Tag Archives: Kathryn Harrison

Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy?’

There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. —Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 230 pp.

 Novelist Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir about life with her depressive mother in working-class England breaks the rules that American memoirists live by. By the rules I mean our emphasis on scene. I won’t bash scene—it’s vital for really conveying one’s experience—and usually scene is deepened and balanced with exposition: summary and reflection. Instead, Winterson’s story is heavily expository—she tells this tale, and she reflects upon it, all from some distance. Scenes come in brief flashes or are heavily interlarded with exposition. She gives the perspective of the writer at her desk rather than that of the child who was “shut in a coal hole” or locked out all night on the family’s doorstep.

Reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? took some recalibration, but this Yank got into it, impressed by the distilled rigor of Winterson’s thought, by the cadence of her sentences, by the coldness of her eye, by the still-raw pain that emerges, by the writer’s honesty about her own ornery self.

Forbidden books saved her, sent her to Oxford, to life, to a distinguished literary career with seventeen books on the shelf. Here she is on literature, first on Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur: 

     In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/ returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.

Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

. . .

     So 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 been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; 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, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost. . . .

It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

The Times (UK) is quoted on the memoir’s cover: “Arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years.”

I supposed this an overstatement—but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does feel like some kind of masterpiece. For some reason, perhaps her originality, Winterson reminds me of Gertrude Stein.

Winterson is the author of the autobiographical novel about a young lesbian, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, it’s about an adopted girl growing up in the north of England with a huge, depressive, religious fanatic Pentecostal mother and a kindly but passive father. It may be that her novel is scenic—I haven’t yet read it—and that like many fiction writers, Winterson tends to tell rather than show in her nonfiction.

This aspect didn’t merit a mention in a review by Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times Book Review, so maybe I’m overstating what struck me. Harrison writes:

     It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson [what Winterson calls her mother] imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

Winterson also writes about her own dominant temperament, her over-reactive rages and black moods. She traces her bereft nature, her soul filled with inconsolable loss, to the fact that her birth mother, only seventeen, gave her up after breastfeeding her for six weeks. She is convinced that she felt the rejection—as was I by the end of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what her adoptive mother said upon learning that Winterson was gay and intended live with her lovers blissfully and openly. In other words, normal people are unhappy, so get over yourself and join them in their misery. (“Mrs. Winterson was gloriously wounded, like a medieval martyr, gouged and dripping for Jesus, and she dragged her cross for all to see.”)

When Winterson escapes her Dickensian childhood for Oxford she reflects:

     The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going—and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible, unseen except in its effects.

Strangely, perhaps, Winterson does not condemn her mother’s fundamentalist church, or even her warped, apocalyptic, Old Testament mother. Her mother was unbelievably strange: she hung watercolors, inherited from her mother, with their faces against the wall because of the Bible’s admonition against graven images. But people lived a “deeper, more thoughtful life” because of that woman’s church, her adopted daughter says, and studying the Bible “worked their brains”; they belonged to “something big, something important” that lent their lives unity and meaning. Winterson elaborates:

     A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt, and reproduce—we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives—money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning—it is not yet clear how this will happen.

Suddenly and rather surprisingly, three-quarters of the way through, this literature-saturated reminiscence becomes a tale of Winterson’s search for her birth mother. There are surprises galore in that story, which fuels the memoir’s growing power. I won’t give it away. But the book soars at the end with a meditation on wounds, and another, even more astringent, on love. Winterson riffs on the wounded in classical literature, and writes:

     The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

I’ll say this about this not-very-scenic memoir. I want to read it again. That’s because, I think, it isn’t merely a recitation or recreation of a dysfunctional childhood. It’s no Angela’s Ashes. Rather it is about someone who made something of what was made of her—and that’s always interesting, always news. Winterson doesn’t convey experience as much as she conveys the residue of that experience. Herself. Her mind. Her happiness, or at least her feeling of being lucky, that she has the life she does because she became herself, forged by books, by Oxford, and yes, by Mrs. Winterson.

