Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit

Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit, book cover

Book cover: Used by permission of the Random House Group Limited

As I was reading Jeanette Winterson’s novella Oranges are not the only fruit, the question, rightly or wrongly, that was uppermost in my mind was “What is it with the oranges?” Is there something about oranges that I don’t know? Something specific that they symbolise?  I racked (wracked) my brain for something in my literary past that would give me a clue, but I came up with nothing. I guess she wanted to choose a motif to represent her mother’s limiting interactions with her and an orange seemed as good as anything? Certainly oranges are a recurring motif, and her mother regularly insists they are “the only fruit” until the end when a “pineapple” makes its appearance. I’m not sure, however, that this change heralds anything in their relationship other than compounding the paradoxes that seem to underpin this novel.

This is an intriguing book. It is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel which tells the story of the first person protagonist, Jeanette, who was adopted by a religious zealot and is being brought up to be a missionary. However, around the age of 16 she discovers that her (homo)sexual leanings do not meet her mother’s (or her church’s) approval and, well, the plot is slim but perhaps I will leave it here nonetheless…

The novel exhibits some of the hallmarks of postmodernism, of which the most obvious is its metafictional elements, the way it contains stories within stories and plays around with the idea of stories in relation to “truth”. It all begins with Winterson naming the main character after herself and modeling that character’s life on much of her own, resulting in our being, from the start, teased by notions of what is “true” and “real”.

The book is divided into chapters titled appropriately, given Jeanette’s upbringing, by books of the Bible, such as Genesis, Joshua and Ruth. These titles are descriptive but also symbolic and even a little satirical; Jeanette, for example, has walls to confront just like Joshua. And the narrative, while roughly chronological, intermittently leaps from “reality” to “fantasy” as Jeanette tries to escape or make sense of her experience of life. Sometimes these stories – such as the Winnet story near the end – represent a parallel fantasy life for what is happening to her, but other times the reference point is more indirect, and draws on history and myth such as the King Arthur legend (and Sir Perceval’s search for the Holy Grail).

And this brings me to “story” and “history”. Readers of my blog will know that these notions, and the related one of “truth”, fascinate me when they are played out in fiction. I tend to enjoy reading books that deal self-consciously with them, that recognise the challenges and ambiguities inherent in them – and this is one of those books. Jeanette, the character, has some interesting things to say on these topics around the time the “truth” of her life, her sexuality, is becoming clear. She says in the short chapter titled Deuteronomy: The last book of the law:

Of course that is not the whole story , but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained … People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious …

And she goes on to discuss how history, the past, “can undergo change” because “the lens can be tinted, tilted, smashed”. She recognises that “perhaps the event had an unassailable truth” but we all see it through our own lens. Tellingly, near the end of the book, in the chapter titled Ruth, she runs into Melanie, her first lover (now married with a child):

…she [Melanie] laughed and said we probably saw what had happened differently anyhow … She laughed again and said that they way I saw it would make a good story, her version was just the history, the nothing-at-all facts.

Melanie, it seems, does not have the imagination to re-vision her “story”.

So, did I enjoy this book? Yes, pretty much. I like her attempt to make sense of what was a very particular childhood, and to try to draw from it some larger “truths” about how we might all manage the “stories” of our lives. It is not a straightforward read – and it is first novel with, perhaps, a little of the overdone in it. I’m not sure why, for example, she suddenly decides to include a little rant against Pol Pot. It usefully supports a point she is making about the uses of history, but it is odd in a story that is nowhere else political. Perhaps that’s just being post-modern!

In her introduction to my 1991 Vintage edition, Winterson claims to have written an experimental, anti-linear novel. Well, it is a bit of that I suppose, though not dramatically so. I would have called it reasonably linear – at least in the chronological sense – but perhaps the ideas in it do “spiral” (as she calls it) a bit in the way she toys, through the various narratives, with the idea of “story” and what it means to us. What it means, I think, is not always clear – we like stories but we cannot (perhaps need not) always draw conclusions from them. That is the paradox of our lives. As she says near the end

…not all dark places need light. I have to remember that.

Jeanette Winterson
Oranges are not the only fruit
London: Vintage, 1991 (orig. 1985)
171pp.
ISBN: 9780099935704

Salman Rushdie, The enchantress of Florence

The enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Cover image, used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd

Where to begin? Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The enchantress of Florence is one of those books-writ-large: its canvas is broad, its structure a little complex and it has a large character set. In other words, you need your wits about you as you read this one.

This is only my third Rushdie. Like most keen readers I read and enjoyed Midnight’s children, with its inspired exploration of the partition of India. I also loved his cross-over children’s book Haroun and the sea of stories. It is a true laugh-out-loud book. In fact, as I started this book I had a flashback to Haroun, not so much because of the subject matter but the light rather satirical if not downright comedic tone. It is very funny at times, particularly in the beginning.

