Written on the Body

Written on the Body

by Jeanette Winterson

Hardcover(1st American ed)

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The most beguilingly seductive novel to date from the author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Winterson chronicles the consuming affair between the narrator, who is given neither name nor gender, and the beloved, a complex and confused married woman. "At once a love story and a philosophical meditation."—New York Times Book Review.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679420071
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/1993
Edition description: 1st American ed
Pages: 190

About 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. Her latest novel is Lighthousekeeping, heralded as "a brilliant, glittering, piece of work" (The Independent). She lives in London and the Cotswolds.

Read an Excerpt

The interesting thing about a knot is its formal complexity. Even the simplest pedigree knot, the trefoil, with its three roughly symmetrical lobes, has mathematical as well as artistic beauty. For the religious, Kind Solomon's knot is said to embody the essence of all knowledge. For carpet makers and cloth weavers all over the world, the challenge of the knot lies in the rules of its surprises. Knots can change but they must be well-behaved. An informal knot is a messy knot.

Louise and I were held by a single loop of love. The cord passing round our bodies had no sharp twists or sinister turns. Our wrists were not tied and there was no noose about our necks. In Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a favourite sport was to fasten two fighters together with a strong rope and let them beat each other to death. Often it was death because the loser couldn't back off and the victor rarely spared him. The victor kept the rope and tied a knot in it. He had only to swing it through the streets to terrify money from passers-by.

I don't want to be your sport nor you to be mine. I don't want to punch you for the pleasure of it, tangling the clear lines that bind us, forcing you to your knees, dragging you up again. The public face of a life in chaos. I want the hoop around our hearts to be a guide not a terror. I don't want to pull you tighter than you can bear. I don't want the lines to slacken either, the thread paying out over the side, enough rope to hang ourselves.

I was sitting in the library writing this to Louise, looking at a facsimile of an illuminated manuscript, the first letter a huge L. The L woven into shapes of birds and angels that slid between the pen lines. The letter was a maze. On the outside, at the top of the L, stood a pilgrim in hat and habit. At the heart of the letter, which had been formed to make a rectangle out of the double of itself, was the Lamb of God. How would the pilgrim try through the maze, the maze so simple to angels and birds? I tried to fathom the path for a long time but I was caught at dead ends by beaming serpents. I gave up and shut the book, forgetting that the first word had been Love.

In the weeks that followed Louise and I were together as much as we could be. She was careful with Elgin, I was careful with both of them. The carefulness was wearing us out.

One night, after a seafood lasagne and a bottle of champagne we made love so vigorously that the Lady's Occasional was driven across the floor by the turbine of our lust. We began by the window and ended by the door. It's well-known that molluscs are aphrodisiac, Casanova ate his mussels raw before pleasuring a lady but then he also believed in the stimulating powers of hot chocolate.

Articulacy of fingers, the language of the deaf and dumb, signing on the body body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.

Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn't know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.

We tried to be quiet for Elgin's sake. He had arranged to be out but Louise thought he was at home. In silence and in darkness we loved each other and as I traced her bones with my palm I wondered what time would do to skin that was so new to me. Could I ever feel any less for this body? Why does ardour pass? Time that withers you will wither me. We will fall like ripe fruit and roll down the grass together. Dear friend, let me lie beside you watching the clouds until the earth covers us and we are gone.

Elgin was at breakfast the following morning. This was a shock. He was as pale as his shirt. Louise slid into her place at the foot of the long table. I took up a neutral position about half way. I buttered a slice of toast and bit. The noise vibrated the table. Elgin winced.

'Do you have to make so much noise?'

'Sorry Elgin,' I said, spattering the cloth with crumbs.

Louise passed me the teapot and smiled.

'What are you so happy about?' said Elgin. 'You didn't get any sleep either.'

'You told me you were away until today,' said Louise quietly.

'I came home. It's my house. I paid for it.'

'It's our house and I told you we'd be here last night.'

'I might as well have slept in a brothel.'

'I thought that's what you were doing,' said Louise.

Elgin got up and threw his napkin on the table. 'I'm exhausted but I'm going to work. Lives depend on my work and because of you I shall not be at my best today. You might think of yourself as a murderer.'

'I might but I shan't,' said Louise.

We heard Elgin clatter his mountain bike out of the hall. Through the basement window I saw him strap on his pink helmet. He liked cycling, he thought it was good for his heart.
Louise was lost in thought. I drank two cups of tea, washed up and was thinking of going home when she put her arms around me from behind and rested her chin on my shoulder.

'This isn't working,' she said.

