A Tulip and Two Bulbs

Jenny Turner

  • The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson
    Cape, 243 pp, £14.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 224 06103 8

‘We all know of writers who just keep writing the same book, but what is sadder is when a true writer seems to run out of books. T.S. Eliot observed that to continue to develop stylistically, a writer had to continue to develop emotionally … It is a commonplace of psychology that human beings, beyond a certain age, find it difficult to supplement their personalities with new emotional understandings. If this happens to the writer, she is lost.’

Jeanette Winterson, ‘A Work of My Own’,
Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (1995)

From the outside, Jeanette Winterson’s new book looks quite different from what she usually does. Instead of one of those browny-orangey oil paintings she has hitherto put on her covers, this one is sunshine yellow, small and square. It’s bright, modern, not blurry: ‘21st-century fiction’, as the advertisement on the inner flap proclaims. An extended conceit to do with personal computers is carried through to the setting of the author’s name – Jeanette.Winterson – and of the title, The. PowerBook, itself. And to GUIesque, tarotish little icons – an e-mail with an eye in it, a tulip with a vaginal-or-maybe-disk-drive-like slot in it. ‘Using cover versions, fairytales, contemporary myths and popular culture The.PowerBook works at the intersection between the real and the imagined … Intense, erotic, incandescent in the power and beauty of its prose, T.PB is an astonishing achievement.’ Jeanette Winterson generally writes her own jacket copy. If you hadn’t already guessed.

Inside, there’s an entity called Ali who lives in Spitalfields, East London: ‘The sign on the shop says VERDE, nothing more, but everyone knows that something strange goes on inside.’ (This building really exists, I noticed, on one of the streets by Spitalfields market. It’s a former greengrocer’s which seems to have been converted into a house.) But anyway, Ali writes stories for people on e-mail. She’s working on one for another, nameless, entity, which becomes the story of a love affair, between ‘I’ and ‘You’. ‘I’ is the lover, ‘You’ the beloved (who is married, as Winterson beloveds usually are). The action is set in Paris, Capri, London; in hotel beds, restaurants, a train station and, yes, in ‘Cyberspace’ also, if by that is meant exchanges like this:

‘You say you write stories. Write me a story.’
‘Freedom just for one night, you said.’
‘Yes.’
‘All right, but if I start this story …’
‘Yes?’
‘It may change under my hands.’
… ‘So what shall I wear?’
‘It’s up to you. Combat or Prada?’
‘How much can I spend on clothes?’
‘How about $1000?’
‘My whole wardrobe or just one outfit?’

And so on.

I don’t know why Winterson put that bit in her blurb about popular culture. Winterson hates popular culture, and she hasn’t put any in The.PowerBook at all. There is that strange, isolated, remarkably ugly fashion namedrop – ‘Combat or Prada?’ And the beloved does say ‘Be here now’ to the lover at one point, thus quoting the title of the Oasis album. But that’s pretty much it for popular culture. There isn’t much detail of any sort in the novel, but what there is is bland rich-enough-to-live-like-a-poor-man Eurochic: the odd glass of champagne, the occasional artichoke, trips to Capri and Paris, but not the fashionable bits, which are ‘too crowded, too expensive and too noisy for me’. There’s a list of Great and Ruinous Lovers – Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere. There are storyettes about knights and foxes, and Paolo and Francesca, and a real self-parody of a framing story about a girl who fakes a set of male genitals with a tulip and two bulbs. There’s a recipe for Salsa di Pomodori (‘Serve on top of fresh spaghetti. Cover with rough new parmesan and cut basil. Raw emotion can be added now’). So those will be the cover versions and the fairytales and maybe the contemporary myths.

Much of The.PowerBook is made up of aphoristic fragments concerning the nature of erotic love. ‘Love’s script has no end of beginnings. The characters and the scenery change. There are three possible endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness … Nothing could be more familiar than love. Nothing else eludes us so completely.’ These are not dissimilar in solemnity or content to the aphoristic fragments concerning the nature of erotic love to be found in Written on the Body (1992), Art & Lies (1994), Gut Symmetries (1997). In other words, The.PowerBook is not methodologically new. Except that it isn’t really a novel anyway. It’s more like a set of short stories being marketed as a novel, in the way that Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was last year. Except that it isn’t even a set of short stories. It’s more like a bundle of bits and pieces, nicely laid out, signed, numbered and bound in home-splodged cardboard and sold as an artist’s book at a private gallery in the West End. It’s a half-finished, collectors-only artefact which has somehow stumbled into mass-market circulation. It’s close, in fact, to not being a book at all.

