From The Times, Jeanette Winterson goes to Venice.
Her affection for the water city is contagious. I would like to highlight something she writes in the essay:
but I suppose that one’s favourites make a connection between your own imagination and the beat of the city. Like everything about Venice, books, cafés, walks, churches, paintings, buildings, the choice must be idiosyncratic. This isn’t a guidebook city; it is a place of endless discovery, much admired, but known only to you, like a lover who happens to be a great beauty.
A timely reminder to myself, as well as all travelers: discovery is sometimes putting aside the guidebook and just going with a dash of spontaneity.
The main action of her book, The Passion is set in Venice ― yet she admits she wrote it before she ever set foot in the city. Instead, she read three books on Venice and spins her own tale from these sources. But twenty years later, she wrote, "I read three books about Venice before I wrote The Passion and, 20 years later, those three books are still the ones I would chose above all others to find the place as it needs to be found — imaginatively."
Jeanette Winterson's Venetian Threesome:
1. The Stones of Venice, by John Ruskin
“magnificent inquiry into architecture and its social and spiritual effects”
2. Venice, by Jan Morris
“She is incomparable as a travel writer, and the perfect companion for that shape-shifting city, which as a shape-shifter herself, she intuitively understood.”
3. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
“a tribute to Venice in all her disguises”
As usual, I am taking notes. It is important to read about Venice, because it is a lion of a literary city, Byron, Ruskin, Browning, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Daphne du Maurier, among others.
I read John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels a couple of years ago, and his portrait of the dark, ambiguous beauty of Venice enthralled me. I have Henry James' The Wings of the Dove set aside for my Venetian Literary Travel; My copy is the Modern Library edition, because it has an introduction by Amy Bloom ― a writer whose short stories I adore.
Recently I went out to look for Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. Most of all, I picked up my old copy of The Passion and re-read parts of it.
The Passion is a work of magic realism set in the time of Napoleon. It is the story of Henri, who loves Napoleon and joins the army to be with his hero. Instead he becomes a chicken wringer in Bonaparte's kitchens. Soon war damages Henri and he realises the object of his adoration was unworthy. He deserts and while on the run, he runs into Villanelle.
Villanelle is the daughter of a Venetian boatman, born with webbed feet. She is a gambler, of cards and of love. She plays, she loses, because she falls in love with a married woman whom she can only wake up to by chance. So she marries to escape from her lover ― but she left her heart behind. Just as well, because where she is going, it is dangerous to have a heart.
Henri falls in love with Villanelle. She loves him, but only as a brother.
The Passion is the story of unrequited loves.
The Passion is the book of Venice, the city of water and smoke:
'This city enfolds upon itself. Canals hide other canals, alleyways cross and criss-cross so that you will not know which is which until you have lived here all your life. Even when you have mastered the squares and you can pass from the Rialto to the Ghetto and out to the lagoon with confidence, there will still be places you can never find and if you do find them you may never see St Mark's again. Leave plenty of time in your doings and be prepared to go another way, to do something not planned if that is where the streets lead you.'
'The cities of the interior do not lie on any map.'
Venice is the city of the interior, vast and deadly as labyrinths.
All of Jeanette Winterson's books converge back on her eternal theme of Love.
Some books come to you at a specific moment in your life, a moment of crisis ― and one day you find your feelings for the book are irrevocably changed for the experience. I came to The Passion when I was in love once, with someone who did not love me back; I know one cannot love to order, but the heart grasps at the unattainable.
I took notes, copied lines that left their marks on me, like firebrand:
Do all lovers feel helpless and valiant in the presence of the beloved? Helpless because the need to roll over like a pet dog is never far away. Valiant because you know you would slay a dragon with a pocket knife if you had to.
When I dream of a future in her arms no dark days appear, not even a head cold, and though I know it's nonsense I really believe we would always be happy and that our children would change the world.
I sound like those soldiers who dream of home …
No. She'd vanish for days at a time and I'd weep. She'd forget we had any children and leave me to take care of them. She'd gamble our house away at the Casino, and if I took her to live in France she'd grow to hate me.
I know all this and it makes no difference.
She'd never be faithful.
She's laugh in my face.
I will always be afraid of her body because of the power it has.
And in spite of these things when I think of leaving, my chest is full of stone.
Infatuation. First love. Lust.
My passion can be explained away. But this is sure: whatever she touches, she reveals.
The Passion became the story of my life:
I say I'm in love with her, what does that mean?
It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly she explains me to myself; like genius she is ignorant of what she does.
Love has passed but The Passion took the place of that private space I once kept for that special someone. I read the resolution of my love in the words of The Passion:
Passion will work in the fields for seven years for the beloved and on being cheated work for seven more, but passion, because it is noble, will not long accept another's left-overs.
And so it is.