Akbar the Great

Akbar the Great (Courtesy: Wikipedia, Presumed public domain)

The novel is set in the 16th century and revolves around the visit of a young Italian, the so-called “Mogor dell’Amore” (Mughul of Love), to the Mughal emperor Akbar‘s court and his claim that he is a long lost relative of Akbar, born of an exiled Indian princess (Qara Köz) and a Florentine. The story moves between continents, with “Mogor’s” story about his origins in Medici Florence being told alongside that of Akbar’s court. The book is populated with a large number of historical figures – and at the end of it is an 8-page (my edition) bibliography of books and web-sites Rushdie used to research his story. They include social, political and cultural histories as well as fictional works such as Italo Calvino’s Italian folktales. One could wonder, at times, whether it’s a little over-researched, but perhaps that would be churlish.

The next question to ask is, What sort of novel is it? Is it historical fiction? Well yes. Is it a picaresque novel? Yes, a bit. Is it a romance? That too, a bit. Is it a comedy? Certainly. Is it a fable? Could be! What it is, under all this of course, is postmodern.

If I had to use one word to describe this book it would probably be paradoxical. On the second page of the story, the bullock cart driver who brings the stranger (our “Mogor”) to town, describes his passenger in these terms:

If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well, and, the driver thought, everyone around here is a little bit that way too, so maybe this man is not so foreign to us after all.

And thus the scene is set for a rather rollicking tale about people who either aren’t all – or don’t seem all – quite real, who play games with each other, who are perhaps more alike (“not so foreign”) than they are different, and who manipulate, fight, love and hate each other as they struggle to find (or understand or establish) their place in the world. In fact, at the end of the first chapter the sort of paradoxical story we are embarking on is made clear:

The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered prosy fact.

In other words, as you read this book, keep your wits about you! And that is, I admit, what I found a little hard to do as stories, people, and ideas were thrown at me…and then taken back and thrown at me a different way. As I read books I tend to jot notes on the blank page/s you usually find at the end. My notes on this one are all over the place: Love, Power, Names and their mutability, Truth, Religion and Faith, Imagination and Reality, Stories, Nature of men and women, East versus West, and so on. The question now is, Do any of these tie together or form a coherent thought upon which to hang the book? I think there is, and it is to do with ideas surrounding imagination and reality. In Chapter 3, for example, we learn of Akbar’s love for Jodha, the woman he has conjured up for himself:

She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends…and the emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real.

Their love is called “the love story of the age”, and the chapter talks about the border between “what was fanciful and what was real”. Love, and its power, is one of the driving forces of the novel, and, without giving anything away, the ending more or less unites the two ideas: the power of love, and the conjunction of imagination and reality.

But, truth be told, I’m having trouble writing about this book…and I think this is because, for me at least, it started off with a flourish but got bogged down, particularly when we moved from India to Florence. That said, it picked up again near the end. Here is Akbar in the last chapter:

Again, at once, he was mired in contradictions. He did not wish to be divine but he believed in the justice of his power, his absolute power, and, given that belief, this strange idea of the goodness of disobedience that had somehow slipped into his head was nothing less than seditious. He had power over men’s lives by right of conquest … But what, then … of this stranger idea. That discord, difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence might be the wellsprings of good. These thoughts were not fit for a king.

The word I used earlier in this review to describe this book was paradoxical and this is because almost every “truth” presented within its pages is met by an equal but opposite “truth”. And perhaps that is the biggest truth of all!

Salman Rushdie
The enchantress of Florence
London: Vintage, 2009
355pp.
ISBN: 9780099421924

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

He invented stories so fantastic she had to believe.

It’s hard to know where to start writing about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated, so I’ll just start with a brief description of the plot. It concerns a search in the Ukraine by “the hero” (aka Jonathan Safran Foer) for the woman (Augustine?) who, he believes, saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War 2. He is escorted on this trip by a translator Alex, a driver (Alex’s grandfather, also Alex), and their “seeing-eye bitch” dog, the absurdly named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. This narrative is conveyed to us through three streams:

  • Alex’s (the translator, not the driver) story of the search for Augustine and Trachimbrod;
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s (“the hero” and searcher) novel-in-progress about the history of his family in Trachimbrod (from 1791 to 1942); and
  • Alex’s (translator, again) letters to Foer about their search and his novel.

