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John Self 25th Apr 2004 20:55

Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson - you know, the earnest one on Newsnight Review, with red wire-brush hair and sleeveless tops to show how she's made it to 45 with no underarm swoop - used to be my favourite writer, until Martin Amis tripped her up and rushed in. This love was based on her first four novels - or 'fictions' as she used to, with unendearing preciousness (of which more anon), insist on calling them. Her subsequent novels showed her to be moving, gradually, in ever decreasing circles, but still with - for the most part - plenty of good stuff between the covers. A quick digest would go something like this.

Oranges are not the only fruit (1985). The book for which she is semi-famous and which everyone seems to be able to get along with. It's warm and funny and likeable and slightly original (for the stuff about the Orange demon and fantasy-fairytale stuff interwoven with trouble at t'mill northern grimness). It bashes religion and talks up what commentators call girl-on-girl action. She does however have this terrible revisionist attitude and speaks now of Oranges as having "a new way with language" and "a spiral narrative" which is pure bollocks. It's just a nice, thoughtful but not especially challenging read.

Boating for Beginners (1985). In my reference earlier to her first four novels, I am not including this illustrated novella which she denies having disowned but which does significantly appear segregated from her other stuff on the "Also by this author" page. Everything else comes under "Fiction" but this is a "Comic Book" apparently. In another bit of Wildean paradoxy, she once said that Boating for Beginners "is worth reading but wasn't worth writing." I haven't read it so we will have to take her word on that.

The Passion (1986). A sort of transitional novel, still with a pretty linear narrative but more experimental than Oranges. It is divided in four parts and is set in and around the Napoleonic wars and in Venice. The two main characters are a soldier and a web-footed boatwoman, who eventually fall in love. Lots of fantastic writing on doomed love and very very quotable. It also saw the start of her tendency to reuse phrases from book to book to give the (largely false) impression of a single unified body of work throughout her fiction. "What you risk reveals what you value" was the big one from this book.

Sexing the Cherry (1989). Undoubtedly her first fully-fledged work of brilliance. A tiny wee thing (140 pages) where form perfectly matches subject, Sexing the Cherry also begins JW's still-extant obsession with time. It mainly concerns a boy called Jordan and his adoptive mother, the Dog Woman, who live in England during the Civil War. Some excellent stuff about the beheading of Charles I and extremely funny scenes of torture and sexual deviance. Also a kind of twist near the end, or surprise anyway. The voice is the first appearance of Winterson in full bloom - authoritative, poetic, occasionally hectoring (that occasional would become frequent in the later books), and with that knack - think Amis in The Information - of building up the images and ideas to deliver them all back to you in a coup de grace at the end:


Originally Posted by Jeanette Winterson, at the age of 29 (damn her),
As I drew my ship out of London I knew I would never go there again. For a time I felt only sadness, and then, for no reason, I was filled with hope. The future lies ahead like a glittering city, but like the cities of the desert disappears when approached. In certain lights it is easy to see the towers and the domes, even the people going to and fro. We speak of it with longing and with love. The future. But the city is a fake. The future and the present and the past exist only in our minds, and from a distance the borders of each shrink and fade like the borders of hostile countries seen from a floating city in the sky. The river runs from one country to another without stopping. And even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.

Written on the Body (1992). This is the first of her books dedicated "To Peggy Reynolds with love" and by coincidence marks the transformation for the topic of love in JW books from being treated as a disastrous mistake to "mankind's greatest achievement." Funny that. Also it sees the first appearance of the universal beloved in Jeanette Winterson books, a pale-skinned redhead ("like a bonfire someone has kicked over") - er, a bit like Peggy Reynolds, in fact! Written on the Body is a love story, slightly over-earnest in places but you can open it at any page and wallow in the 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?
Unfortunately it also saw the beginning of the backlash against her in the press, partly because of its over-earnestness but mostly because when it was published Winterson chose it as her book of the year, and just to clear up any doubts, selected herself in a Sunday Times poll for the greatest writer in the English language.

Art & Lies (1994). Absolutely universally vilified on publication. It took me four goes to love it but eventually - dammit - I did. It's a deliberately obtuse book, with three narrators called (she does ask for it, really) Handel, Picasso and Sappho (any resemblance etc. etc.). The theme this time is "How shall I live?" and with their respective roles as socially admired doctor "with musical hands", rebellious student painter and lesbian poet, Handel Picasso and Sappho try to tell us how to live. Again the beauty of the language is the thing that will keep you going, if anything does. Not for the faint-hearted but absolutely worth persisting with. A passage like this, from the end of the book, shows her strengths and weaknesses together. The beauty is in the rhythm and precision of the language (even if she puts in needless commas to remind the untrustworthy reader where to pause), the weakness in the unintentionally amusing rhetoric ("Or did they look in?") - oh, and the fact that after this last page, the novel turns instead to music and gives us ten pages from the score of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier:


From the cliff-head, the two women standing together, looked out. Or did they look in? Held in the frame of light, was not the world, nor its likeness, but a strange equivalence, where what was thought to be known was re-cast, and where what was unknown began to be revealed, and where what could not be known, kept its mystery but lost its terror.

