Beware of shallowness

James Wood

  • Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson
    Cape, 224 pp, £14.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 224 03145 7

Each new book by Jeanette Winterson is said to be poorer than its predecessor; she is like a bibliographer’s definition of nostalgia. As her novels become more ghostly, so they give off a stronger vapour of self-promotion. Her last, Written On The Body, announced on its cover that it had ‘fused mathematical exactness and poetic intensity and made language new’. Her latest also bears a Winterson-accented description on its jacket: ‘Art & Lies is a rich book, bawdy and beautiful, shocking because of its beauty ... a dangerous book, banked with ideas forced out of the words themselves, not words for things, but words that are living things with the power to move.’

One of Winterson’s models is Virginia Woolf, and Art & Lies is also a Woolfian engine of self-advertisement whereby the text is both the novel and the explanation for the novel. It is militant with excuses; like a pianola, it plays itself again and again. Each of the book’s three monologists, Handel, Picasso and Sappho, do their bit of window-washing for the novel, in that odd mixture of aphorism and chant now familiar to Winterson’s readers. Handel reminds us that ‘language is artifice. Art is not supposed to be natural.’ ‘You see, I have to beware of shallowness,’ Sappho warns, ‘a cliché of response.’ There are complaints about critics, and the neglect of genius. Picasso, who is a young woman artist, reminds herself that ‘talent and application could pitch her in the Royal Academy, genius was certain to bar her from it.’ Sappho is the sternest lecturer. Winterson uses her to meditate on language, in swoony paragraphs. She promises us ‘the word that does not bring peace but a sword’. Later, we are told about ‘the word that is spirit, the word that is breath, the word that hangs the world on its hook’, and later still: ‘the whirling word. The word carried quietly away at my side, the word spun out, vigorous, precise ... the words for their own sake, revealing now themselves. Words beyond information. Words done with plot.’

This is repetitive, but the novel is incantatory; it is built on identical mounds. The three narrators are travelling – though in an obscure manner – on a train which is bathed in light and moving towards the sea. Passages about light recur in the novel, in homage, one suspects, to the descriptions of the rising and setting sun which appear throughout The Waves. At regular intervals we come back to the light. ‘Long waves of light that atomised the solid seats and rigid tables ... the train was hosed in light’. The Modernist novel, which is what Winterson rather old-fashionedly is doing, has never really solved the problem of what to do with dishevelled sequence and isolated rhapsody. Narrative is pressure: packed into their tight formations, the ranks hold each other up; soloists are apt to droop. Dickens finishes David Copperfield uncharacteristically: ‘O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!’ It is intensely moving, but its power is communal; each word is swollen with connection and preparation, the vast preparation of the novel itself. Winterson’s rhapsodies are frequent but friendless. Even in relatively non-sequential ‘poetic’ novels, like The Waves or The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, what binds the lyricism is the concentrated probing of the narrative: it is a hoop of focus. Winterson’s uncontrollable lyricism does not seem to have this cognitive hunger, this drive to know: rather the language appears to want to please itself – ‘not words for things, but words that are living things’.

Winterson’s language is now routinely praised as ‘beautiful’ and ‘dazzling’. Is it? Though there are occasional delights, much of it is smeary and imprecise. She appears to have little sense of how to pluck detail or the concrete from an image. The following passage is characteristic. The train has arrived at the sea, and Winterson’s light lingers on the water:

The light lay on the sea. A taut white film of light, full stretched, horizon to beach wave. The light gauzed over the green sea, pale wings atomising the water, butterfly light on the spread of the sea. The light fluttered, its scalloped margins shading the rocks that made a breakwater for the fishing boats. The light rested on the bruised prows.

  The light had salt in it. Cleansing light that polished the sand and pumiced its fragments to diamonds. The light abrased the smooth concrete columns of the harbour and gave them back the rough dignity of the sea. The unman-made sea and the scouring light.

One might, on reading this, be cheered up to recall that Chekhov’s ideal description was a sentence he discovered in a schoolboy’s exercise-book: ‘The sea was large.’ Winterson’s prose entirely lacks metaphorical power. At the beginning of The Waves, Woolf likens the sea’s movements to ‘a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green.’ Woolf’s prose is mobile, darting from likeness to likeness. Winterson, by contrast, finds her image and then secures it in a long chain of associated images. Thus, her first paragraph sees light as filmy and gauzy, and merely extends that image (film-gauzed-butterfly-fluttered); her second stretches the idea of light as penetrative or astringent (salt-cleansing-polished-pumiced-abrased-scouring). Lacking the domestic tug of simile, it floats into abstraction. Yet it is not striking even as abstraction. Compare it with a genuinely strange abstract sea-description, such as Wallace Stevens’s ‘the ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea’; or with this exquisite sentence from The Waves: ‘Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence.’ Winterson’s prose has none of that strangeness. Her verbs are not bad, but ordinary.

