In case you haven’t been scoring at home, I was intrigued by the Canongate Myth Series and read them on my recent Thanksgiving vacation. I began my review of the series with the introductory book A Short History of Myth which wasn’t a retelling of a classic myth but rather, as the title makes clear, a quick overview of the subject. Today we begin the fiction component of the series.
Weight is the story of Atlas and Heracles as retold by Jeanette Winterson. Despite its short length, 150 pages, it is not an easy book to get a handle on. Besides a creative re-imagining of the classic Greek myth Winterson weaves in aspects of autobiography, history, sociology, and science. She not only tweaks the story but infuses it with her own life and the history of the planet. Your reaction to the book will likely be heavily influenced by how you react to the sections that don’t deal directly with the myth. I found the writing fluid and poetic, and the storytelling captivating, but the philosophical musings a but over-the-top at times and the insertion of the autobiographical details unnecessary and distracting. Even with these minor flaws, however, Weight is a interesting and enjoyable read.
Winterson’s retelling of the myth of Heracles and Atlas is well done for the most part. Her introduction to Atlas, by way of a description of his parents, is evocative and even romantic. Her outlining of the back-story – the revolt against the gods that leads to Atlas supporting the world on his shoulders – moves quickly but is witty and presents Atlas as a sort of thinking giant. He is a Titan, a strongman, a warrior, but he is also prone to existential thought, someone who loves the simple things. His punishment forces him to live inside his head rather than on earth with his daughters doing the things he loves. This is as much the punishment as carrying the weight. Winterson explores this psychic weight early on and carries it throughout the book.
In contrast to the thoughtful Atlas we have the bawdy and brutal Heracles. Winterson portrays Heracles (Hercules to the Romans in case you were confused) as a sort of dumb jock; all about sex and violence. Thoughts and emotions make him uncomfortable. He prefers simply to take what he wants and kill anyone who stands in his way. In Winterson’s version he masturbates and contemplates rape; he is doomed from birth and so feels no fear or conscience. Atlas feels alive by thinking whereas Heracles feels alive by doing.
Winterson uses the story to explore issues like boundaries and desires, fate and freedom, truth and self-deception. She uses each characters self-doubt – Atlas when he is temporarily free and Heracles when he is temporarily trapped – to discuss these complex, and yet quintessentially human, ideas.
It is these sections that seem to fulfill exactly what the series promised. We see the classic story in a new light. Winterson brings modern sensibilities and language to a classical story in order to allow us to see that human nature hasn’t really changed. We can not only enjoy the story again, but also gain new insights from the unique perspective the new author brings. In Winterson case, we get a more internalized, more psychological, perspective from the protagonists. The result is powerful and thought provoking.
What deters from this, at least in my opinion, is Winterson’s insertion of both her own life into the story but also a rather lame twist at the end. Not content to just retell the story, she insists on weaving her own relationship to storytelling and the themes of this particular story into the book. I found this distracted from the myth being retold and weakened its power. It is not that Winterson’s experiences and feelings are not interesting, but rather that they feel artificial in this context.
For those who want to experience the story on your own I won’t spoil the ending Winterson provides, but it involves the Russian’s sending a dog into space and the resolution of Atlas’s burden. She mixes history and quasi-science to bring this resolution, and while it is admittedly creative, it feels tacked on. I felt like the power of the story would have been stronger had she ended it with Heracles death.
As I noted above, neither the autobiographical sections nor the rather cheesy ending are of such impact as to ruin the book. Winterson’s imagination and wordplay make this retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles both an entertaining story and an evocative exploration of human nature. If this is what we can expect from the Myth Series, then I can’t wait for more.