Tracking the Lines of Literature Across the Maps of Our Lives

July 1, 2012

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. Grove Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

As it happens, I read this new memoir by Jeanette Winterson at an incredibly opportune moment in my life. The moment at which I picked it up in the Brunswick Street Bookstore was the best moment at which I could ever have picked it up, brought it home, and read it in only a few days of a few hours reading at a time. It was the best time for me to gain the maximum benefit from reading it, understanding it, and learning from it. It was the best time, because I was going through a personal trauma of rather formidable dimensions.

This is a book – more than anything else that I was able to discern (and there’s a lot to gain here) – about the gifts of reading literature. Shortly after reading and deeply enjoying it, I saw a discussion of the book on the ABC program on books and reading hosted by Jennifer Byrne, First Tuesday Book Club.
Most of the panelists didn’t get the book at all, and one, Germaine Greer, positively derided the way Winterson depicted her adoptive mother – likening it to the sucking dry of someone’s marrow. I think in one sense this is ironically what Winterson is doing – but not ‘to’ someone. She is wresting as much meaning and substance from her own pain and suffering as she can. For me, this is as humane as a writer can be.

Watching this discussion on Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal – just to digress a moment longer but it will be relevant – I was able to appreciate anew just what it is that makes our responses to books and literature so personal. When we enjoy the books and stories we read, they speak to us in definite ways. Something in the story – the telling of it, the language, the nuance, the setting, the situations – resonate with us. When we get the chance to browse leisurely in a quality bookshop (remember this joy?) we read the back and front blurbs, look at the cover, feel the weight of the book, see the size of the font, feel the texture of the pages, read the beginning and see if we’re in the mood for that story, that writer, this style, that genre. It’s all about what we ‘need’ as readers, what speaks to us and our needs at that moment. I watched those people talking critically about this book that I was so in love with and felt that they had no souls. Nothing could have recently touched them intensely, torn them apart, laid them broken and bleeding and crying on the bathroom floor. They didn’t need this book the way I had needed it.

In the case of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, the clue to its style and structure – one of the things panelist Marieke Hardy didn’t like about the book was its digressions and asides about literature and memory in the midst of relating harrowing  experiences – is in the blurb:

‘It is the story of how the painful past Jeanette Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, returned to haunt her later life, and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her real mother. It is also a story about other people’s stories, showing how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft which supports us when we are sinking.’

Here, if we are open to it, we can feel each moment of the sinking, the drowning, and the floating back to the surface along with the writer. Flung across these moments of drowning – which were so close to the helplessness I was feeling while reading it – were the lines from fiction and poetry which could draw the author back to a relative safety.

‘… a very important part of me had been destroyed … but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.’ (42)

For me as a reader, it was seeing how this writer had saved herself from becoming lost by holding tight to the threads of stories and literature, which was much more important than the concerns about the blurring of autobiography and fiction upon which many reviewers and commentators on the book have thus far tended to focus.  Yes, this book recounts much that was written about in Winterson’s first novel / memoir Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and there is a lot here about the author’s coming to terms with the looming presence over her life of Mrs. Winterson, her adoptive mother. But I’ll leave this to other reviewers. For my purposes, the ability to make her difficult life into a bearable story is what makes Jeanette Winterson a marvellous and important writer, and this an incredibly important book. We all need to be able to tell stories about our lives, especially about the parts over which we don’t have any control, and reading about others’ experiences and the stories they tell helps us craft our own stories. However, I’m not totally in agreement with the first sentence of the following:

‘Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become’ (117).

This is of course exactly what Winterson does here, and in Oranges. She turns reality into something bearable. At the same time as reading Winterson, I was re-reading the Diary of Anais Nin. Here is a writer who spent most of her life creating herself as a fiction, not to deceive or dissimulate, but to survive loss, grief and manage the turmoil of her life by turning it into creativity, into literature. Here, in Volume 1 she says:

‘How to defeat this tragedy concealed within each hour, which chokes us unexpectedly and treacherously, springing at us from a melody, an old letter, a book, the colors of a dress, the walk of a stranger? Make literature. Seek new words in the dictionary. Chisel new phrases, pour the tears into a mold, style, form, eloquence.’

This is creativity – to “pour the tears into a mold” and recreate yourself, and your pain, as a fiction. To tell a bearable story about trauma helps you to survive it and emerge with purpose and a future. For some reason readers of books which blur the lines between fiction and autobiography frequently feel cheated or lied to when they realize that there is creativity at play, that the story is not just a confession. I’m not at all saying this is what Winterson is doing in Why Be Happy but even if it is, I don’t care. The stories and poetry she read during the darkest time of her life helped her to make a place for herself and her suffering to rest within the language of life, the language of Literature.

