My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first encounter with Jeanette Winterson went badly. In college, I read Written on the Body and found it ludicrously overwritten, an imprecise prose poem wearing the guise of a novel, and poorly at that. I almost wish my Livejournal from that period of my life were still extant so I could quote from my bad review; I remember that it turned on mocking the line from the novel, “Your clavicle is both keyboard and key” (honestly, I still think that is a stupid sentence).
But something about Winterson lingered—her aestheticism, her daring, her egotism (a trait I find wholly lovable in writers and artists)—and I decided to revisit her work. I am glad I did, because Art and Lies is not a failed prose-poem. It is a completely invented novel, set in a dream-world of its own, rather than dwelling in the merely social or autobiographical. It is a completely written novel, composed in an elevated register that enlivens rather than transcribing common speech, even as it is an echo chamber for poetry. It is a completely traditional novel, alluding to Sappho, Ovid, Shakespeare, Sterne, Blake, Wordsworth, Pater, Eliot, Woolf, and Calvino on almost every page, its sentences sinuous hooks for the eyes of the canon. It is a completely radical novel, both formally as it reinvents what a novel can do and be, and politically as it mounts a thoroughgoing critique of modern society that is both coherent and independent (i.e., it does not merely repeat the platitudes of right or left). It is also, alas, a somewhat didactic novel—more about this later.
Art and Lies has three narrators: Handel, a Catholic surgeon who revisits in memory his moments of missed opportunity in love even as he laments the spiritual and physical state of modern London; Picasso, a female artist from a strict, sexually-abusive household who has struggled to escape the physical and mental confines of her terrible family; and Sappho, the legendary poet, who seems to speak from beyond time, challenging the misrepresentations of her life and work, even as she wanders the streets of London. These three characters are distantly, tenuously united, and they come together as they board a train that seems to be headed to a sea symbolizing death or eternity. Interpolated throughout are passages from an 18th-century pornographic novel—their bawdiness and scatology function like the servants’ banter in Shakespeare, to let some of the air out of the novel before we are overcome by its poetic afflatus. All three main characters judge the present in one voice, a voice that occasionally overwhelms the fiction and threatens to turn this rather intricate literary construction into a political screed.
Art and Lies is a strange political beast, though perhaps not as strange as it looks at first glance. Despite Winterson’s early vote for Margaret Thatcher, Art and Lies decisively repudiates Thatcherism, not least for its indifference or hostility to the poor and the working class:
Homelessness is illegal. In my city no one is homeless although there are an increasing number of criminals living on the street. It was smart to turn an abandoned class into a criminal class, sometimes people feel sorry for the down and outs, they never feel sorry for criminals, it has been a great stabilizer.
But the novel is far more invested in an aesthetic critique of the postmodernity (itself a recapitulation of Eliot’s aesthetic critique of modernity: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”) as an epoch of wasted time and squandered artifice. All three of the voices in this novel denounce the artlessness of a society given over to money-making and cheap entertainment:
In the country of the Blind the one-eyed man is King? But what of the articulate among the guttural? Once upon a time I would have been listened to with respect, now, I am regarded with suspicion, and for the wrong reason. I know that I am false; the irony is that the barkers and jabberers believe themselves genuine. As if to speak badly is to speak truly. As if to have no command of language must ensure a complete command of emotional sincerity. As if, as journalists and novelists would have me believe, to write without artifice is to write honestly. But language is artifice. The human being is artificial. None of us is Rousseau Man, that noble savage, honest and untrained. Better then to acknowledge that what we are is what we have been taught, that done, at least it will be possible to choose our own teacher. I know I am made up of other people’s say so, veins of tradition, a particular kind of education, borrowed methods that have disguised themselves as personal habits. I know that what I am is quite the opposite of an individual. But if the parrot is to speak, let him be taught by a singing master. Parrot may not learn to sing but he will know what singing is. That is why I have tried to hide myself among the best; music, pictures, books, philosophy, theology, like Dante, my great teacher is dead. My alive friends privately consider me to be rather highbrow and stuffy, but we are all stuffed, stuffed with other people’s ideas parading as our own. Stuffed with the idiocies of the daily paper and twenty-four-hour television.
Winterson goes so far as to indict modern medicine: a central symbol of the novel is a state-of-the-art cancer hospital being erected in a poor district of London. Cancer serves for Winterson as a symbol of bourgeois emotional repression and material superfluity, and its expensive treatment as another means for the middle classes to make and spend its money. (You could light London with the power generated by Susan Sontag as she spins in her grave.)
