David Mitchell, Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heraclesby Jeanette Winterson
The story of Atlas and Heracles.
Atlas knows how it feels to carry the weight of the world; but why, he asks himself, does it have to be carried at all? In Weight—visionary and inventive, yet completely believable and relevant to the questions we ask ourselves every day—Winterson’s skill in turning the familiar on its head to show us a/i>
The story of Atlas and Heracles.
Atlas knows how it feels to carry the weight of the world; but why, he asks himself, does it have to be carried at all? In Weight—visionary and inventive, yet completely believable and relevant to the questions we ask ourselves every day—Winterson’s skill in turning the familiar on its head to show us a different truth is put to stunning effect.
David Mitchell, Sunday Herald (Glasgow)
The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
I want to tell the story again
The free man never thinks of escape.
In the beginning there was nothing. Not even space and time. You could have thrown the universe at me and I would have caught it in one hand. There was no universe. It was easy to bear.
This happy nothing ended fifteen aeons ago. It was a strange time, and what I know is told to me in radioactive whispers; that’s all there is left of one great shout into the silence.
What is it that you contain? The dead. Time. Light patterns of millennia opening in your gut. Every minute, in each of you, a few million potassium atoms succumb to radioactive decay. The energy that powers these tiny atomic events has been locked inside potassium atoms ever since a star-sized bomb exploded nothing into being. Potassium, like uranium and radium, is a long-lived radioactive nuclear waste of the supernova bang that accounts for you.
Your first parent was a star.
It was hot as hell in those days. It was Hell, if hell is where the life we love cannot exist. Those ceaseless burning fires and volcanic torments are lodged in us as ultimate fear. The hells we invent are the hells we have known. Hell is; was not, is not, cannot. Science calls it the world before life began — the Hadean period. But life had begun, because life is more than the ability to reproduce. In the molten lava spills and cratered rocks, life longed for life. The proto, the almost, the maybe. Not Venus. Not Mars. Earth.
Planet Earth, that wanted life so badly, she got it.
Moving forward a few billion years, there was a miracle. At least that’s what I call the unexpected fact that changes the story. Earth had bacterial life, but no oxygen, and oxygen was a deadly poison. Then, in a quiet revolution as explosive in its own way as a star, a new kind of bacteria, cyanobacteria started to photosynthesise — and a bi-product of photosynthesis is oxygen. Planet earth had a new atmosphere. The rest is history.
Well not quite. I could list for you the wild optimism of the Cambrian era, pushing up mountains like grass grows daisies, or the Silurian dream-days of starfish and gastropods. About 400 million years ago, shaking salt water from their fins and scales, the first land animals climbed out of the warm lagoons of the vast coral reefs. The Triassic and Jurassic periods belong to the dinosaurs, efficient murder weapons, common as nightmares. Then three or four million years ago — chancy and brand new — what’s this come here — a mammoth and something like a man?
The earth was amazed. Earth was always strange and new to herself. She never anticipated what she would do next. She never guessed the coming wonder. She loved the risk, the randomness, the lottery probability of a winner. We forget, but she never did, that what we take for granted is the success story. The failures have disappeared. This planet that seems so obvious and inevitable is the jackpot. Earth is the blue ball with the winning number on it.
Make a list. Look around you. Rock, sand, soil, fruit trees, roses, spiders, snails, frogs, fish, cattle, horses, rainfall, sunshine, you and me. This is the grand experiment called life. What could be more unexpected?
All the stories are here, silt-packed and fossil-stored. The book of the world opens anywhere, chronology is one method only and not the best. Clocks are not time. Even radioactive rock-clocks, even gut-spun DNA, can only tell time like a story.
When the universe exploded like a bomb, it started ticking like a bomb too. We know our sun will die, in another hundred million years or so, then the lights will go out and there will be no light to read by any more.
‘Tell me the time’ you say. And what you really say is ‘Tell me a story.’
Here’s one I haven’t been able to put down.
Weight of the World
My father was Poseidon. My mother was the Earth.
My father loved the strong outlines of my mother’s body. He loved her demarcations and her boundaries. He knew where he stood with her. She was solid, certain, shaped and material.
My mother loved my father because he recognised no boundaries. His ambitions were tidal. He swept, he sank, he flooded, he re-formed. Poseidon was a deluge of a man. Power flowed off him. He was deep, sometimes calm, but never still.
My mother and father teemed with life. They were life. Creation depended on them and had done so before there was air or fire. They sustained so much. They were so much. To each other they were irresistible.
Both were volatile. My father obviously so, my mother more alarmingly. She was serene as a rock but volcano’d with anger. She was quiet as a desert but tectonically challenged. When my mother threw a plate across the room, the whole world felt the crash. My father could be whipped into a storm in moments. My mother grumbled and growled and shook for days or weeks or months until her rage fissured and crumpled entire cities or forced human kind into lava-like submission.
Humankind . . . They never could see it coming. Look at Pompeii. There they are in the bathouses, sitting in their chairs, wearing skeletal looks of charred surprise.
When my father wooed my mother she lapped it up. He was playful, he was warm, he waited for her in the bright blue shallows and came a little closer, then drew back, and his pull was to leave a little gift on her shore; a piece of coral, mother of pearl, a shell as spiralled as a dream.
Sometimes he was a long way out and she missed him and the beached fishes gasped for breath. Then he was all over her again, and they were mermaids together, because there was always something feminine about my father, for all his power. Earth and water are the same kind, just as fire and air are their opposites.
She loved him because he showed her to herself. He was her moving mirror. He took her round the world, the world that she was, and held it up for her to see, her beauty of forests and cliffs and coastlines and wild places. To him she was both paradise and fear and he loved both. Together they went where no human had ever been. Places only they could go, places only they could be. Wherever he went, she was there; a gentle restraint, a serious reminder; the earth and the waters that covered the earth. He knew though, that while he could not cover the whole of her, she underpinned the whole of him. For all his strength, she was strong.
Meet the Author
A novelist whose honours include England’s Whitbread Prize, and the American Academy’s E. M. Forster Award, as well as the Prix d’argent at the Cannes Film Festival, JEANETTE WINTERSON burst onto the literary scene as a very young woman in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her subsequent novels, including Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Written on the Body, and The PowerBook, have also gone on to receive great international acclaim. She lives in London and the Cotswolds.
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