BOOK REVIEW / Words are not the only art: Jeanette Winterson's novels have courageously put lesbians centre- stage. But, beyond the dazzling prose, what is she actually on about?

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JEANETTE WINTERSON's sixth book, Art and Lies, takes place in the only real world its author believes fiction should evoke, that of language itself, of words on the page. Story and plot seem to have vanished; character is replaced by consciousness; narrative, such as it is, consists of strings of poetic prose, singing voices plaited together, at first sounding solo and then as a trio. Art and Lies signals not just its obsession with words but its own cleverness. It comes sprinkled with quotations in Latin, German and Italian, displays an implicit understanding of Greek and a familiarity with the great works of the European canon from the Odyssey onwards, inviting us to place Winterson at the end of a long line of famous men.

Set in an eternal post-modernist present, refusing traditional notions of time, space and history, this is Winterson's most ambitious work, a riposte, perhaps, to those churlish critics who deemed the preceding novel, Written on the Body, not quite up to scratch. It even comes decorated with some pages of music, as a tailpiece: the Trio from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, presumably to remind us that our three narrators, Handel, Picasso and Sappho, none quite as you'd expect them to be, blend into and out of each other, shift shape and gender at their author's whim, come harmoniously together. (The fourth, the Bawd, contributes adds a short wind section, or fart.)

The book is characterised, like all Winterson's work, by a mixture of beautiful writing, shaped line by line into word sculptures, and the kind of moral/political denunciation of the crasser aspects of modern life that has helped her be seen as a prophet of the late 20th century. Here's a paradox: Winterson's works of art (her term) constantly insist, in a healthy structuralist way, on the primacy of the text, the words on the page; yet her own image is of paramount importance. She has been skilfully marketed over the years, turned into an icon. A child prodigy, not just a writer of genius but also a guru who's glad to be gay, an androgynous messiah dispensing profound thoughts on modern life, true love, the role of art in contemporary culture. She breaks her own rule by having it both ways.

Winterson's achievement is impressive: fame and fortune at a young age; total escape from the categories in which women writers are so often pigeonholed - feminine or feminist or 'writes just like a man', those sidelining labels. Winterson, though writing in her first novel explicitly about lesbian desire, simultaneously distanced herself from

political, protesting lesbians. She suggested, right from the start, that her sexuality encouraged both her talent and her capacity to transcend ordinariness. She wasn't going to get trapped in that category of Otherness, meaning Worse. Just like many other lesbian writers, I should add, who wanted to be seen as Real Writers by a male-dominated establishment that was unable to appreciate transgressive female desire. The modernist lesbians of the Twenties and Thirties had to write in code, to some extent, and still have sometimes to be rescued from the lonely well of out-of-print. Jeanette Winterson asserted her desire to write of lesbianism and to be accepted by the literary establishment. That took courage. Lesbians, especially young ones, read and adore her. Heterosexuals are allowed myriad idols and role models. Why shouldn't gays have as many?

I can't help wondering if the energy necessary for reading this latest book doesn't have to come from outside what it actually offers. I had to force myself to stick with it, as it meandered between comments on love, life and sex in the modern world, occasional beautiful images, moral exhortations, scene-setting in cities of the mind. The pleasure of reading, of inventing and pursuing meaning, is only made possible by complete submission to the author's purpose, however rigorously concealed. Start skipping and dipping and you're lost in a maze of words refracting each other, crystalline fashion. This isn't poetry, however, where you don't necessarily look for meaning. It's prose, and it's hard not to long for Ariadne's connecting thread out of the labyrinth.

I salute Winterson's skill at word- turning and word-spinning, her

ability to mint shining images in a few golden lines, the exuberant self- confidence that lets her endlessly instruct and exhort the passive reader (she doesn't give a fig for the classic advice to writers, show: don't tell), the self-belief that allows her to write in exactly the way she wants to, with no concessions to readers whingeing for something a little more grounded, more earthed.

But. There is a but. In fact, several.

Question one. What is she actually on about in Art and Lies?

Question two. If, as Winterson claims, 'it is the duty of every generation of writers and artists to find fresh ways of expressing the habitual circumstances of the human condition', then what exactly is her contribution to date?

Question three. Is the emperor/ empress actually wearing any clothes? If he/she is not, doesn't that prove that Winterson is a master/ mistress of illusion? How tiresome, this inclusive language. Why not just call Winterson he and have done with it? Yet she on its own will hardly do, either, since Winterson writes in a way that tries to defy the binary oppositions on which our civilisation supposedly rests.