This Romantic assault on capitalist modernity, which is neither left (too concerned about art and spirituality, too tragic in worldview) nor right (too sympathetic to the poor and the colonized, too hostile to custom and religion), is a venerable tradition in British letters, encompassing Blake, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Woolf, Lawrence, and Eliot (if not, indeed, Shakespeare) before Winterson. And Winterson is easily able to reconcile her feminism and queer liberationism with this radically reactionary aesthetic because, in the person of Sappho, she persuasively identifies the artistic tradition itself, the supposedly stultifying canon, with queerness and the feminine. Winterson’s polemic, in Handel’s voice, against the type of vernacular feminism that now identified with Lean In is timely:
It’s our fault, men like me I mean, we’ve spent so long trumpeting the importance of all that we do that women believe in it and want to do it themselves. Look at me, I’m a very wealthy man, at the top of my profession, and I’m running away like a schoolboy because I can’t sit at my desk even for another day. I know that everything I am and everything I stand for is worthless. How to tell her that?
While I have my qualms about aspects of this worldview—and sometimes Winterson’s personae go too far (“Better to be a beggar on the Ganges than broken on the gilded wheel of the West,” says Sappho, without, I suspect, having consulted such a beggar)—I am more sympathetic to it than not, for better or worse. The question for literary criticism, though, is, “How didactic can a novel get before readers have a right to protest?” This novel was not very well-received when it was first published in 1994. Its reception seems to have been marred by a spuriously personal venom in the British press, but even in America, reviews were mixed to hostile. William H. Prichard:
“Art & Lies,” while it abandons novelistic constraints Ms. Winterson evidently feels are repressive, is saturated with echoes of Shakespeare and Blake and Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot (especially from “Four Quartets”). By contrast, Ms. Winterson’s own efforts don’t fare so well. “My belly was an unplowed field. Weeds had grown over my pubic hair. I was a nun among nettles,” Picasso declares; Sappho exceeds her in visionary extravagance: “I am the petals double-borne, white points of love. I am the closed white hand that opens under the sun of you.” “Shall I call your nipples hautboys? Shall I hide myself in the ombre of your throat?” Sappho asks rapturously, not staying for our reply. […] Ms. Winterson’s prolonged and steady infusions of poetry into her novel turn the medium gaseous.
And even Rikki Ducornet (“even” because she has many of the same virtues and vices as Winterson):
…a book that has opened with motion and light and a clear ringing becomes within a few pages gravity bound with the author’s good intentions–one must always be wary of good intentions. Just as do children, books suffer from pedantry, and “Art and Lies,” wanting to cover all the issues of our age, from ecological devastation, rampant corruption, dysfunctional families, homophobia, abortion, incest and more begins to preach. So that although the book’s structure is mutable and porous, it manages to be both opaque and tedious, and this from a writer of great capacity whose custom it is to juggle with fire.
This is all fair enough, even Pritchard’s political complaint about the book’s ideological excesses (Winterson’s portrayal of Picasso’s father and brother make Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” look like a masterpiece of subtlety). Sappho’s section, in particular, is full of the breathless prose-poetry that made me dislike Written on the Body. (Say what you will about Winterson’s high style, though, this is a novel you can learn new words from: retiary, orphrey, epurate, aurum, and more.)
When Winterson writes about Handel and Picasso, though, her prose becomes inventive and precise. It takes a true and a bold narrative gift to imagine the novel’s final section, in which we revisit with Handel his childhood romance with an older Cardinal who castrated him. This long and disturbing passage will have conservatives, feminists, and many if not most others hurling the book across the room, because Winterson, in her nostalgia for the aesthetic past, tells the terrible story without moral judgment; its outlandishness becomes plausible, its outrageousness delicate, as Winterson submerges herself and us in true otherness—not the fashionable otherness of commercial multiculturalism, in which self and other shop together, but the true otherness that even the most open-minded will want to denounce as mere barbarism. And maybe it is. When Handel’s family finds out what has been going on and decisively ends his relationship with the Cardinal, the novel shockingly invites us to wonder, “Which cut did the harm? His or theirs?” What is worse—the mutilations of art and sex or the mutilations of a society hostile both to art and sex? That is a real question, a question you could spend your whole life trying to answer, and not a rhetorical one—we should all want novels that deal with genuinely intractable and tragic quandaries rather than giving easy answers in the name of right-thinking.
Another novel published around the same time in the U.K. was similarly experimental and similarly ill-received: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. Ishiguro’s novel is as bold as Winterson’s, and as complicatedly involved with the modernist tradition (though Ishiguro’s agon is with Dostoevsky and Kafka, whereas Winterson’s is with Woolf and Eliot). But The Unconsoled, as befits its title, totally undermines any Romantic ambition for the artist to redeem society. Ishiguro’s artist cannot even redeem himself—but for all that, the novel says, art is worthwhile, a deep and private pleasure. These are two novels to read together, in dialogue with each other. They also illustrate the importance of going back to work that has been too hastily dismissed. When the fog of the present lifts in the future, the supposed masterpieces of the moment may be revealed as flimsy cardboard, while some of those books derogated by their first readers will stand out as figures of depth and substance.
We should look past the vagaries of Winterson’s reputation and even the datedness of this novel’s packaging—the cover of the edition I read looks (charmingly) like a 1990s cover for an alternative CD—and read this enchanting, disquieting, and exasperating novel. Not all of its risks are rewarded, but they wouldn’t be risks if they were.