Yet it keeps afloat, somehow. It just about prevails. It more or less functions as what JW calls in her essays ‘a structure bonded by language’. If you are willing to go along with it a little, if you are willing to let it do its thing. It’s so sure of itself, it’s so forcefully projected. Who can muster the force to forswear it? And so, the book has won the argument before it has started. It’s such an almighty act of will.

It is Winterson’s will, really, which is the ‘astonishing achievement’. It is her great strength and her biggest topic, even more than the aphoristic fragments on the nature of erotic love. What do we see if we think of her first novel, the marvellous, autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)? We see a small, determined, red-haired whirlwind of a creature, battling and winning through against the forces of darkness, like Jane Eyre, like Anne of Green Gables, like Elizabeth I. Read Oranges now and you will still find in it the exuberance and the craft of a jack-in-the-box. There is so much energy stowed away in those neat, demure little sentences. It will leap out and cuff you hard.

You can feel that will in the way that, the minute Oranges made the young Winterson successful, she steered sharply away from the territory that had formed her – the working-class girlhood in Lancashire, the deranged but also magnificent evangelical mum – into the Oxford-graduate historical romance of The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989), as close as one can get, outside of SF or without inventing a private language, to a self-created world. You can feel it in her brilliant marketing instincts – what other contemporary British author has such brand recognition? What do you think about when you see a Le Creuset pan? And you can feel it in her good secular-Protestant financial foresight: she doesn’t use a literary agent in Britain. She does the haggling herself. It’s true, very few people really know what they want from a book they buy, or from a person they fall in love with, or from a pasta sauce. So here comes Winterson to point us in the right direction. We just have to give over our belief.

But Winterson’s will is perhaps going underchallenged. In her essays and in her fiction, she writes a lot about the rich-enough-to-live-like-a-poor-man lifestyle: ‘And if you believe, as I do, that to live for art demands that every other part of life be moved towards one end, then the question “How shall I live?” is fierce,’ she explains in Art Objects, her 1995 book of essays. I am sure she also likes swanking about this good life she has brought into being, like the demiurge, through her own desire: the seclusion, the devoted lover, the opera and the garden, the Bloomsbury Set first editions, the pseudo Old Master paintings, like the ones she used to put on the jackets of her books. She only engages with the most irreproachable writers: Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf. The only constitutive human relationship is to the partner, a shadowy figure, a troubadour’s muse. For a writer who so wonderfully emerged in such a flurry of strife and conflict, it has all gone quiet and comfy, surely, a bit like those people who live in oxygen tents. Except that it hasn’t ‘gone’ that way by accident. It has been made like that, with toil and deliberation, because that was what Winterson willed.

The Passion and Sexing the Cherry were Winterson’s novels of the 1980s: with Oranges, the big successes that made her what she is today. Each has an exotic, historically eclectic setting: 18th-century Venice, Renaissance London. Each has that furbelows-within-furbelows quality of the magic realism school. These novels made perfect literary accessories for an age otherwise engaged in building itself cod-classical buildings and brightening up its living-rooms with gilded plaster putti and busie olde foole unrulie sunnes. But, as always, it’s the deeper structures in the books that have the power to show more. In The Passion, the continuities with Oranges are obvious and satisfying. The telling is concise, the images are solid and voracious – the severed hands of the gambler, Napoleon stuffing whole chickens into his face – and the big emotions have to do with staunchness of heart and farness from home. But in Sexing the Cherry, ‘the world’ is beginning to give way to ‘other places’, to borrow from the title of Winterson’s short-story collection of 1999. ‘The Hopi have … no tenses for past, present and future,’ reads one epigraph. ‘What does this tell us about time?’ ‘Matter, that thing the most solid and the well known,’ reads the other one, ‘is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?’

From Sexing the Cherry on, Winterson’s fiction gets ever more metaphysical, in small-m and big-M senses. It is metaphysical in that it is underpinned by some sort of interest in a ‘reality’ beyond the consensual one we think we live in: ‘words that cut through the semblance of the thing to the thing itself’ is one of the ways Winterson expresses this herself. The prose never stops being precise, but it gets less and less concrete, more and more full of abstract qualities, ‘points of light’. It is big-M Metaphysical in that it pursues extravagant metaphorical connections, in the manner of those Elizabethan poets Dr Johnson was so sniffy about. By the time she came to write her fourth novel, Written on the Body (1992), perhaps Winterson was beginning to find all these fancy plots a bit beside the point and babyish, which of course in a way they were. So WoB is largely plotless. It’s a poem in prose to the wonders of a lover, who then gets blood cancer, and then is worshipped anew. The eroticism, the morbidity, the memento mori is Marvell’s ‘To a Coy Mistress’. Marvell in a prose much influenced by Woolf.

