Though Not Wholly Successful, Jeanette Winterson's Writing Bravely Continues The Modernist Experiment.
By Randall Holdridge
The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson (Knopf). Cloth, $22.
FOLLOWING THE GREAT success of her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, winner of the Whitbread Prize for best first novel in 1985, Jeanette Winterson published a number of stories in various magazines. The World and Other Places is a gathering of these efforts, though unfortunately they are neither chronologically arranged nor individually dated. If they were, they might provide a sketchy documentation of the impression that through five subsequent novels a very talented writer is sinking into self-deluded incoherence.
As disappointment has mounted from book to book, and as her audience correspondingly shrinks, Winterson has aggressively defended herself as the greatest living writer in English. Her critics, she says, are motivated by envy. And while the claim is dubious at best, it is true that she's attempting something very different and difficult. Although realism has reasserted itself trenchantly in English-language fiction since 1940, Winterson goes on with the modernist experiment, in the neo-classical strain of Proust and Woolf.
Proust wrote, "Truth--and life too--can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other within a metaphor, liberated from the contingencies of time." Increasingly, Winterson strives to express abstract ideas by metaphor alone, too often without grounding her metaphors in common or relevant sensations. It is steadily becoming harder to know what she hopes to suggest.
In this her style resembles the poems of John Donne and other metaphysical poets; appropriately, Winterson's novels have often revealed her fondness for the 17th century. The concentric circling of images, the wordplay and the mysterious riddling of Donne's writing are richly rewarding only when--and if--a poem finally cracks open to the understanding. Otherwise, a reader wallows in a boggy pit of obscurity lighted fitfully by occasional flashes which come from the words only. Most of the "stories" (if that's what they are) in The World and Other Places offer that kind of isolated glimmering, and very little else.
This is too bad, because the crags and jags of coherence jutting out of the pathless swamp of her luxuriant prose offer evidence that Winterson has a program of ideas to offer along with her technical virtuosity. She is hostile to scientism, materialism, social conformity, formal religion, urbanization and mechanization. She is contemptuous of attitudes which marginalize lesbianism by explaining or eroticizing it. She is happily anti-intellectual, intuitive and sensual. Perhaps this goes some distance in explaining her ever more ephemeral style, but it doesn't excuse it. For comparison, even a sincere appreciation of Gertrude Stein's writing does not equal wanting or needing to read very much of such peculiar genius. Similarly, if Orlando were all that Woolf had written, one would not rank her so highly.
Yet, it's the responsibility of a good reader to take an author on her merits; and who could fail to take pleasure in this, from "Disappearance II": "April the first. Opening Day. This garden is an orchestra of flowers; strings of wild clematis, tulip flutes, a timpani of lily pads on the skin of the pond, and the raised horns of the daffodils blaring light. Spring is so noisy."
And if these metaphors seem like timid clichés, consider this feminist Shandyism from the same story: "My mother, as healthy and clean a creature as you could wish for, developed an eating disorder and preferred to take her meals in the stable with the horses. Eventually, to help her, my father let her have her own stall and she slept on straw and ate out of a leather bucket. He had a little saddle made for her so that we children could ride on her back. He called her filly and beauty and treated her as kindly as he could but she had a wild thing's nature and what should have been soft was hoof."
Of course, in addition to hints of Sterne, in such a passage Winterson suggests a lineage from Swift, and The World and Other Places is chock-full of such erudite cross-referential delights, worthy of her Oxford tutors in English.
Winterson is at her best in this collection when she stitches such fireworks of technique and learning together on a rhetorical thread. The stories "The Green Man" and "Newton" are examples.
In "The Green Man," the narrator is a suburban husband and father who takes his wife and daughter to the annual gypsy fair on the village green. In an accidental collision with a gypsy woman selling bracelets he falls on his knees to the grass, staining his trousers, which draws a reproach from his wife. He is shamed: "I let my eyes travel downwards and there were two green splotches neatly capping my white ducks. Yes I know we have only just bought these trousers. These trousers were expensive. These trousers are blatant in their whiteness. Sassy as a virgin courting a stain. These are bachelor trousers not gelded chinos."
Later he muses, "When I come home caught in the cobwebs of my days, my wife has been planning our next holiday or working out the finance for a new car. I am still building the extension she designed two years ago. I have to fit it in with my job and the garden and time for my daughter who loves me. My wife strides us on into prosperity and fulfillment and I shuffle behind clutching the bills and a tool box...We were nothing and she has coaxed out the grit in me and held me to my job. Why do I wish we were young again and she would hold me in her arms?" The narrator is lured into a gypsy caravan by a woman who promises she can clean his trousers if only he will remove them. He awakes later to buy for his daughter the pony she covets, but which he can not afford.
"Newton" is the story of Tom, who would like to be left in the solitude of his dirty house to read Camus and eat alone, keeping his own timetable, protecting his privacy, and pursuing his own interests. However, all his neighbors in the town of Newton are classical physicists who have Tom's best interests at heart, and they mean to socialize him and get him on a schedule. Ungrateful wretch, he walks away. " 'But now', says Tom, 'the hills are ripe and the water leaps at my throat when I shave.' " Other strong stories in The World and Other Places are "The 24-Hour Dog" and "Atlantic Crossing."
However, Winterson often leaves the reader adrift. No matter how accustomed we are to fables, myths and other symbolic schemata, metaphor needs ultimately to tie itself back to recognizable moorings.
In fiction, this is most frequently story. E.M. Forster called story "the lowest and simplest of literary organisms." The great mission of modernist fiction has been to free fiction from story, this primitive, unevolved literary convention. Among the notable examples are Joyce, Stein, Woolf, Faulkner and the young Hemingway, each of whom proposed and executed coherent alternatives to narrative. Winterson, seeking an original alternative, appears more and more to have lost her way.
Those who cheer the movement's liberalizing long-term project should support Winterson sympathetically--and that means reading this ill-begotten book. She would do better to drop the defensive posturing and consider more carefully Plato's allegory of the cave.
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