Jeanette Winterson, Weight

A twitter conversation with Maureen Kincaid Speller about Laika stories reminded me of Weight, which I’d read when it came out and remembered very little about. A reread confirmed that it was one one of Winterson’s lesser works, but I find the larger Canongate series of which it’s a part fascinating.

A version of this appeared in this week’s Left of Cool column for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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There’s an Angela Carter quote I keep coming back to in relation to retellings of myths or folk-tales. “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter herself is famous for the brilliant The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories that reimagined a number of classic fairytales. Most myths and legends don’t have a definite original form. Even those that are credited with some sort of canonical version may be retold in countless ways – as anyone familiar with A.K. Ramanujan’s  essay“300 Ramayanas” and the recent controversy around it will be aware.

The Canongate Myth series began in 2005. This project involved the rewriting of various myths from various cultures by modern authors. The series has included writing by Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, a take on The Odyssey), Philip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) and A.S. Byatt (Ragnarok: The End of the Gods) among others.

Jeanette Winterson’s Weight was one of the earliest books in the series. The author takes on the myth of the Titan Atlas, who in Greek myth supports the Cosmos on his shoulders, and Heracles, the son of Zeus. In received versions of the myth these characters meet one another when Heracles is ordered (as one of his twelve labours) to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were Atlas’ daughters, and Heracles offered to relieve Atlas of his burden for a while so that the Titan could get the apples for him. Atlas planned to abandon Heracles and leave him holding the world, but Heracles tricked him into taking his burden back.

One thing that becomes clear in Weight is how myths can be made universal – Winterson’s version of the Atlas and Heracles story has plenty of connections to Christianity as well as references to the author’s own life. In Winterson’s story, Atlas and his daughters were cast out of the garden for eating of the forbidden fruit. As in the Bible a serpent plays a role – here it is the dragon Ladon who guards the tree. The fruits are heavy because they contain “knowledge of past and future”. Atlas’ burden has a Christlike feel to it. This is clearest in what to me is the most memorable section of the book, though a short one; Atlas finds himself a companion. It is Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russian space programme in 1957. Laika was sent up alive and was expected to die; most children, hearing this story for the first time are properly horrified. So is Winterson. “She was a good dog, a faithful dog, a trusting dog, who loved her master and obeyed him when he put her inside a tiny capsule and strapped her so that she could not move.” And “Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog”. Laika’s fate is the world’s guilt, and Atlas bears it for us.

Laika and space travel might seem incongruous here, but they are not. Weight is about myths, but Winterson’s world is a very physical one. Atlas’ account of the cosmos he holds up begins with the Big Bang, and travels through the evolution of life on earth. At one point he speaks “as the dinosaurs crawl through my hair”.

Jeanette Winterson’s most frequent subject is Jeanette Winterson . Her first book was semi-autobiographical, her most recent a biography, and she usually uses the first-person voice. This is not a criticism – part of the point of rewriting stories that people know is that we already have the ‘original’ story in our heads, adding another layer to the telling. Winterson quotes herself (the phrase “empty space and points of light” in this book, for example, first appeared in her Sexing the Cherry); she compares Heracles’ relationship with his parents to her own. In doing all of this, she turns her life into a similar ur-text for those of us who know her other works.

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