In Winterson’s book of essays, art is compared to ‘enchantment’ and ‘ecstasy’ and ‘rapture’. The values admired are ‘smoothness’, as in the ‘smooth surface’ of Shakespeare’s late plays, and ‘style’, defined as ‘sensibility and technique distinctively brought together’. The task of the writer is thus to forge ‘connections’, to ‘harmonise’ ‘jags of matter’. There’s that magic triangle of Eliot, Woolf, Shakespeare, locked together like an Escher drawing in a mutual admiration society; no one else really gets a look-in, apart from an emergent fourth member (I think you can guess who that would be). Winterson’s essay on Orlando: ‘Woolf (like T.S. Eliot) … admired the Renaissance for its efforts to grasp the unruly world whole and tame it through art.’ Her essay on The Waves: ‘Rapture is a state of transformation. Woolf lifts up the veil of words that filmy or thick hides myself from the moment, you from me … Against the blunted days of approximation comes the clarity of the Word.’ Not only does she agree with the Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ and so on. She even writes like she’s him reborn.

The trouble with metaphysics, however, is that they only work within a pre-modern world picture, before science rips its great indifferent discontinuities between the happily harmonised spheres. Winterson is terribly uneasy about science and technology. She’s too attracted to leave them to writers who know what they’re talking about. She’s too repelled to grasp the images firmly and think them through. Thus in Gut Symmetries, her novel before this one, a romance was had between a couple of particle physicists in which transatlantic travel was done by boat and never aeroplane. Communication was by letter, not e-mail or even phone. Discussions of their work were entirely metaphorical – the hero liked superstrings because they reminded him of his mamma’s spaghetti – never involving the real appurtenances of the subatomic world, particle accelerators and labs and so on. The present book at least has computers in it. But Winterson would not be the first person to discover that interfacing with the Internet is good for blurring life’s rough edges: ‘This is a virtual world. This is a world inventing itself’; ‘I trawl my screen like a beachcomber – looking for you, looking for me’; ‘There’s no Netscape Navigator to help me find my way around life.’

In Gut Symmetries, ‘harmonisation’ was effected with dire recourse to the occult airbrush: ‘The Miracle of the One that the alchemists sought is not so very different from the infant theory of hyperspace; where all the seeming dislocations and separations of the atomic and subatomic worlds are unified into a co-operating whole … Star-dust that we are, will death lose its sting?’ Chapters were prefaced by astrological readings. Paracelsus strode around in his big boots. There are no horoscopes in The.PowerBook, thank goodness. Instead there emerges a slightly more lucid Neo-platonism, one which at least takes account of evolution, sort of:

Sex. How did it start? In the strange dark history of our evolution, there was a shift, inevitably, away from self-reproducing organisms – like bacteria – towards organisms which must fuse with one another to survive … Sex and death belong together, joined in our imaginations as they are in DNA. Sex and death are our original parents. For some of us, the only family we’ll ever have.

And finally, rousingly, like a great stomping evangelical hymn: ‘All human love is a dramatic enactment of the wild, reckless, unquenchable, undrainable love that powers the universe. If death is everywhere and inescapable, then so is love, if we but knew it. We can begin to know it through each other.’ Except that instead of taking such a sentiment off in the direction of caritas – good neighbours, good works, the overseas missions which so engage Jeanette and her mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Winterson takes us in the direction of eros. We can know the universe only by rapt erotic engagement with one other person. Champagne and artichokes add to the sacramental quality of this engagement. If you don’t have this one other person, at least you have the books.

There is, as I have said, a lot of Woolf in Winterson’s essays, and so there is unsurprisingly a continuing engagement with the Woolf of A Room of One’s Own. Towards the end of Art Objects Winterson quotes a long passage, the one in which Woolf thinks ahead ‘another century or so’ to when women ‘have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own’ and ‘see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality’: ‘then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s Sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.’ ‘That,’ Winterson states, ‘is where I am in history.’