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Written on the Body 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Winterson tells an amazing love story between a married woman and her lover. But who is her lover? An un-gendered person tells the story of their love easy enough for either interpretation. A professor once told me that she reads the book once a year, taking from it something different each time.
PhoenixRisingFTM More than 1 year ago
I first read this book in 1998 and was stunned by the beauty Winterson weaves with her words. I had never before read an author like her, and still have found no one comparable. This book captured me instantly and I have re-read it countless times. In fact, my wife and I just got tattoos from this book. Mine reads, "In the heat of her hands I thought, This is the campfire that mocks the sun." and hers reads, "I will hold onto this pulse against other rhythms." Brilliant!
peajayar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reading this makes more sense of "Why be happy when you could be normal?" It has the same intensity. The protagonist, whose gender is never fully revealed, though I think "woman," sees fidelity as cottonwool, and promiscuity as failure. Talk about a cleft stick! The novel explores this paradoxical position in ways that makes sense of the "choose life! always choose life!" sense of the memoir. No wonder JW was a fan of Katherine Mansfield's writing.
dancingwaves on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love this book. It's an incredibly written story about the narrator (left nameless and genderless) and relationships. Makes my heart catch in my throat when I read it.
bridgetZsweet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Poetic, engaging, and haunting narrative that stays with the reader long after the book is finished. Sensual and sensational!
c5nest on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A work that describes the palpable and obsessional nature of grief. Perhaps my favorite of Winterson's books--I reread it every couple of years.
amaryann21 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Achingly, passionately written, without being over the top. Absolutely relateable. This book, though short in pages, will stay with you for far longer than it takes to read it...
keristars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I originally read this book for an introductory class on literary criticism and theory, for which it is well suited. But beyond that, it's quite an enjoyable novel. One of the main themes is that the narrator has no identity except in relation to the various relationships he/she has - and since it's told from a first person perspective, the reader can't even know if the narrator should be referred to as "he" or "she."I've seen this technique elsewhere, where a character is meant to be mysterious and given know descriptors, but in most cases it seems pretty stilted and stupid. Not so for Written on the Body! With this novel, the importance isn't placed on who the narrator is, but on how the narrator interacts with lovers and what happens with those relationships.It was kind of fun to read this in class and hear about the judgments on the sex that my classmates made. Some were absolutely convinced that the narrator is a man while others were equally certain that the narrator is a woman, although any sex acts could involve either (and the relationships are with both men and women, further blurring the lines). It was an interesting look at why a particular voice can sound masculine or feminine and readers' prejudices.All this is more of a reason for why it's a good novel for a literary criticism class, I suppose, but it's also why I enjoy rereading it. Maybe it's not a "fun" book and it requires a bit more thought than beach reading, but it's well worth the effort.
amandacb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written on the Body is an extremely poetic detached narrative about romance, erotic love, and passion. The novel is unique in that one does not know if the narrator is male or female, and it can never quite be deduced from the textual details. Thus, one can take away from the text that the passions evinced thereon are human, male and female, not consigned to just one sex.
EverydayMiracles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written on the Body isn't the sort of book I would normally read. As a Christian I don't read a lot of explicit fiction (though I do occasionally read a romance novel or two!) and I try to avoid books that have a "gimmick," particularly if the "gimmick" doesn't appeal to me. This book fits into the "explicit" and "gimmicky" category.The narrator of Written on the Body is genderless (though most readers are aware of an underlying femininity to the character). My understanding is that this is meant to make the reader think about the way that we define gender roles. The problem for me was that the narrator didn't come across to me as being "of ambiguous gender" but as being "androgynous" (or not having an assigned gender at all).I like gender roles. In fact, I have written off and on about the importance of gender roles in society and in our relationships with one another. I strive constantly to achieve deeper femininity and am the antithesis of a feminist.Where I try to be soft and curvy, this book is all angles and skinny elbows, jutting against everything that I believe in and stand for. From the early pages of this short book when the narrator and one of his/her girlfriends blow up a public toilet as an act of militant feminism; to the point when the narrator begins to describe The Lover's body, including the internal organs and absolutely horrifying odors from the genital region, this book disgusted me.There isn't much of a story here, only the obsessive love that the narrator shows to his/her married Lover, Louise, followed by the consequences of that love. It was difficult to follow and the language was overly flowery and prosaic. The poetry was unnecessary and detracted from the story as though it was meant to be a replacement for an actual story line.I tried hard to enjoy this book, since it was recommended to me by my best friend. Initially I gave it two stars in an effort to give some credit to both Winterson and the friend who recommended the book, but in the end the truth is that I couldn't read the book straight through and put it down for several months before finally finishing it.I am in the deep minority in my distaste of this book, but it is also not the kind of book that I would have voluntarily picked up on my own. I can sympathize with the book club members who also did not enjoy this book, and I wonder if some of the difference is in the liberal vs. conservative or secular vs. Christian.Written on the Body is widely believed to be Winterson's best: a triumph. If this is the best of her books, I won't be reading another one of them in the future.
