Feb 042012
 

When in 1997, Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, Oranges Are not The Only Fruit, she found her inspiration in her childhood, portraying under a thin veil of fiction her Pentecostal mother terrifying both daughter and husband in a house where rules led often to abuse. And the fierce Mrs W. – as the mother is most often referred to- was not fooled. In a strange phone call – “I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.” – the estranged mother explained that for the first time in her life she had to order something under a false name, and that her reading confirmed her doubts: “… if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?”  she asked her daughter. And she continued, “it’s not true”.

“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? the photographer frames the shot; writers frames their world.”

Writes Jeanette Winterson fifteen years later as she has now decided to reframe her story, and abandons the illusion of fiction. But if Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a memoir of an adoption, of a botch childhood, of abuse and misery inflicted by a fundamentalist christian mother and a self-effacing father, it is also – and that’s personally my favorite part – the story of a young girl becoming a reader and then a writer.

The only books allowed in the Winterson household were the Bible, a few commentaries and Jane Eyre, six books altogether. Four year old Jeanette learned to read in Genesis, and from there devoured whatever written page she could put her hands on. While her mother had a system – every night she would read the sacred text aloud to her daughter and husband, and when she was done with Apocalypse, she would leave them a week to reflect on what they had heard before starting again at the beginning – Jeanette early on also devised her own stategies for her secret readings. Since she did not know where to start and had no one to advise her, she simply decided to read from the “A” shelves in the local library and work her way through Z, limiting herself at first to prose and fiction. Years of reading and discoveries ensued – with in the end some help from the librarians that were intrigued by this strange and resilient reader – and when around thirteen she got a job – a few hours after school and on Saturdays – she used the money to buy books eager to own words and start building her personal library:

 “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different  kind of time and a different kind of space.

There is a warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”

But one day her mother noticed that her mattress was strangely raised and found underneath paperbacks she had been hiding. Thrown outside, set on fire, the stash disappeared in a blaze under Jeanette’s eyes. Who the next day realized that there was a way for her to keep the words, not matter what: “‘Fuck it’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’.”

A writer was born.

 

Share
May 072011
 

Except for two piles of papers to come, summer is here. In its first few days, it always seems like this vast land of freedom, where and when everything is possible… Until time goes by too fast to be really accounted for… But I am still in the first days… Days when I feel I can spend hours doing inessential readings, for example. (Definition of inessential: not required by any current project / for other people the definition could be simply «for pleasure»). So this afternoon, I went through my pile of unread books (well, one of the piles…), and selected a couple. In the end I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I received as a Christmas(2010)  gift. The only thing I knew about it was that it had been a success when it first came out in 2008, and I remembered one of my friends mentioning it. From the first pages, I was hooked. Turning page after page, I was getting deeper in the story of Juliet Ashton and her correspondence, her accidental discovery of Guernsey and its fate  during world war II.  The island was occupied by the Germans, and cut out from the rest of the world, a prize possession of Hitler who took it as a first step towards victory on the British. That did not happen, and when the occupant finally relinquished the island, it left behind a decimated, starved population, as hungry for butter as for communication with the rest of the planet. Because of a volume found on the shelves of the second-hand bookshop, one of the islander gets in touch with Juliet, a writer who came to fame thanks to a column printed every week where she chronicled daily life in London under German bombing.

I’m only half way in the book, and I’m very attached to all the characters, curious to see the story unfold of course, but mostly interested in the account of the everyday. And I’m far enough in it that I start dreading the end, afraid to have to bid goodbye to all of them. I do not really care about the plot, I’m just enjoying the journey, the exchanges, the tiny stories, the mundane of the letters, the day to day chat. And one of the charm of book is that it is a book about books, a book about reading. The main character is a writer, who just had a book published – at first she is on the 1946 version of a book tour, having tea after tea in bookstores all over England -, a writer who does not know what to do of the sudden success of her first book, and whose main worry is what she’ll write next. Her friends in London are publishers – hers, a Londoner and childhood friend; an American competitor, a ferocious entrepreneur. In Guernsey her epistolary friends have in common the book club they created out of necessity, first a cover-up for a forbidden dinner, quickly transformed into  a community knitted together by books: while one is infatuated with Charles Lamb and his works, another one reads the same volume of Seneque over and over, and others share the joy they found in reading the Brontë’s novels at candle light, long after the curfew.
The book has a Helen Hanff taste to it, another book about books and bookshops, but it has more to it, in the sense that the sample of characters is wider and far more diverse, including some that would never have been in physical contact with a book if it had not been for the unfortunate circumstances of war.
To be continued…

Share