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Passion
in Venice

 
 

...dazzling prose, casinos, love, androgyny, web-footed boatmen...

   

 

Jeannette Winterson weaves a luminous tale of love and betrayal in The Passion, her slim 1987 novel which one returns to just for the dazzling prose.  A novel which has something of fairy tale and dream: a world of boundless love and untold cruelty, of pleasure and chance.  At the heart of things the desire to transcend the banality of the quotidian, to feel with unrequited intense passion: This is where I disagree with the philosophers.  They talk about passionate things but there is no passion in them.  Never talk happiness with a philosopher."

 

Henri, a French soldier, serves in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, having pledged obeisance to the Emperor, until the eventual reality of the infamous Russian winter and defeat unveils the madness behind the grandiloquence.  And then there is Villanelle of the fiery red hair, daughter of a legendary web-footed Venetian boatman,  whose flight from the cruelty of a husband has also set her on roads East with Napoleon’s men, into the frigid tundra where smoke from burned villages darkens the air.  And here, from a desolate destroyed land of fire and ice, Villanelle and Henri undertake an almost unthinkable adventure, returning on foot from Moscow to Venice.  There is much poetry in this book, in its faceted imagery and prose, and in names as well—the villanelle a poem of nineteen lines (five tercets and a quatrain -- think Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night!)

 

Physical geographies and cartographies of the soul, uncharted and unknowable in Venice, a city in constant mutation, androgynous, ephemeral, and fleeting.  The city of Satan as it is referred to in the book, where casinos are a metaphor for lives spent gambling at love and war.  There is something cosmic in this view of life as passion and adventure, no two destinies or paths ever the same, each one a shooting star tracing its own luminous, brilliant arc: “This is the city of mazes.  You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route.  If you do so it will be by mistake.  Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here.  Your course in compass reading will fail you.  Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.”  Magic is everywhere in Winterson’s Venice, in hearts that can be stolen metaphorically and literally, where madness and reason are one, where anything is possible as long as one is willing to imagine the unimaginable.   And a refrain through the novel: "I'm telling you stories.  Trust me."

 

Read: The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

 

From the eCognoscente Archives: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer

 

Read: Death in Venice, Thomas Mann

 

Tags: literature   library   venice  books

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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