Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion is a novel about passions, obsessions, and madness. Using her characters, history, and geography, Winterson examines how passion develops among “lukewarm people” and how it can bleed over into debilitating obsession and the loss of self. Some can find their way back from it, others cannot.
The novel begins in 1804 in a French army camp in Boulogne. Henri is a teen, freshly recruited for Napoleon’s army and eager to go. He ends up a kitchen boy and personal waiter to Napoleon, which leaves him practically breathless with joy and pride. His personal love of and devotion to Napoleon is not unusual. His village priest was an admirer of the man, and young Frenchmen enlisted by the thousands. What was the attraction? As Henri writes, Napoleon “…was in love with himself and France joined in. It was a romance.” Later Henry reflects:
Why would a people who love the grape and the sun die in the zero winter for one man?
Why did I? Because I loved him. He was my passion and when we go to war we feel we are not a lukewarm people any more.
Meanwhile, in Venice, young Villanelle experiences a different sort of passion. Villanelle’s origin is as mysterious and inexplicable as Venice itself. Conquered by Napoleon, it is a city of mazes, disguises, and madness. Villanelle works as a dealer at a casino and is much favored by certain clients for her beauty and for her cross-dressing. Although young, Villanelle is not innocent or naive as Henri is. She is already quite wise to the ways of men, gamblers in particular. She sees that there is always one valuable prize that they withhold from the table until the moment arises for them to take a chance with it. Villanelle is herself a gambler and knows how to cheat, but when a nameless wealthy married woman comes to her table one night, Villanelle becomes obsessed with her and becomes her lover. She gambles with her most prized possession — her heart.
From New Year’s Day 1805, Winterson jumps ahead in narration to the winter of 1812/1813, the “zero winter” when Napoleon’s armies were defeated by Russian winter and the Russian madness of burning their own cities to the ground rather than surrender. Henri is still serving in Napoleon’s kitchen, but he has seen death and worse. His passion has died as well and he is disillusioned with the great man. Henri decides to desert with a friend who brings along the officers’ whore — Villanelle. As they make the brutal trek through the snow back toward Venice, she tells the story of how she came to be in Russia, of her own gamble and loss. Henri falls in love with her, and when they arrive in Venice, he promises to help her with a special request. In a city known for mazes, disguises and madness, this will not end well.
Despite being a rather short novel, Winterson covers a lot of ground. A variety of passions appear in the text: religious fervor, illicit love, gambling, and perhaps the most frightening, unbridled nationalism. But ultimately this novel is about relationships between individuals, the risk one takes in giving one’s heart (figuratively or literally) to another, and having the freedom and courage to make such choices. Violence, disillusionment, madness are the fate of some, while others find a way to continue living and searching for passion. In the words of the resourceful and resilient Villanelle:
You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.
I enjoyed Winterson’s writing. At times there is a magical or fairy tale quality to this novel, particularly when the action is in Venice. We hear stories of boatmen with webbed feet, the strange woman of the canal, horrific casino bets, and the island that houses madmen. Certain catch phrases repeat throughout the novel, including “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” One is left wondering if the character is admitting to making up tales or trying to convince you of the truth of what’s been told. I also thought that Henri and Villanelle were well drawn characters representing different sorts of passion and responses to disappointment. Villanelle is a strong and wise young woman, Henri is rather innocent and naive despite so many years in the army. In the end, while one might interpret their fate as tragic, I found it refreshing that each had a choice and exercised his/her own free will, understanding what they have given up. In life, as Villanelle would say, “you play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.”