But one reason Virginia Woolf related to ‘reality’ in the way she did was that she had the strange, intense, terribly isolated education of an upper-middle-class woman at the turn of the last century. In some ways, Winterson’s childhood, as rendered in Oranges and elsewhere, was even stranger. But it wasn’t the education of an upper-middle-class woman before women’s suffrage, before the Education Acts of 1918 and 1944. She went to school and university, she borrowed books from public libraries; and just as well she did, because there would have been no private tutors waiting to teach Greek to a working-class girl from Lancashire, no Leslie Stephens’s library waiting to be read. And yet, in her novels and in her essays, Winterson writes as though nothing had really changed in the world since Woolf’s time. Orlando now has a mobile phone she uses in her motor car, but that’s about it.

By chance I borrowed Julie Burchill’s autobiography, I Knew I Was Right (1998), from the library just as I was thinking about this problem. There we have another extraordinarily talented and charismatic British woman writer of working-class origin, exactly the same age as Winterson (both were born in 1959). Burchill writes a great deal about what it’s like to be one of very few people of working-class origin in the world of letters, still very much an upper-middle-class milieu: she rages, she gloats, she savages, she avenges, she smugly smirks. In her essays, Winterson says something about how she thought a trick was being played on her in her first weeks at university: suddenly, she was not only allowed to read but being paid for it. She doesn’t say much else. She has learnt the virtue of reticence. Burchill’s book is so explosive and all over the place, it’s quite hard going. You get motion sickness as you read. Winterson’s more recent writing is so worked over and ‘harmonised’ that whatever content it may once have had is muffled, like a room of who knows what emotional furniture, all covered up in sheets.

I like this bit, though, from Gut Symmetries, about the main character’s company-director dad:

He was a self-made man. He was a blue-collar boy who could afford a tailor … They acted as though it was just a fluke that more people like him weren’t in the same position as more people like them. And sometimes they hinted that he had had it easy. And sometimes, quite openly, they called him a thug. He had energy, no one could deny that, and a mission about him, that, frankly, they found vulgar. They wanted to like him but he just wasn’t a likable man. Too awkward, too angled, too arrogant, too proud … He was lonely. None of his friends, his own kind, his own type, had done as well as he had. He had sailed away from that life and there was no passage of return … Now he was an island unto himself visited for goods and water.

Notice how the language starts out plain-spoken, written the way people talk; and yet, within not terribly many sentences, it has wandered down to the gilded blue frescos of the Vatican map room. I wonder if Winterson feels like this, having emerged, like the Great Gatsby, from a Platonic conception of herself. Except that she positively welcomes the solitude. Or so she always says.

The.PowerBook is a bit less 1980s than Winterson’s other recent novels: fewer costumes, fewer revisionist folktales, less sex, less cross-dressing. It’s also just less, full stop. Calling it ‘1980s’, however, does not seem the insult it once did, now that we are far away enough to be able to identify 1990s publishing trends. Compared to some underworked sludge by a shame-faced journalist or one of those my-family-was-more-dysfunctional-than-yours-was memoirs, wearing tulips as fake male genitals seems edifying and jolly. Indeed, to think about the latter genre is to be struck anew by the wonder of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In that book, the young Jeanette is neglected (the holy glue ear), exorcised, deprived of reading, taken advantage of by an elder of her church. But Winterson does not wallow. She turns it all comic and redemptive. I wonder how many girls in trouble have found themselves sustained by that novel. I wonder how many girls in trouble read arty books about serial killers and end up feeling worse.

My favourite Winterson book, though, is her third, first published in 1986. Sadly, it is long out of print. It’s called Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well, and it’s a feminist workout book of the mid-1980s sort. It’s constructed as a riposte to Martin Luther: ‘Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips and accordingly they possess intelligence … Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear children.’ It’s full of sensible advice about eating, sleeping and exercising, and it is very bossy in the most endearing way. I consult it often for its diagrams of trunk exercises: ‘Sit-ups are now a feature of the rest of your life … Flat on the floor is fine, but a slant board is better.’ I avoid the bit about ‘champagne and fresh pasta and weekends in bed with your lover or the cat’. The rot was setting in even then.

And yet, there is in all of Winterson’s books a strong, deep sense of purpose, a faith in beauty, order, clarity, and a talent for self-projection that is energising and exciting. Is she writing the same book over and over? Has she run out of new books to write? ‘Rembrandt,’ she ominously reflects, towards the end of The.PowerBook, ‘painted himself at least fifty times, scribbled numerous drawings and left twenty etchings … because he was there, but, just as importantly, because he wasn’t there. He was shifting his own boundaries.’ At least fifty times, plus drawings and etchings. Winterson has plenty more to go.