M.Campanella on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick look through my library would tell you that I happen to truly enjoy (and I was tempted to use `love¿) Winterson¿s books. I enjoyed this one as well, though not as much. That part of her prose that makes her books feel almost magical was not there. This one was much more grounded in reality. Not that that is a bad thing, but I felt as if I wanted to read Winterson for what I had known her for.She did, however set herself a very ambitious goal in this one, and executed it fairly well.
rmostman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book states, "the narrator has neither name nor gender", but it is clear within twenty pages the narrator is a woman. It is my theory that Winterson decided to do this so the would not be defined narrowly as "lesbian literature" but more mainstream and appeal to a wider audience.The writing was very enjoyable, filled with prose and philosophy. Though the narrator does some terrible things, breaks a wonderful woman's heart, I still found myself cheering for her and the success of her current relationship with Louise. Sometimes the writing style was not always linear, which made it difficult to follow the detours of the narrators past. The narrator would be describing a present relationship, and then without notice start talking about previous affairs. A great read!
lena_kate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Possibly my favourite book of all time. The way Winterson offers a love story with a difference... just fantastic. Truly touching, intense, and poetic. Also, its just incredible how the ambiguity of the narrator is maintained throughout the entire text! I wish I could write with such skill.
twp77 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The passion, pain, longing and regret of Winterson's genderqueer protagonist is as palpable as her words are lyrical. This is true quencher for the thirsty soul with its insightful look at love, desire and despair. It really is a must read, a true masterpiece.
AndrewBlackman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There is a lot of beauty in this book. Every sentence is like a poem. You can feel the care and attention that went into every choice of word. For the first few pages, I was blown away and thought I had discovered a new favourite writer. But towards the end my enthusiasm faded. I felt like a diner who¿s gorged on desserts and longs for some plain old bread and water to settle the stomach.I¿ve felt this before, where writing is very ornate. Arundhati Roy comes to mind. It seems wonderful at first, but then comes to feel like too much of a good thing. I think I like a certain amount of directness, and this type of book tends to meander and obscure. We never find out the narrator¿s gender, name or anything much about him/her, for example. This is an interesting idea, and the uncertainty is quite refreshing in a way. But it also contributes to a sense of fakeness, that this is not the way you would really tell a story.It¿s even more unrealistic when the literaryness creeps into direct speech. For example when the main character says to another, shortly after returning from a long absence:¿Don¿t you think it¿s strange that life, described as so rich and full, a camel-trail of adventure, should shrink to this coin-sized world? A head on one side, a story on the other. Someone you loved and what happened. That¿s all there is when you dig in your pockets. The most significant thing is someone else¿s face. What else is embossed on your hands but her?¿Now, maybe I just don¿t know very many interesting, eloquent people, but I¿ve never met anyone who would talk like that.Having said all that, I did appreciate much of the beautiful writing and the wonderful, detailed meditations on love and passion. It was a book that took me away into another world and I did appreciate the care with which language was used. Although I did tire of it a little, I still enjoyed it and would recommend it to others. And I would like to read more of Jeanette Winterson¿s work. Recommendations, anyone?
Laurenbdavis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I quite love Winterson's ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT and THE PASSION, and was very fond of SEXING THE CHERRY, I'm afraid I'm not quite as enthralled with WRITTEN ON THE BODY, which I first read back in 1992 and have just re-read. Part of the problem I have with this novel is the assumption Winterson makes in the opening sentence: "why is the measure of love loss?" This assumes that the measure of love IS loss, and I'm not sure what a reader is supposed to do with the rest of the book if she disagrees with the opening premise. Still, I will allow that this is the position of the narrator, and not an authorial premise (although that's a bit of a hard sell, since Winterson so loves the authorial intrusion). This means I see the narrator -- whose gender is never reveals -- as a rather Romantic figure, wallowing in a tragedy, simply radiant with loss. The plot, such as it is, is very thin. The narrator, who has a habit of seducing married women, seduces one more, Louise -- a woman characterized thinly, by only her beauty and a tendency to make rather overly-poetic statements. The narrator then gives her up with alarming ease when s/he discovers Louise is suffering a form of leukemia only her oncologist husband is able to cure. Granted, Winterson has said she has no interest in plot whatsoever, only in