Wonderland, Divinity and the Stars
It feels a bit of a challenge to review Jeanette Winterson’s wondrous 1997 novel Gut Symmetries. And that is Gut, not as intestinal, by the way, as I quickly discovered but as in Grand Unified Theory, which Wiki gives as : a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions or forces, are merged into one single force. Though Winterson does also twine in what might be described as our own visceral gut instinct to that more dizzying ‘strong interactions of forces’
Essentially, this beautifully written, dazzling, dizzying novel is a story of an affair, though I even wondered whether describing it as a novel was quite right. It is more like a kind of prose poem, a metaphysical meditation. There is a narrative, but it is not linear. Everything tangles and connects, but is also reassuringly present. I know, irritating waffle from me, but the book is a kind of treasure chest, and the reader picks out fragments and gets obsessed by them, and another reader will probably pick out something quite different
Alice is an English theoretical physicist, and is working through her family history, particularly approaching that time where parents become frail. Jove (Giovanni) is an Italian American, from a Catholic background, older, charismatic, and in the same field. His wife, Stella is a magician of words, a writer, of Jewish background, mysticism her heritage. The three are tied as the electromagnetic weak and strong interactions, merged into a single force. Even in the names of her characters, Winterson is saying more than lies on the surface
Mathematics and physics, as religion used to do, form a gateway into higher alternatives, a reality that can be apprehended but not perceived. A reality at odds with common sense
Lest it seem just some writer’s conceit to weave the story of an affair (whether or not it is a mite more unusual than expected) with a meditation on quantum physics and tangles of mysticism, think on this : The quantum world, with all its peculiar charms, quarks and disappearing cats in boxes, alive or dead, and particles which manage perhaps to be waves, here, not here and there, turns on its head the solidity of our world. The chair I sit on, so solid seeming, is full of space.
Think about that quantum world, and suddenly the world and its comforting familiarity is upside down, looking glass, topsy turvy, strange, enchanted and magical seeming. A pretty parallel to the headiness of falling headlong into love, discovering not only that the world itself is strange, but the lover and the beloved are strange, enchanted and magical to each other. That quantum world of interactions of forces merged into a single force
Breathe in, breathe out. You breathe time and time’s decay. Matter disposing of itself, still imprinted with its echo, the form it took, the shape of its energy for a little while.
The mediaevals thought that the damned lived in Satan’s belly, hot pouch of indigestion, but damned or saved, what we were continues in the lungs of each other. Nitrogen, oxygen, tell-tale carbon.
Do not mistake me. This is not the afterlife. This is no afterlife. There is life, constantly escaping from the forms it inhabits, leaving behind its shell. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. History is in your nostrils
Winterson has provided a work-out for mind, heart and viscera, seething with energy and conundrum. I am not sure why or how did not read her when she wrote her first novel back in the 80’s. But I’m thrilled to have a back catalogue to explore