Michael Hayward

Thirty-three international publishing houses are participating in The Myths, a project in which contemporary writers from all over the world were invited to retell any myth in any way they chose. Trumpeted as “the most ambitious simultaneous world-wide publication ever undertaken,” the series launched in October 25 with the publication of three titles, including The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s take on The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. Weight (Knopf) is Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of the myth of Atlas (condemned to shoulder the world as punishment for having attacked the gods) and Heracles (known to most of us by his Roman name, Hercules). Most versions of this myth cast Heracles in the central role, and we now think of him as the ur-hero, a muscle-bound figure on whom comic-book superheroes are modelled, but this version shifts things so that Atlas and his burden become the story’s focal point and Winterson is free to explore themes of freedom, responsibility and isolation. Her Heracles, far from heroic, is portrayed as a thug and rapist who calls Atlas “mate” but ultimately deceives him, a lout given to such laddish interjections as “you creep” and “bloody hell.” In the book’s introduction, Winterson admits that her work is full of cover versions: “I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently.” Her 1987 novel The Passion featured an account of Napoleon’s disastrous march on Russia as seen by his faithful cook; Sexing the Cherry (1989) wove elements of fairy tales into a fresh and magical confection. Weight is less successful than either of these. Winterson’s modern glosses, while clever and initially engaging, feel slight and insubstantial beside the Greek myth at the book’s core.

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