In the chapter in which Winterson describes the process she began of reading English Literature A to Z in the Accrington Public Library, a chapter which directly follows the description of her finally leaving home, she begins by relating the fact that the library even had a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Appropriately, this is a truly famous autobiography which is of course not an autobiography at all – but the medium through which the anxiously brilliant and egotistical author, Stein, tells the story she most wants to tell about herself. And within its pages young sixteen year old Jeanette finds a powerful emblem of hope – a place within the language of human experience to locate her own internal traumas. She had been sleeping at night in a Mini on the street, but has now been given chance through the kindness of a teacher at her school, to have a room, a bed, a place to put her books and relocate herself. She reads from The Autobiography and tells her readers,

‘Gertrude and Alice are living in Paris. They are helping the Red Cross during the war. They are driving along in a two-seater Ford shipped from the States. Gertrude likes driving but she refuses to reverse. She will only go forward because she says that the whole point of the twentieth century is progress.

The other thing Gertrude will not do is read the map. Alice Toklas reads the map and Gertrude sometimes takes notice and sometime not.

It is going dark. There are bombs exploding. Alice is losing patience. She throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude: ‘THIS IS THE WRONG ROAD.’
Gertrude drives on. She says, ‘Right or wrong, this is the road, and we are on it.’

The next chapter in Winterson’s book? ‘This is the road’. The road ahead looks frightening but turning back is harder, if not impossible. Keep going forward.

The point of this book – the thing that should always be the point of any book – is to offer experiences to the readers which might resonate, might move their hearts, engage their imaginations, intellects, their senses of justice or compassion. Winterson shows the interconnected nature of human experience by showing the ways the lines of literature and poetry strung themselves across her world and rescued her: ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal are the ruptures reality makes on the imagination.’  When Mrs Winterson burned Jeanette’s books, Jeanette realizes their gifts are already inside her, and that there was now the potential for a different reality. Standing over the pile of charred pages she thinks, ‘Fuck it’ … ‘I can write my own’.

However, this is not just a story about creativity and healing and rescue. It also concerns losing touch with reality, sinking into madness, and becoming unmoored from the lines which keep us attached to understanding. In the last part of Why Be Happy the author relates a rather harrowing and frightening experience which lands her in hospital. The lines from her own writing are now the subject of scrutiny, brought into the narrative as points on the now very fuzzy looking map of her life. Once these lines represented a framework for her attempt to write over the past, but then in a moment, when she finds a long-hidden paper with her birth name crossed out, the lines fray and crumble and the terrors and agony of the past is shown to still be right there, in the present.

Another line: The Winter’s Tale – ‘an abandoned baby. A sick world which shall not be righted again, if ‘that which is lost be not found’. … ‘This is the old present, the old loss, still wounding each day’. Reality is ruptured. Winterson admits,

‘We bury things so deep we no longer remember that there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t.’

Winterson enters a place darker than any she has ever been, but comes out of it writing for her life. Madness, neurosis: not a failing, but a gift? How can this be so? Anais Nin again on the creativity of neurosis.

‘To heal or release, alone, is not enough; but to teach the creation of a world in which one can live, on what plane, by what pattern, this can only be done by a vision into potentials, a vision into the capacity of the neurotic.’

Neurosis – the symptoms expressed by someone with sensitivity and vulnerability, for whom there is a huge gap between life as it is and life as one desires it to be – is a useful idea to help understand how deep loss can potentially be turned into meaning.

Of course not all reality gaps can be repaired, and sometimes the circumstances of our own and others’ lives mean that the alternate realities we might wish to experience cannot be achieved no matter how hard we try. But what Winterson shows readers here is that the lines tracked by literature and poetry across the strange evolving and convoluted maps of our own lives, can really help with the pain.

2 Responses to “Tracking the Lines of Literature Across the Maps of Our Lives”

  1. Julia said

    I watched the Tuesday Book Club and was surprised too; and have heard and read other reviews querying why Winterson wrote Why be happy…’why rehash the material in Oranges are the only fruit?’ implying that the new book is virtually a repeat.

    Not so of course; I found it hard to imagine reading it without having read Oranges.. though of course that is what many will do. I found it most instructive to read the one with the other in the back of my mind.
    By the way I did appreciate a recent interview with Winterson on The Spirit of Things, on Radio National by Rachel Cohn. Look it up if interested!

  2. jemitche said

    Hi Julia,

    Thanks for your comment. I will look up that interview on The Spirit of Things.

    It is a very different book to Oranges, yes. I often think writers must reflect back on their earlier work with the span of the years, and see things a bit differently, or feel the need to express a new perspective. In this case the reflection was expansive, going well beyond the boundaries of the first memoir.

    Thanks for reading.

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