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Old 25th Apr 2004, 20:55   #1
John Self
suffers from smallness of vision
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Default 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."
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