Winterson, Jeanette (1992) Written on the Body. New York: Vintage
This is a love story, a poetic tale about an unnamed, first-person narrator and a married woman, Louise. Much has been made by reviewers about the fact that the narrator’s gender is not specified, but I suspect that Winterson’s point was to explore the quality of love, regardless of gender, and to that end, the novel is successful. Nevertheless, I was 100% certain the narrator was female, because my intuition is that love has a different phenomenology for men than women.
Narrator is described as a serial womanizer, not in the self-aggrandizing (male) style of love-em and leave-em, but because she (the narrator) finds that love eventually wears through to complacency, while she relishes the intense passion of new love, and besides, she is easily swept away by a beautiful person or a mysterious or interesting new relationship.
She falls for Louise, who reciprocates, and they become lovers. The descriptions of joyous love, both mental and physical, are perfectly rendered, perhaps better than any other writer has done. The language is magically elevated and lyrical, and simultaneously concretely specific. I do think the description becomes excessive at times, because love is framed as an overwhelmingly personal emotional and sensory experience, egocentrically greedy, without much social and intellectual context. I’d say the quality of this love is 180 degrees away from the subtle, implied, but equally intense love between Stevens, the butler, and Miss Kenton, in The Remains of the Day.
The heart and soul of the story occurs when paradise is lost. Louise’s physician-husband reveals that Louise has an incurable cancer, though she is presently without symptoms. The plot gimmick is that Louise can be cured only if the wealthy and well-connected husband takes her to a special clinic in Switzerland, which he will not do unless Narrator leaves her.
Reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Narrator furtively packs up and leaves without a word, granting her beloved health and life, sacrificing their love. In the last half of the book, Narrator grieves her lost love. The experience of love lost is rendered just as exquisitely as immersion in love was.
This was my second outing with Winterson. I was astonished and captivated by the quality of her writing in Art & Lies, and this novel confirms for me that she is a great writer. While Written on the Body is compelling, it didn’t work as well for me as her other novel. Surely it’s a personal view, but I thought the quality of the love described here, while intense, tended to the adolescent: self-indulgent, egocentric, and un-self-aware. Been there, done that. With my interest not fully engaged then, I was left to admire the formidable writing, but I can’t say I gained insight about the human condition.