All this they saw and the sea in gold leaf and the purple and pearl of the cliffs.

It was not too late.
Gut Symmetries (1997). The beginning of the real problems with her books, at least in my view (others would start further back). A lot of it seems to be rehashings of earlier themes about time, science, love triangles, how to live and why, etc. etc. Even the writing takes off less frequently than before. She does herself no favours by implicitly comparing Gut Symmetries, in the first sentence of chapter one, with not one but two literary classics ("It began on a boat, like The Tempest, like Moby Dick"). Too often it seems self-indulgent, getting in the way of the occasional soaring passage:


My husband has started an affair. Cherchez la femme. Where is she?

Ransack the bedroom. The master bedroom well named. In a rip of pillow and sheet I shall tear her stigmata off the mattress. Is that her imprint, faint but discernible? My radioactive hands will sense her. Whatever bits of hair and flesh she has left behind I will find and crucible her.

Give me a pot and let me turn cannibal. I will feast on her with greater delight than he. If she is his titbit then I will gourmet her. Come here and discover what it is to be spiced, racked and savoured. I will eat her slowly to make her last longer. Whatever he has done I will do. Did he eat her? Then so will I. And spit her out.
Then we come to The Powerbook (2000), in my opinion a more or less complete stinker. It seemed to me to be terribly inconsequential. A few stories intertwined here and there, which in earlier books like Sexing the Cherry or Art & Lies she has put to the service of a bigger story, but here they just seem to say the same things (literally) over and over again. Only the impossible is worth the effort. There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet. And so on.

The plot, such as it is, yet again once more settles on the love triangle, as it did in Written on the Body and Gut Symmetries. It's true of course that all writers retread the same ground throughout their careers (she acknowledges it in one dialogue "A story I am writing." "What is it about?" "Boundaries. Desire." "What are your other books about?" "Boundaries. Desire." "Can't you write about something else?" "No.") but these seem more like different drafts for the same book rather than the same themes approached from different angles and ages.

Curiously, while Winterson raves (rightly) in essays and interviews about imagination being the most important thing for a writer, she lacks it in some important respects. While no-one can deny - and I have often had cause to celebrate - her fictional flights of fancy, she does have a difficulty, to the extent almost of disability, in imagining different characters. All her heroes are Jeanette - the feisty, the orphaned, the self-made woman, most of all the lover - and secondary characters are either her lovers (who are always, as I mentioned before, red-haired, like her real-life lover Peggy Reynolds) or the Philistines, which includes parents, cuckolds, businessmen, tourists ("So why am I not a tourist? A tourist could be anywhere. The place doesn't matter. It's just another TV channel."), and pretty much everyone else. Her antipathy towards the common herd is really quite astonishing in The Powerbook:

Quote: from Sorrento, on package-holiday outings, clog up the smooth flow of money and goods from trader to shopper. The beautiful ageless women and their slightly sinister iron-haired men have to compete at the luxury windows with red legs and bad haircuts, as the migrant shorts population wonders out loud how much everything costs before moving on to another ice cream.
We can only assume she must have had her camera stolen in Capri once. All this self-righteousness, while present to an extent in Art & Lies and Gut Symmetries, really rankles here, perhaps because for the first time it's simply not shrouded in swathes of beautiful writing. There is the odd great phrase here and there - car seats "battered like prizefighters" - but not the paragraphs and pages of swoonsome prose that I have always had the urge to quote endlessly from her other books.

I was delighted then when she said on her website (excellent by the way, and her monthly column makes her seem quite normal and down-to-earth*) that she considered The Powerbook to mark the end of a 'cycle' in her writing. It's taken four years for the next one, Lighthousekeeping, published this week. I must admit that after Gut Symmetries and The Powerbook I wasn't desperately interested, but I liked the following extract from her website and have now ordered it with the usual anticipatory glee from Amazon:


My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

I have no father. There's nothing unusual about that - even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.

His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.

Shoals of babies vied for life.

I won.


