Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

4 Feb
❝‘Do you fall in love often?’ Yes often. With a view, with a book, with a dog, a cat, with numbers, with friends, with complete strangers, with nothing at all.❞
-Jeanette Winterson

An image taken at the Auckland Art Gallery in the contemporary collection

When I was 18 years old I worked part time in a spiritualist bookstore. The kind that puts the words mind, body and spirit together in a sign somewhere. The kind that has a conspiracy theory section and a ninja section and a category for sexual rehabilitation and mind reading. I flat out loved working there.  At the time I was also living by myself on Waiheke Island and commuting in to Auckland for university and my weekend bookstore job. I was, in the most superficial sense, a bit of a hippie.
Despite my interest in Buddhism and some really great tarot card readings there was a part of me that wasn’t sated by the stock on the shelves and it was at around this time I  re-discovered Jeanette Winterson. A friend of my sisters Aart*, a man 8 years my senior, happened to work at a book store opposite mine and although the age difference made it unlikely we became friends. Actually we became literary friends and the more I think on it the more I feel the need to pinpoint this friendship as one of the important beginnings for my interest in talking deeply about books and the deep-bone way they can change you.

He was of Scandinavian descent and seemed to float rather than walk about the place, like a thought about himself rather than a physical thing. An elderly woman might describe him as having his head in the clouds. He was a dreamer. He was reading Jeanette Winterson. I had read a book of hers called Art and Lies the year before and it was the first time I had been challenged by a book and wanted to rise to the occasion not just give up. Art and Lies was the first truly intellectual book I’d read; I only understood about 70% of what was going on. It was the first time I’d heard of Handel, it was the first time I’d realised the connection between lesbians and Sappho. It was the first love story I’d read that stretched my head as much as it did my heart.

Our friendship was based on one thing; a mutual love of Jeanette Winterson and together we feasted on her books and talked, for hours, about her ability to make you feel like all the fantasy you had bloated inside of you was indeed important, was a secret code for understanding the universe, was in fact the greatest love story ever untold. Winterson deals in intelligent magic, in optimistic realism. So when her autobiography came out this year Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I felt that same sense of yearning to get lost (and found) in her writing that I had all those years ago.

What’s essentially a really miserable story, in the hands of Winterson, becomes a generous tale of love, loss, forgiveness and expansion. Adopted into the mad house of Mr. & Mrs. Winterson Jeanette explores how a depressed mother can stifle an entire family but not, if you’re lucky, completely extinguish a soul. From being left outside all night to being stuck in the coal-hole to being told she was possessed by the devil for loving women, after living with beautiful paintings hung backwards and the wallpaper constantly replastered, there was something living inside Jeanette that could not be dulled or pasted over, beaten or locked away.
And that’s love isn’t it? That’s optimism. In Jeanette’s hands it’s literature. She puts it this way:

“…when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

I had not been left in a coal hole. All the paintings in my family home were secured to the walls right way round, but I had the same urge to discover the world and understand it through the words of others who had gone before or, ideally, who were still going. And I had an unlikely but deeply important ally in Aart. Mainly we communicated via email and during walking, we would walk to our respective ferries and he would lead me through his Auckland, a totally different place to mine; he had found passes, gaps, public escalators, roof gardens and buildings pressed tightly together but with just enough room for a tall Scandinavian man to pass between – and this is where he walked, a path that others did not take. The silent ghost paths of a city almost completely discovered; he walked in the gaps of peoples imagination.

The two things for me have become inseparable; Aart and Jeanette Winterson. For Winterson it is her love of literature and her need to find something that exonerated herself, something more trustworthy than herself to love, that helped shape her as a writer- for me it was the desire to explain myself through language that read like a conversation between like-minded people.

Winterson spent much of her childhood in the library reading through Literature A-Z and her command of classic and contemporary work is astonishing – the kind of person who can recall a quote for any occasion. In Why Be Happy...there are so many bridges between her experiences and great works of poetry and fiction that, like most good books, it’s as much a reading list as it is a story. In particular her love of poetry is flushed through most of her narrative – as the life breath for many of her harder moments, poems seem to act as the paddles that resuscitate her heart. Or as a way of explaining the things we cannot rightly explain; like how, if you’re adopted, you should feel when learning the truth about your birth parents. Winterson thinks in terms of a Thomas Hardy poem:

‘Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.’

So often when reading this book I would pause and reach for a pencil with which to underscore a thought or sentence, or I would stop stock still until I was able to move again, so shaken by a phrase or a conclusion, that the words would have to settle before I could read on.

Sometimes it can be a disappointment to stand face to face with someone whose work means a lot to you, really there are only two options; the person is either a version of their work or a conduit for it. The latter is a loss the former is a treasure and Winterson is all her characters combined, she is the magic behind and inside of all her inquisitive and moving narratives:  ‘I would rather go on reading myself as a fiction that as a fact.’ is how she puts it.

Aart and I would talk about the love pervading these stories, the hope and the elevation, but I didn’t know till now that we were talking about Jeanette – the clues, foolish me, where in her titles (Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries…). Her stories are her turning inside out with each element explored. Not narcissism or solipsism but beauty through examination.

Although her life was tough Winterson would not change it, she would not trade her depressive adopted mother for her kindly birth mother because it was the hardship and the alienation that brought her to writing, it was her writing that brought me to intelligent female authors, it was an intelligent female author that brought me to discuss literature with the kind of importance most people place on getting a degree; when I talked with Aart I felt I could get somewhere further, that if I pulled these riddles of love and loss apart I might greater understand the human condition and do a better job of my own affliction. And that is what I love about literature and that, in a small way, is what I spend my days doing; talking about it in ways that hopefully help to bridge the gap between page and person, to encourage others to step into that universe of the written word and seek to better know themselves and everyone else because of it.

Thank you to Jeanette Winterson and to Aart

*not his real name but a crafty pseudonym.


2 Responses to “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”

  1. Mtr Riichards February 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    Brilliant and deeply moving.

  2. Kirsten McDougall March 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    I’ve just found your blog. Great post. My sister in law gave me Winterson’s memoir for Xmas and it’s sitting on the to-be-reads. Will move it up the pile. Winterson was part of my ‘oh, that’s what books can be’ when I was 17, but it was Sexing the Cherry, followed by Oranges are not the only fruit, followed by The Passion, which I still reckon is her best book. At worst she disappears up her own arse, and I felt hesitant upon receiving the memoir, as I’d sort of given up on her. Thanks for making me remember what was good.

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