‘Written on the Body’

“I think it’s undeniable that there is still a need for novels,” Jonathan Franzen recently told the Star Tribune; “because they are concerned with the innermost parts of ourselves, and those parts are harder than ever to access in the noisy culture.”

Franzen, author of the new must-read epic “Freedom,” gives voice to something my innermost self has felt all summer as I’ve huddled with all sorts of books. Since June I’ve been drawn to fiction in a way I’ve never been before, partially because too often the real world has never felt more finite, more black and white and, yes, more noisy.

Or maybe it’s because everyone I know is going through some quote-unquote difficult transition, summer into fall, drama into new drama, and I needed a meditation that expresses the depth of the human experience. Which is what I got with Jeanette Winterson’s 1993 heart-ripper “Written on the Body.” A friend gave it to me years ago, and I skimmed it but didn’t take it in; last weekend I devoured it and have been re-reading passages ever since: the book is the same but I’m not.

Which is always an interesting thing — learning and growth — to try and chart in your own life, which is what Winterson spends 190 glorious (or “uncomfortable,” as one reader put it to me the other night, which suggests “Body” may not exactly be fit book club fare for groups looking for another “Eat Pray Love”) pages doing about how her protagonist feels, at each turn of the screw of her heart, about morals, marriage, love, jealousy, lust, soul-matery, connection, break-up and moving on.

The book’s first sentence is “Why is love measured in loss?,” jarring and insightful in and of itself. Then Winterson, an accomplished British journalist and essayist, sets out on a journey to answer her own question, concluding with the novel’s last sentence (spoiler alert), “I don’t know if this is a happy ending, but here we are let loose in open fields.”

In other words, life is messy, life is sweet, life goes on, and Winterson makes it all livable and Nabokov-like laughable. She takes the piss out herself and her penchant for drama queenery; describing her passion in one passage and mocking it in the next, knowing full well that her feelings are a choice, not some spell from beyond. For the lovelorn teader, that cheekiness is instructive, especially for those addicted to the insta-technology of the day that turns the old “she loves me, she loves me not” dandelion game into a bottomless black hole.

The flirting. The falling in love. The wanting. The missing. The sheer comedy of it all. “Written on the Body” is important for its own self-observation, and for its wily affirmation of one individual’s right to define love and to explore connections that have no logical context in the town hall. “It’s the clichés that get you in trouble,” Winterson repeats throughout, reminding herself that to be boxed in by any other version of love than her own is soul-suicide. Similarly, and perhaps most importantly, Winterson constantly skewers the middle-class values she lives within and that would seek to pen her in.

“Contentment is a feeling you say? Are you sure it’s not an absence of feeling?,” she writes. “I liken it to that numbness one gets after a visit to the dentist. Not in pain nor out of it, slightly drugged. Contentment is the positive side of resignation. It has its appeal but it’s no good wearing an overcoat and furry slippers and heavy gloves when what the body really wants is to be naked.”

The title “Written on the Body” comes from the idea that a lover is a continent to be explored. Some take a lifetime to know, curiosity constantly peaked, others are a drive-by shooting. By my lights, too little art or mass media truly tackles the depth of the soul these days, which is why I have high hopes for “Freedom.” In the meantime, I’ll take this year’s best film, “Everybody Else,” from Germany, which, like “Written on the Body” concentrates, with voyeuristic honesty, on what happens when one passionate person collides with another, and all the shrapnel and humor that comes with it.

I also found parallels between “Body” and the new issue of “Parabola,” the spiritual quarterly. The theme of the fall issue is “Desire,” and, through writings about St. Francis of Assisi, Dag Hammarskjold, the dark side of desire, and a decidedly Buddhist slant on what makes us tick, there is much to learn about the innermost parts of ourselves, such as this poem, from the Zen poet Ikkyu (1394-1481):

Sick of what it is called
Sick of the names
I dedicate every pore
To what’s here

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.