BOOK REVIEW / That obscure subject of desire: Jeanette Winterson latest narrator has no gender, no childhood and no history, writes Natasha Walter: Written on the body - Jeanette Winterson: Jonathan Cape, pounds 13.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH some energetic American intellectuals such as Camille Paglia (in Sexual Personae) or Robert Bly (in Iron John) are still desperately pushing the radical importance of sexual difference, androgyny is a definite feature of the present British zeitgeist. Rose Tremain's Sacred Country is a meticulous exploration of the life of a transsexual; Will Self has written his second novel about a women who spontaneously grows a penis; English director Sally Potter is filming the androgyne's classic, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, with Tilda Swinton as the hero/ine; and here comes Jeanette Winterson with the first novel to leave its narrator without a gender. By blurring gender lines artists might intend to explore other identifying marks of human personality so that sexuality, for instance, need not be masculine or feminine but prosaic, poetic, vulnerable, assured, dirty, domestic, violent, vanilla . . .

Or so we would hope. But what strikes you in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body is its perverse look at particularity. Winterson kicks off by insisting 'a precise emotion seeks a precise expression'. Yet she not only leaves out the specification of gender, but blurs all the other contours of her narrator's personality. The narrator has no childhood, no colour, no interests, no class and no post - except for a succession of lovers. Previous loved ones share in this lack of dimension, being characterised only by flimsy motifs - like Inge, who would only communicate with the narrator by pigeons; Judith, who can only achieve orgasm between two and five o'clock, and Frank, a giant with midget parents whom he used to carry about, one on each shoulder. There is not quite enough inventiveness in such traits for them to fuel our imaginations as fantasy, and not nearly enough specificity for novelistic conviction.

Our faceless narrator whisks through a highly banal plot: while living with a dull, bespectacled girl called Jacqueline s/he meets Louise, a married woman. Louise and Narrator fall in love, break up their relationships and briefly live together, until Louise's doctor husband intervenes to tell Narrator that Louise has cancer. Then, entirely unconvincingly, Narrator leaves Louise in her husband's capable hands and spends the rest of the novel working as a waiter in some unspeakable provincial outpost, longing for her.

Narratives of pure desire tend to have difficulties in sustaining our interest in the object, the receptacle of the love. Louise suffers tenfold from this problem: she is a vessel of tedious perfection, always seen in a flattering light. Winterson describes her in foamy lyricism - 'Her flesh has the moonlit shade of a silver birch,' she mushes, 'creamy apart from your hair your red hair that flanks you either side' - and in blank generalisations: 'She cooked, she decorated, she was clever and above all she was beautiful,' but never in the marked detail and dynamics of a true novelist's style. Their relationship is flawless, unsexy in its total fulfilment: 'Nothing mattered to us . . . A treasure had fallen into our hands and the treasure was each other,' and so static that the break in their relationship is just that, a break, a snap, not a process or denouement. Clearly Winterson felt that to write a love story she needed a couple of obstructions, and illness and marriage are the classic ones, but they have rarely been plonked into a tale with such artificial heavy-handedness as they are here. When Louise's husband suddenly enters stage left, saying, 'I think there's something you should know', one hears Winterson selling her whole vision, slight as it is, downmarket. If one compares these lurches from goo to cliche with the densely woven obsessions of the great love narratives of our time, from Proust's or Nabokov's classics to recent experiments like Norman Rush's Mating or Neil Bartlett's Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, one feels an aching sense of emptiness and missed opportunities. There is undoubtedly room for an obsessive lesbian or androgynous love story in our literature, but this is not it.