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Filed under essay-classical, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

Reading, memoir & hurt feelings

Geese in Westerville, Ohio, obviously can’t read but are enjoying the wettest spring here in about a million years. Photo by Candyce Canzioneri

The founder of Ploughshares, forty years ago this fall, DeWitt Henry is a novelist and memoirist who teaches at Emerson College in Boston. His books include Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations, a collection of linked essays on his generation and on his quest for psychological and spiritual truth; and a novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, about a working-class Philadelphia woman whose life is upset by the death of her father and by her younger sister’s takeover of the family home, which won the 2000 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

His most recent book is Sweet Dreams: a Family History.

A publisher’s synopsis:

A masterful memoir of a young boy’s passage from childhood to adulthood in a family of privilege torn by dark secrets: alcoholism, mental illness, dysfunction. As a complicated coming of age story, Sweet Dreams charts the journey of DeWitt Henry, well-known author, editor, publisher and educator, in his earliest struggles to find and achieve his own creative destiny. It is what Richard Hoffman calls “…a remarkable feat of memory delivered in extraordinary prose.”

 In a review, boston.com wrote:

While his older siblings escape into unhappy marriages, Henry seeks a refuge in literature. By fourth grade, he’s printing a newspaper (the Swiftset Rotary News) for his classmates. He ships off to Amherst, studies with Eudora Welty, writes a novella, and dreams of being a published author. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, the novelist Richard Yates mentors him. He eventually finishes a doctorate at Harvard and settles in Cambridge where, besides teaching and writing, he helps launch the venerable literary magazine Ploughshares.

Recently he sat down with Rusty Barnes for a wide-ranging interview for Night Train. Some excerpts:

Recognizable “real people” in art tend to assume that the art is about them, when it’s not. Strangers don’t care about them. They aren’t newsworthy entities. Nor is good memoir about the memoirist. The character and life of the memoirist is only an occasion for writing about the reader: the reader’s heart; the reader’s need for clarity and meaning. There is always the risk of failed art, of course, when literalness fails to serve figurativeness.

With my brother the problem wasn’t so much hurting his feelings as it was in challenging his own necessary fiction about our past. He objected to early drafts of my memoir supposedly on the basis of facts. His version was a whitewash, of course, and it was contradicted by the witness of my mother and other siblings as well as by all sorts of documentary evidence. He had his own reasons—or needs—to see our parents’ marriage as “happy” and our upbringing as positive. Yet oddly enough he was proud when “Distant Thunder” (the early childhood section in my memoir) was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize, and apparently handed it around to his colleagues, friends, and patients. . . .

As we worshipped Mom, Dad was the heavy, the family millstone. Chuck was the only one who wanted to see Dad differently, and who later in life, even though he himself was a surgeon, imitated Dad’s materialism. He was also the only one of us to succumb to alcoholism himself. In writing the book, I honestly believed that truth would set us free, all of us, including our children in their lives.

Initially, the richest and most inspiring memoir I knew was Stop Time by Frank Conroy, at least if you don’t count Wordsworth’s The Prelude. As I wrote more, and at different stages in the years of revising, along with Conroy, I loved Maxim Gorki’s autobiographies, especially Chidhood. Once I started teaching memoir writing, in addition to these two, I studied Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (besides her humor and her lyrical prose, I loved her optimism), the Conroy-influenced This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff , and the Wolff-influenced The Liars Club by Mary Karr. I respect but was never smitten by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I liked Russell Baker’s Growing Up and Maureen Howard’s Facts of Life. More recently, I have learned from Jim McPherson’s A Place Not Home, James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Kathyrn Harrison’s The Kiss, Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, and Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows.

I think of literature as a conversation between the dead, the living, and the unborn. I read to join in and talk back. I reread (and teach) favorites in this spirit, from all of Shakespeare (and writing about Shakespeare) to the American Short Story, with a focus on Anderson, Hemingway, Welty, Yates, McPherson, and Munro. Outside the classroom, I reread for different needs: to sharpen my idea of the novel, for instance (Ford’s Sportswriter, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Yates’s Revolutionary Road). In college, I saturated myself in all things D.H. Lawrence, but haven’t felt the urge to revisit Women In Love for years. I do reread Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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