Reading Winterson’s earlier work carefully, one sees that this kind of eyeless prose – ‘not words for things’ – has never been one of her strengths. Very occasionally, she produces a verb or adjective of the right glittering excessiveness, as at the end of Art & Lies when Handel recalls, as a boy, being masturbated by a cardinal: ‘he vexed me to orgasm.’ And one enjoys the dare of the verb ‘dare’ in this sentence from Written on the Body: ‘I paddled through the shallows of the river where the little fishes dare their belly at the sun.’ But in general, Winterson’s sliding rhapsodies are dull and evasive, while her ordinary descriptions, her ‘words for things’, are excellent, as in ‘behind the blind the frantic shadow of a bee’, in her new book.

Winterson is a considerable stylist, but I wonder if she can any longer recognise her strengths. Why is Oranges still her best book? In the 1991 Introduction to the Vintage paperback, Winterson informs us that ‘Oranges was unlike any other novel ... it offers a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one, it employs a very large vocabulary and a beguilingly straightforward syntax.’ Actually, its lexicon is simple enough, and its narrative is an ordinary linear story broken up by the odd lecture or fairy-tale. It is triumphantly like many other comic novels, and its proximity to a great comic tradition is stylistic – a perfect manipulation of voice. Its heroine and narrator, the young Jeanette, tells us about the strangest world – lower-middle-class Evangelical Christianity – in a tone of half-innocent, half-knowing bewilderment. Pushed through this stylistic funnel, Christianity is registered as a kind of ridiculous child’s-play.

Early in the book, Jeanette writes a school essay on ‘What I Did In My Holidays’. Compressed, it runs like this:

This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp. It was very hot, and Auntie Betty, whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die. But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily. When Auntie Betty got better we all went in the bus to Llandudno to testify on the beach. I played the tambourine, and Elsie Norris brought her accordion, but a boy threw some sand, and since then she’s had no F sharp. We’re going to have a jumble sale in the autumn to try and pay for it.

It’s a marvellous piece of comic writing, the childish confusion perfectly checked by the childish revelation.

Jeanette’s mother in Oranges is a lively comic figure, because Winterson’s style presents her to us without judgment or foreclosure. Jeanette’s childish glibness of delivery – ‘My mother stopped, overcome with emotion. I begged her to finish the story, proffering the Royal Scots’ – is a delicious comic surrender to the incomprehensibility of the Evangelical world: that is the triumph of the style. Her later books are too often merely glib. In Written on the Body, we encounter Crazy Frank: ‘I had a boyfriend once called Crazy Frank. He had been brought up by midgets although he himself was over six feet tall. He loved his adoptive parents and used to carry them one on each shoulder.’

No real current flows under the forced exoticism of this kind of writing, nor under the stories of princesses, forests and giantesses in Sexing the Cherry. In Art & Lies, whenever Winterson’s monologists talk about themselves, they shrivel into stereotype or grotesquerie. Handel announces: ‘I like to look at women. That is one of the reasons why I became a doctor.’ One can still hear the Winterson melody in that simple, scraping sentence; but it functions as a perversion of the earlier style, for what once revealed a world in its absurdity now closes it down flippantly.

Winterson’s oeuvre since the balance and pitch of Oranges has been a collapse into statement. All of the subsequent books hide within them, like the victim of an accident who is now nothing but metal plates and rods, inflexible rules and steely aphorisms. How did the comic stylist of Oranges come to be satisfied by an art stiff with: ‘Bridges join but they also separate’ (The Passion); ‘Pleasure and danger. Pleasure on the edge of danger is sweet. It’s the gambler’s sense of losing that makes the winning an act of love’ (ditto); ‘It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression’ (Written on the Body); ‘There is no system that has not another system concealed within it’ (Art & Lies).

This is sad, for Winterson and for her readers. She deserves our admiration for her Modernist striving, and her restlessness with the novel-form. This alone makes her a rare presence. But the loss is considerable. A poised and mobile comic style has liquefied; in her attempt to produce intransitive prose, she has exchanged narrow and determined talents for a wide and natureless vacancy. To look back at the fire of her first book through the smoke of its successors is to risk being turned into a pillar of salt. Abandoned and isolate, it flames reproachfully; and in the wind you can hear it cry: ‘words for things, words for things.’