I lived in a house cut steep into the bank. The chairs had to be nailed to the floor, and we were never allowed to eat spaghetti. We ate food that stuck to the plate - Shepherd's Pie, Goulash, Risotto, scrambled egg. We tried peas once - what a disaster - and sometimes we still find them, dusty and green in the corners of the room.

Some people are raised on a hill, others in the valley. Most of us are brought up on the flat. I came at life at an angle, and that's how I've lived ever since.


At night my mother tucked me into a hammock slung cross-wise against the slope. In the gentle sway of the night, I dreamed of a place where I wouldn't be fighting gravity with my own body weight. My mother and I had to rope us together like a pair of climbers, just to achieve our own front door. One slip, and we'd be on the railway line with the rabbits.

'You're not an outgoing type' she said to me, though this may have had much to do with the fact that going out was such a struggle. While other children were bid farewell with a casual, 'Have you remembered your gloves?' I got, 'did you do up all the buckles on your safety harness?'


Why didn't we move house?

My mother was a single parent and she had conceived out of wedlock. There had been no lock on her door that night when my father came to call. So, she was sent up the hill, away from the town, with the curious result that she looked down on it.

Salts. My hometown. A sea-flung, rock-bitten, sand-edged shell of a town. Oh, and a lighthouse.
One thing I like about Winterson is her stated aim - as you can see - to have lots of short paragraphs and white space in her books, because that's what she likes when she reads. Bad value for money, but quick to read. My kind of woman.


* "I am nervous about LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING. Writing books is hard enough, but publishing them is terrifying. People take it personally when they don`t enjoy one of my books, (or any of them), and somewhere they feel that my failure to please them makes me a BAD PERSON. So, if you end up not liking LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING, please remember that I have my good points too. ... What I mean is, I have done my best with LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING."

Colyngbourne 25th Apr 2004 23:11

Never read anything by Winterson apart from her opera digest/short stories that the Indy printed in its Saturday mag last summer (or it could have even been two summers ago). They were rather good, but I found the Oranges are Not... TV adaptation off-putting and recall hearing various posturing things she said about her writing.

John Self 25th Apr 2004 23:41

Yes the posturing, as I have hinted above, is her least attractive feature, or I should say was, as she does absolutely repent of all that arrogance-of-youth ("It was a stupid thing to say and of course I regret it" she admits now of naming herself Best Living Writer in the English Language all those years ago). She does still talk up the TV adaptation of Oranges although I never thought that much of it myself; it's certainly not a patch on the book. Curiously, because of that book and TV series she is thought of by many as an anti-religious - or anti-Christianity - writer. In fact she speaks now of having the Bible by her bed (King James of course, for the 'muscular' language) and reading it every day - she even quotes the Bible in her books (Gut Symmetries: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.") and says that she was asked to do the introduction to the book of Job in the Pocket Canons series that were published a few years ago, but refused because she thought they were going to trivialise the text (Louis de Bernieres got the gig, minutiae fans). She even believes in God again. An example I suppose of the initial rejection (she wrote Oranges when she was 24) of that which was ingrained into her in childhood, and returning to it later in adulthood.

amner 26th Apr 2004 10:52

Much too much here to read during my normal morning perambulation; I'll leave it until lunchtime (plus, I can see I'm going to get distracted by the website). Good work as ever, John.

John Self 4th May 2004 23:26

If ever a book warranted the over-used (and usually optimistic) critical phrase "a return to form," Lighthousekeeping is it. After the brilliant but dense and closed Art & Lies (of which Winterson now says "It was written at a time when I was looking inwards, not outwards ... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't"), the patchy Gut Symmetries and the (in my view) atrocious The PowerBook, Lighthousekeeping - supposedly the beginning of a new cycle in her writing - is a breath of sea air.

As a new cycle in her writing (she says her first seven novels were a complete cycle in themselves), it doesn't half look a lot like the old one. But this is to be expected: all writers revisit their old turf throughout their lives: as Martin Amis said when pre-empting such criticisms of Yellow Dog, "the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn." So Lighthousekeeping retains Winterson's abiding interest in love ("the greatest human achievement"), storytelling ("Trust me. I'm telling you stories"), the multiplicity of history, parentless children and boundaries of desire, but puts them in the service of something lighter and brighter than we have seen from her probably since Sexing the Cherry.


