This short book by Jeanette Winterson is part of The Myths series in which contemporary writers are commissioned to retell the ageless myths in contemporary ways.
Winterson takes the Greek myth of Atlas whose punishment was to shoulder the weight of the world apart from the brief relief given by Hercules when he took a turn with the globe.
The author writes with gusto and is eager to retell the story “that through the noisy din of life other voices might be heard, speaking of the life and the soul’s journey.” (pxvi)
This is a fresh retelling of a familiar story in which with freedom and license Winterson adds perspectives and conversation, questions and eroticism that will grip twenty-first century readers. The author speaks to the craving of contemporary readers:
“Right now, human beings as a mass have a gruesome appetite for what they call ‘real’, whether it’s Reality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary, or at the better end, the factual programmes and biographies and ‘true life’ accounts that occupy the space where imagination used to sit.” (pxv)
Winterson successfully satisfies this appetite by telling the story in a way that is real and which connects with everyday yearnings of modern people.
This book feels the load of Atlas by playing on the motif of ‘weight’. Winterson reveals some of the heaviest weights that people carry—the burdens of loneliness, tradition, freedom and choice.
Adopting the imagery of soil and stone, Winterson is not confined by chronos and moves freely between the strata of the Greeks to the level of the readers with links into the sediment of her personal story.
The myth is told in the first person—through the eyes and from the perspective of Atlas but with the additional emphasis and comments of the writer. However, at the third quarter of the story, Winterson gets autobiographical, telling how the myth connects with her life. She foreshadows this in the introduction, admitting that her aim is more for authenticity than autobiography:
“The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.” (pxv)
The transition from Atlas to Winterson is surprisingly clunky. While readers will enjoy the exposure and appreciate the transparency of the storyteller one wonders how essential or helpful this direction is to the theme and the aim of the book. Is the storyteller’s disclosure intended to serve as a model to help readers forge their connection with the story? This is not a big problem but one is left musing whether Winterson is offering an unnecessary application, like interpreting a parable or explaining a joke.
Winterson is thoughtful, playful, imaginative, and she sustains interest throughout the story. Her humour and enjoyment for pushing the boundaries is most apparent when Hercules gets the hots for ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Hera, to such an extent that “his prick kept filling and deflating like a pair of fire bellows.” (p41)
This book provokes and like all good stories it has a twist in its tail with the storyteller possessing many things up her sleeve that at any moment can appear and knock you flat.
Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules (Edinburgh, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2005).
This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: Front cover of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules; Jeanette Winterson.