Throughout, Winterson's style is less controlled than it has ever been. In an impressive middle section, a paean of praise to Louise's body, she gives up on the 'plot' that seems to bore her as much as it does us, and briefly recaptures the earthy poetic swagger that was so impressive in The Passion and Sexing the Cherry: 'My lover is cocked and ready to fire. She has the scent of her prey on her . . .' Elsewhere, Winterson dumps her grandiose style bathetically in the midst of mundane activity - as when Louise gives her a pear to eat, and 'at each bite burst war and passion'. Sounds uncomfortable. In a misplaced attempt to intensify the tone, she litters the text with far too many nagging rhetorical questions, 'Who's kidding whom?' s/he asks. 'What am I to do? Why is the measure of love loss? Better then to ask no questions?' More irritating than that is the jerky moral tone: behind the narrator's veneer of wit and concern lurks an unattractive viciousness. The voice slips from general superiority to bitchery - 'I wish you didn't smell of the zoo,' s/he bays to Jacqueline - to cruelty - 'I should have smoothed things down, parried, instead I slapped her across the face . . .' And even worse is the narrator's unstoppable posing and self-aggrandisement, with a slightly ridiculous stress on numbers of orgasms given, passers-by shocked, husbands abandoned. 'I was lethal as a lover,' s/he struts.

Yet the disappointment of Written on the Body should not lead us to damn Winterson. She has already produced a worse clanger, Boating for Beginners, closely followed by that exquisite offering, The Passion. Perhaps we expect too much from her because of past achievements and an inflated reputation for being, as the Guardian put it, 'the most highly esteemed writer of her generation'. Winterson has been overrated, for good reason, because she steps into yawning gaps in the British literary world - being a truly serious young women writer; a lesbian writer who weaves her sexuality seamlessly into her work; a writer from a working-class background who has taken on the literary establishment and won commercially and critically; and an English writer who has managed to step beyond the New York-London-Provence circuit, exploring provincial Britain and fantasy lands with equal aplomb.

In Written on The Body she has, unfortunately, abandoned this latter strength, and we spend our time doing naughty things in the British Library or London Zoo; being rather Posy Simmonds with our woody soaps, authentic patchwork quilts and fresh parmesan; and looking down on people like Louise's Jewish husband who 'would be much happier in a 1930s mock Tudor', and, when abandoned, gets 'the sort of hall table interior designers buy for Arab clients'. Moving her vision to this kind of environment makes Winterson's imaginative world seem suddenly smaller: whimsical rather then experimental; snobbish rather than individualistic. A niche in London's literary establishment certainly has not helped her writing, but she might bounce back with something rather more strenuous and surprise us again.

In this extract from Written on the Body, the narrator recalls a former lover:

Odd that marriage, a public display and free to all, gives way to that most secret of liaisons, an adulterous affair.

I had a lover once, her name was Bathsheba. She was a happily married woman. I began to feel as though we were crewing a submarine. We couldn't tell our friends, at least she couldn't tell hers because they were his too. I couldn't tell mine because she asked me not to do so. We sank lower and lower in our love-lined lead-lined coffin. Telling the truth, she said, was a luxury we could not afford and so lying became a virtue, an economy we had to practise. Telling the truth was hurtful and so lying became a good deed. One day I said, 'I'm going to tell him myself.' This was after two years, two years where I thought that she must leave eventually eventually, eventually. The word she used was 'monstrous'. Monstrous to tell him. Monstrous. I thought of Caliban chained to his pitted rock. 'The red plague rid you for learning me your language.'

Later, when I was freed from her world of double meanings and masonic signs I did turn thief. I had never stolen from her, she had spread her wares on a blanket and asked me to choose. (There was a price but in brackets.) When we were over, I wanted my letters back. My copyright she said but her property. She had said the same about my body. Perhaps it was wrong to climb into her lumber-room and take back the last of myself. They were easy to find, stuffed into a large padded bag, bearing the message on an Oxfam label that they were to be returned to me in the event of her death. A nice touch; he would no doubt have read them but then she would not have been there to take the consequences. And would I have read them? Probably. A nice touch.

I took them into the garden and burned them one by one and I thought how easy it is too destroy the past and how difficult to forget it.

Did I say this has happened to me again and again? You will think I have been constantly in and out of married women's lumber-rooms. I have a head for heights it's true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.

(Photograph omitted)