry butts up against a conversational, almost conspiratorial humour which erodes or nullifies much of the weight of Greek tradition. ‘Listen here’, the book almost whispers, ‘I’ll tell you what really happened before the pesky Greeks fancied it up’.
Have a drink Atlas, you old globe. We’ve all got our burdens to bear. Your punishment is to hold up the universe. My punishment is to work for a wanker.
Winterson uses this loquacious style to maintain a distance from the mythological and historical baggage that informs her narrative, to avoid being crushed by it whilst also being able to deploy it freely, often delighting in tweaking or subverting the weight of our expectations. For example, those familiar with the mythology will know that Heracles is inconsistently represented, and can be either heroic saviour in the true Greek mould or brutish barbarian deep in a bottle and far past his prime. Winterson neatly sidesteps this dichotomy and casts him as someone struggling under the weight of masculinity, slowing down, certainly, softening perhaps, but still expected to behave in a certain way.
He had pursued [Hippolyte] for a year […] As he stood over her, his sweat plopping onto her face, he had wanted to lift her up gently and share his food with her. He thought of marrying her. He asked her if she’d marry him, as he stood there swinging his big club. She said something about Amazons never marrying, something silly like that, and he realized she was just a woman like the rest, who would never know what was good for her. He hesitated, and then knocked off her head the way you open a desert cactus.
Much fun is made of machismo in the book, largely at Heracles’ expense. At one point, desperate to prove he is stronger than Atlas, he jovially offers to compare penises. Atlas is disinterested, seemingly unaffected by the burden of heroic masculinity, for he has other weight to bear. Present too is a lingering sexuality that is both direct and, at times, quite unapologetically brutal, lacking the traditional boundaries of privacy or tact. But Winterson deploys this sexuality well, always with a purpose, examining and probing motivation and expectation rather than revelling or delighting in the carnal.
Weight is layered, structurally, as several separate narratives exist on top of one another. This layering is made explicit almost from the first page:
The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book.
This phrase is repeated, like a mantra, a concrete poem that recurs as Winterson lays it down over and over in successive layers like sediment, each layer accruing meaning, each layer affected and impacted by the weight of the next. To this Winterson adds a creation story influenced by modern astronomy, and several autobiographical chapters detailing the author’s own struggle with the burden of family, writing and creation.
Some of these additions work, as when in the delicate final chapter ideas of science, creation, home and responsibility merge seamlessly and satisfactorily with Atlas’ story. Some additions, however, do not work quite so well, as when Winterson inserts herself into the narrative:
What can I tell you about the choices we make?’ she writes in the penultimate chapter. ‘I chose this story above all others because it’s a story I’m struggling to end.
It is not that these autobiographical passages, more asides really, serve no function, for they do. In entwining the struggles of Atlas and Heracles with the struggles of her own life Winterson contributes to the weight placed upon the reader and attempts to humanize her cosmic and mythological subjects. But Winterson does enough in the main narrative to humanize Atlas and Heracles, to make this story as much about our weight, our burdens and our choices as theirs. Having this deft and delicate connection reinforced with autobiographical posturing, especially so close to the end of the novel, seems at best unnecessary and at worst intrusive and disruptive. It is not that we wish to silence her story, but rather that, in the context of the novel, it seems misplaced.
As Weight reaches a conclusion, Atlas is finally ‘rescued’ by Laika, the dog who was blasted into space by the Russians in 1957 as a prelude to manned space flight. This is at once charming, uniting an Atlas crushed by the weight of his burden and solitude with a travelling Dog who resists the weight of gravity to soar above the earth, and yet also slightly saccharine. But as Winterson expands the story both into the 20th century and outwards into the universe it revealed, she finds an excellent balance between the diverse layers of her narrative.
Ultimately, despite its easy and compelling style, Weight is a challenging interpretation of a traditional myth. At once micro-cosmically human and macrocosmically vast, Weight forces you to think carefully about the mass of burden, of responsibility, of family, of gender, of expectation, of sexuality, of punishment and of history. Yet somehow the book remains almost weightless and endearingly easy to read sympathetically. It uplifts, it inspires, and, in the end, shrugs off its burdens while encouraging us to do the same.