They say you can tell something of a person's life by observing their body. This is certainly true of my dog. My dog has back legs shorter than his front legs, on account of always digging in at one end, and always scrambling up at the other. On ground level he walks with a kind of bounce that adds to his cheerfulness. He doesn't know that other dogs' legs are the same length all the way round. If he thinks at all, he thinks every dog is like him, and so he suffers none of the morbid introspection of the human race, which notes every curve from the norm with fear or punishment.
The story is narrated, as you can see from the extract in my first post above, by Silver. Silver's gender remains undeclared through most of the book, as a ten-year-old child, which I thought was an echo of Written on the Body where Winterson did the same thing, although I have never been able to read the narrator there as anything other than a woman, and a Jeanette-shaped woman at that. Anyway towards the end we discover that Silver when fully grown wears a bra, so we can - probably - put paid to that theory. Silver is orphaned when her mother, roped to her to climb the slope to their home, falls:


The wind was strong enough to blow the fins off a fish. It was Shrove Tuesday, and we had been out to buy flour and eggs to make pancakes. At one time we kept our own hens, but the eggs rolled away, and we had the only hens in the world who had to hang on by their beaks as they tried to lay.

I was excited that day, because tossing pancakes was something you could do really well in our house - the steep slope under the oven turned the ritual of loosening and tossing into a kind of jazz. My mother danced while she cooked because she said it helped her to keep her balance.

Up she went, carrying the shopping, and pulling me behind her like an after-thought. Then some new thought must have clouded her mind, because she suddenly stopped and half-turned, and in that moment the wind blew like a shriek, and her own shriek was lost as she slipped.

In a minute she had dropped past me, and I was hanging on to one of our spiny shrubs - escallonia, I think it was, a salty shrub that could withstand the sea and the blast. I could feel its roots slowly lifting like a grave opening. I kicked the toes of my shoes into the sandy bank, but the ground wouldn't give. We were both going to fall, falling away from the cliff face to a blacked-out world.

I couldn't hang on any longer. My fingers were bleeding. Then, as I closed my eyes, ready to drop and drop, all the weight behind me seemed to lift. The bush stopped moving. I pulled myself up on it and scrambled behind it.

I looked down.

My mother had gone. The rope was idling against the rock. I pulled it towards me over my arm, shouting, 'Mummy! Mummy!'

The rope came faster and faster, burning the top of my wrist as I coiled it next to me. Then the double buckle came. Then the harness. She had undone the harness to save me.

Ten years before I had pitched through space to find the channel of her body and come to earth. Now she had pitched through her own space, and I couldn't follow her.

She was gone.
And so Silver ends up, via the obligatory narky old maid character, living with Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew, of course, is blind, and may or may not have lived for hundreds of years. He keeps Silver entertained by telling her stories, mostly of the 19th century clergyman Babel Dark (no shortage of symbolic names here, no sir), who visited Cape Wrath and knew Robert Louis Stevenson and betrayed his wife with a scarlet (literally; the old Winterson obsession with redheads is back too) woman. The lighthouse is a richly suggestive symbol itself of course: "a known point in the darkness", part of "a string of lights" on "the coasts and outcrops of this treacherous ocean."

But for all its open-to-interpretation symbolism, Lighthousekeeping, like most of Winterson's books, doesn't really leave you in any doubt about where the author is coming from. She still values love over all else:


But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, the sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a café.
But what is missing in Lighthousekeeping is the bitterness and ranting - one might almost say raving - against consumerism, tourists, heterosexual marriage, other people, which increasingly marred everything from Art & Lies onward. It seems then that Winterson has, miraculously, found a way to express - and boy can she express; only now when looking up these quotes I have been diverted and diverted again by endless brilliant phrases among the pages - her passion for the life she loves without turning it into an attack on Everything Else. Where before she could be a marauding mob brandishing torches of naked flames, burning things down (albeit asking questions at the same time): now she is a kindly light, still bright and powerful enough to be seen for miles but under control, a known point in the darkness of so much contemporary fiction.

amner 5th May 2004 14:25

I'm assuming you saw the South Bank Show interview, John? Very much enjoyed that. I think she and Melvyn could probably have talked forever. Heck, they may still be nattering away even now.

John Self 5th May 2004 14:45

Yeah, these ex-northerners, I dunno... :roll:

It was a bit of a love-in wasn't it? I was a bit disappointed to be honest that so much of the programme concentrated on Oranges and the autobiographical background to it. I could have done with more on Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body etc.

Colyngbourne 20th Aug 2004 18:15

There you go - in preparation for buying Lighthousekeeping (in paperback), I have snapped up a cheap Gut Symmetries in the local Help the Aged. I'm finishing The Turn of the Screw first though.

Mike 20th Aug 2004 19:12

I read and reviewed "Oranges are not the only fruit " a month or so ago. I was impressed more with its description of religious fundamentalism than the lesbianism concentrated on in the TV drama.

Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I was delighted with this short, very funny but very thought provoking novel - Whitbread Winner 1985. Dealing with religious fundamentalism the subject matter would be hard to see as funny but Winterson treats the reader to her character also called Jeanette, gives her an semi autobiographical voice and manages to make her funny, thoughtful and provoking all at the same time. Dealing with lesbianism and revivalist religion the author uses allegorical fairy tale style stories interspersed with the narrative to tell the story of Jeannette as she matures both in her sexuality and her religious beliefs.

Brought to a wider audience by the BBC Drama of the same name starring the late Charlotte Coleman it is usually remembered for its portrayal of lesbianism yet it is so much more than that - a young girl tries to come to terms with her own religious beliefs in spite of the almost fanatical beliefs of those around her. The sometimes-hilarious yet poignant happenings at her school and at home come together beautifully and still manage to convey the difficulties with fundamentalist religion and the modern world. She never actually loses her belief - it is her church led by her fanatical mother that throws her out upon finding out of her relationship with another girl in the church.

Confused but full of hope she embarks on a journey of discovery involving working in a funeral parlour and driving an ice cream van with hilarious results. A short book - mine had an introduction by the author - (I don't know if they all have it ) but it doesn't seem a short story , I would have liked more detail in places , more of Jeanette in the city etc . But this aside it was entertaining and a frank appraisal of working class 50's/60's Christian extremism. I would recommend readers try to forget the film Drama and read the book afresh - it is a superb read.

rick green 20th Dec 2004 17:36

The Passion

A title this suggestive deserves a story with some meat on its bones. At a mere hundred & sixty pages, Winterson’s book seems wretchedly thin. I guess this is natural, considering her undernourished prose. Aggregations of meager sentences form meager paragraphs. Meager paragraphs add up to meager chapters and so on. It is somehow fitting that in this book of magic & miracles, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. Other reviewers have justly remarked on The Passion’s similarity to fairy tales. The brother’s Grimm cared little for psychological truth in their characters. For better of worse, neither does Winterson. She is content to play with paper cutouts. That’s fine with me. I don’t need psychology in a novel, so long as there are other rewards to be had.
Hang on…
Allow me to take that back. I do need psychology in a novel. To me, that’s what it’s all about. If there’s no humor, no pathos, nothing to latch onto with fellow feeling, why bother? The Passion is an allegory at heart. I’m a little surprised at myself for not liking it because I usually admire allegory in a novel. The thing is, I like it when an author adds a symbolic element to the characters, events, or settings that make up a novel. When that happens, it’s almost like getting two stories for the price of one. The problem with The Passion is that it’s not a novel with a layer of allegory on top. It’s an allegory with the novel knocked out from under it. Gil’s quip that there’s such a thing as too much minimalism applies perfectly.

Domino the midget says that being near him [Napoleon] is like having a great wind rush about your ears. He says that’s how Madame de Stäel put it and she’s famous enough to be right. She doesn’t live in France now. Bonaparte had her exiled because she complained about him censoring the theatre and suppressing the newspapers. I once bought a book of hers from a traveling pedlar who’d had it from a ragged nobleman. I didn’t understand much but I learned the word ‘intellectual’ which I would like to apply to myself.
Domino laughs at me.
At night I dream of dandelions.

As you can see, subtlety is not one of Winterson’s virtues. Having a character dream of dandelions or read de Stäel does not make him interesting. Not even having him admit to intellectual vanity elicits my sympathy as a reader. Why not? It just seems too obvious, too gauche--like painting by numbers.
The short sections that make up each chapter read like prose poems… without the mystery that’s at the heart of such writing. Sometime they read like anecdotes… without a point. I can think of two cases of an author using similar means to greater effect: Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Olga Turkoczuk’s House of Day, House of Night. The former is a mosaic of short pieces on the real-life enigma Buddy Bolden—progenitor of New Orleans jazz. It’s been ages since I read it, but I remember it hanging together like a cubist canvas by Picasso or Braque. The fragmentary form suited the subject, jazz, that music that smashes melody, tossing the pieces about with glee. Turkoczuk’s book is also made up of apparently unrelated fragments. Beyond the levels of plot and character, however, there are certain images, ideas & themes that repeat. An invisible web of association is constructed by the diligent reader. This is certainly not a traditional novel, but it is very interesting nonetheless. There is mystery & pathos to spare.

In conclusion, I feel like I’ve failed to completely understand my annoyance with The Passion. To put the whole issue in other terms, it’s Coelho’s Alchemist in the disguise of Calvino’s Non-Existent Knight.

P.S. Then again, maybe it’s not as dire as all that. I can’t do it justice reading it hard on the heels of War & Peace—the epitome of pathos, the paragon of sympathetic characterization, the justification of the novel as an art form.

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