language, but a little effort would be nice. Language for its own sake begins to sound pretty self-indulgent after a while, no matter how pretty it is. Then, too, there is something nasty about the word choices. When the narrator touches, or rather invades, Louise's sick body, this is what Wintersen writes: "Will your skin discolour, its brightness blurring? Will your neck and spleen distend? Will the rigorous contours of your stomach swell under an infertile load?" Good grief. And then the narrator turns into an embalmer who prepares "'to hook out your brain through your accommodating orifices," and to dissect Louise with "a medical diagram and a cloth to mop up the mess, I'll have you bagged neat and tidy. I'll store you in plastic like chicken livers."This certainly doesn't sound like the language of love to me. (Is it possibly some revenge dream of the author, larded over with a fictional front?) I admit to not being a fan of post-modernist writers, who I feel often opt for clever over compassion (and I'm rather big on compassion and empathy in fiction), but in the other Winterson works I cited above, I felt the cleverness was matched by the authors affection and yes, compassion, for her characters. The poetic language and imagery was in service to the characters. I don't find that here. WRITTEN ON THE BODY tries to hard to be enchant the reader with all that glittering prose, but it's too self-conscious, too self-serving and too cruel for my taste.
girlsgonechild on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant. Flawless. One of the greatest books of all time. Winterson's very best.
WarBetweentheBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cover. I do not like this cover. It is the angle of the body that does noting for me. The person looks more like a blob of flesh than an actual human. The only redeeming quality in my eyes is the lettering but I dislike the weird highlighting action that is going on. It just bugs me. My appreciation for this book does not get any better than this.Plot. I was not even one chapter in when I realized that I was not the intended target for this book. The writing is almost all done in a poetic way. I am not a fan of poetry. The language is to flowery and ambiguous for my liking. I am also a huge proponent for fidelity. I don't like books or movies that have cheating as a plot point and I can't bring myself to feel bad for the cheaters even when they feel that they have a good reason. It is called breaking up or divorce. Don't go behind your partner's back.Characters. The Narrator is not said to be either a male or a female. It is supposed to have some kind or symbolism but to me it just felt like the author trying and failing to be clever. The only characters that we really meet are either cheating on their husband/wife or in an affair with somebody's husband/wife. I can't like any of them. Especially the narrator or his main love interest Louise. The entire book is supposed to be how much the love each other and it felt more like lust, infatuation, and obsession to me. My opinion for this book is probably not the best to take because of how much I thoroughly disliked it but I hope that I can stop someone who would feel the same way about the book from reading it.Recommend? No.
amyfaerie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Breathtaking. Winterson's finest, in my opinion.
Miss-Owl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winterson has been the kind of writer whose works I've flicked through in bookshops, but never got around to actually reading in full.In this novel I'm somewhat ambivalent about her style - at times incredibly moving and poetic, shunning conventional limits - reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf - yet at other times somewhat bloated, maudlin and over-written for my taste. Let me look on the positive side, however, and say that Winterson certainly delivers what the title promises - some portions are truly quite anatomical!To remain positive, here are a few passages I really enjoyed. This one comes from the first page of the novel:"You said 'I love you.' Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? 'I love you' is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.CALIBAN:You taught me language and my profit on't isI know how to curse. The red plague rid youFor learning me your language.Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid. It is no conservationist love. It is a big game hunter and you are the game. A curse on this game. How can you stick at a game when the rules keep changing? I shall call myself Alice and play croquet with the flamingoes. In Wonderland everyone cheats and love is Wonderland isn't it?"I also liked this visual imagery, from near the end of the novel (but with Winterson I get the feeling that plot doesn't really matter anyway, so no spoilers here)."Lights in ribbons where the road runs. Hard flares far away at the industrial estate. In the sky the red and green landing lights of an aircraft full of sleepy people."Ultimately, then, a striking novel of impressions for me, but a little less coherent as a whole.
Jstefanlari on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is when I started giving up on Jeanete who I'd loved up until then. "Gut Symmetries" was the clincher though. Shame she disowned "Boating for Beginners" - at least she didn't take herself quite so seriously then.
away-she-flew More than 1 year ago
This book was written absolutely beautifully. The sensuality of the affair between the narrator and his/her lover is extraordinary, and the way Winterson describes it puts you in the room with them. The narrator being genderless makes it easy to relate to any audience. The first section of the book acts as a way to get familiar with the narrator, and the reader is right there with him/her the whole way. I especially enjoyed the second section, when the narrator goes through his/her lover's body part-by-part, mixing medical anatomy with poetry. Takes your breath away. Highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading a true love story without all of the foolish gushing; you will be on the edge of your seat to the very end.
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