So far, so good, but if you have read my introductory post on the book you will know that this is a postmodern book and therefore a bit “tricksy”! And the first bit of “tricksiness” is that overlaying these narratives is the fact that Jonathan and Alex comment on each other’s writing, though we only hear this from Alex who comments in his letters on Jonathan’s work as well as responding to Jonathan’s comments on his work. Alex, then, is the main character in the book – if, that is, it can be said to have a main character. Certainly, Alex is the one whose character develops through the novel – from a rather callow youth who is full of bravado to a thoughtful young man (or “premium person”) ready to take on serious responsibilities.

At first, it is pretty funny – which, if you knew when you started that its subject is the Holocaust, could discomfort a little. I believe though that humour can deal effectively with the dark side, so I didn’t find it disconcerting – and, anyhow, the humour decreases as the book wears on. As Alex writes early in the novel:

I am able to understand now that it was the same laugh … the laugh that had the same darkness as Grandfather’s laugh and the hero’s laugh.

Humour and the multiple strand structure (combined with a convoluted but comprehensible chronology) are just two elements of this novel’s style. There are many others – too many really to cover in a short(ish) review – but fortunately I did refer to several of them in my introductory post. However, one I didn’t mention is Foer’s (the author this time!) use of different linguistic styles to represent the different characters and their strands, and to convey Alex’s growth towards maturity. It is with some disappointment, really, that we see his malaproprisms and other word-misuse (“I wore my peerless new jeans to oppress the hero”) disappear! There is also the magical realism in “the hero’s” story of Trachimbrod: the stories he tells about this shtetl stretch our credulity, but no more perhaps than does the cruelty of the Holocaust which is the point to which the narrative leads us. As the woman (Augustine? Lista? Does it matter?) who shows them what’s left of Trachimbrod says:

It is not a thing you can imagine. It only is. After that, there can be no imagining.

The book covers a lot of ground, including memory, history, place, names and identity, but two ideas that run throughout and that caught my attention are love and truth. “The hero’s” novel-within-the-novel speaks much about love, while Alex’s story of their search explores the notion of truth (though this distinction is not completely rigid). Why this is is not hard to understand when you know their (and their family’s) respective roles in the story: Alex would like to see through the “facts” to the “truth” (for some sort of absolution) while “the hero” would, it seems, like to believe that love can transcend all (to glean something from the wholesale destruction).

You can see the progression in Alex’s thinking in the following:

I also invented things that I thought might appease you, funny things and sad things. (p. 54)

This is a nice story. It’s true, I’m not making it up. (p. 158)

We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? (p. 179)

I would never command you to write a story that is as it occurred, but I would command you to make your story faithful. (p. 240)

Meanwhile, “the hero” is writing of love: Brod (his great-great-great-great-great or, “very-great”, grandmother) and her love-match with the Kolker in early 19th century Trachimbrod; the time when all the people of Trachimbrod thought they had a novel in them with all these novels being “about love”; his grandfather’s love for the gypsy girl between 1934 and 1941 (the gypsy and the Jew!). One of the most poignant lines of the novel describes love messages made out of war-time newspaper headlines:

…each note a collage of love that could never be, and war that could.

Love – what people do and don’t do for it – is, really, the heart of the book.

It’s a full-on novel, and suffers somewhat from that new-writer problem of trying to do too much: you almost wonder what is left for his second novel. That said, it’s a rollicking read despite the seriousness of its subject – and provides plenty of challenges for the grey matter. I was taken by this little mind-twister about Brod:

She repeats things until they are true, or until she can’t tell whether they are true or not. She has become an expert at confusing what is with what was with what should be with what could be.

This conveys the essential problem of writing about the Holocaust: the sheer horror of it is almost beyond comprehension.

Early in the novel Alex asks “the hero”:

Are you being a humorous writer here or an informed one?

I see no reason why you can’t be both – and Foer, in this novel, has pretty well pulled it off.

This of course doesn’t make any sense

Foer, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0)

Foer, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0)

Lisa, over at ANZLitLovers, has produced a list of some of the main features of postmodernism. It just so happens that I am also reading a postmodernist book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated (from which the title of this post comes). I’ve only just started the book but it is exhibiting those features of postmodernism that I most enjoy:

  • metafiction – in this case highly self-conscious authoring
  • absurdity and irony thinly but uproariously disguising “real” meaning
  • visual playfulness – the titles of chapters by one character typeset in various curvy shapes, while the titles by the other are presented in the usual straight line; use of other typographical features such as upper case, italics, strikethroughs and the like
  • mixed genres – letters (ie correspondence), novel within novel, playscript, and so on.

All these are contained within a comprehensible story-line, once you get into it, and in language that is playful but not so playful that it’s obscure. But more anon. As a character in the novel says:

I do not have any luminous remarks because I must possess more of the novel in order to lumin.

Writing like this makes me laugh out loud…and that is always a good thing.