Let us go back to the beginning, to Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published in 1985 by the feminist house Pandora Press. In her 1991 introduction to the novel's reissue with Vintage (following her 'ethical decision' to leave Pandora when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch) Winterson helpfully explains to us that Oranges is special because it is

'an experimental novel: its interests are anti-linear. It offers a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one, it employs a very large vocabulary and a beguilingly straightforward syntax . . . Oranges is a threatening novel . . . a comforting novel.'

Winterson also emphasises how Oranges is universal. This is the quality a novel must have, the conventional wisdom goes, in order to be truly great:

'Superficially, it seems specific; an evangelical household, and a young girl whose world is overturned because she falls in love with another young girl. In fact, Oranges deals absolutely with emotions and confrontations that none of us can avoid. First love, loss, grief, rage and above all courage, these are the engines that drive the narrative through the peculiar confines of the story. Fiction needs its specifics, its anchors. It also needs to pass beyond them. It needs to be weighed down with characters we can touch and know, needs to fly right through them into a larger, universal space. This paradox makes work readable and durable, from its impossible tension, something harmonious is born.'

Yes and no. Oranges is successful precisely because it follows convention. It's not really written in the shape of a spiral, as Winterson claims elsewhere. Its chapters are named after successive books of the Old Testament. It takes the traditional coming-of-age novel and the traditional feminist confessional mode, subverts them by giving us a lesbian heroine whose version of truth (like the Bible's) may not be completely reliable, and mixes into a straightforward linear narrative some sideways digressions into myth, of the sort pioneered in the late Seventies by Sara Maitland and Emma Tennant.

Its great originality lies less in its supposed yoking of lesbian themes to universality than in its coupling of the coming-out-gay story with endearing wit and humour, snappy one-liners that mark the heroine's growing rebellion. Lesbian writing has not in the past crackled with jokes and ribaldry. Winterson helped haul lesbians out of the well of loneliness and put them centre- stage. Cleverly, she then began to use the lesbian condition (alienation in a patriarchal society) as a launch-pad towards the romantic notion of the artist as outsider. Whereas for a Seventies feminist it might have been enough to end with her heroine discovering her 'true' sexuality, for Winterson that's just the beginning. Lesbianism denotes the possession not just of sexual proclivities but of moral and political superiority. At the end of Oranges, the heroine has freed herself, with pain and struggle, from mother, home, family and religion. The Christian evangelism she has abandoned has mutated into a different sense of chosenness. She confronts the former lover from whom she was forcibly parted: 'I met her by accident during the second year that I was away from home; she was pushing a pram. If she had been serene to the point of bovine before, she was now almost vegetable . . . she started to discuss the weather and the roadworks and the soaring price of baby food.'

This contempt for domestic femininity is understandable, perhaps, given our culture's fear of homosexuality and vaunting of a God-given or biologically driven separation between the sexes. If lesbians are labelled monsters and perverts, as they were in the world Winterson's protagonist grew up in, then it's self- defence to refuse to accept the traditional woman's place. Perhaps that's why Winterson is so acceptable to her male readers. Not only is she keen on the eternal verities ascribed to the great male writers of the canon, but she articulates the anxieties about and contempt for femininity that characterises much modern writing by men.

Contempt may mask envy. If you read Winterson's work as an ambivalent, loitering search that circles around questions of identity and the self, explored through love and sex, then you start to notice her interesting struggle with the feminine, now lost and now found, now inside and now outside the self, now linked to the masculine, now cut off from it.

In The Passion, published in 1987, Winterson dramatised conflicts of androgyny and the shifting, relative quality of gender identity, in a carnival set in a Venice haunted by the ghosts of Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, as romantic, in its romping and cross-dressing, as anything Georgette Heyer ever dreamed up. It's a completely charming novel, with the intensity of a fairytale, the cool beauty of the unanalysed dream with its repression of messy feeling. It floats light as a bubble of Venetian glass, exalted, glittering.

It marks the start of Winterson's use of history as a theatre backdrop to psychic drama. The Napoleonic Wars, part of its ostensible subject, are bright, two-dimensional cartoon pictures. What matters is the brief relationship between Henri, chief chicken-cook to Napoleon's army, and the lovely adventuress Villanelle, with her mysterious webbed feet. They come together and part, play lesbian and homosexual and straight, part again. Villanelle is like a vision of the anima, idealised by Henri as impossibly beautiful and therefore unattainable. He ends up imprisoned in a phallic tower from which he refuses to escape, and Villanelle returns to the fluid freedom of her beloved canals and lagoons.

Sexing the Cherry (1989) repeated earlier motifs and themes, though this time the narrative hook was 17th-century London and voyages of discovery, the central metaphor for gender-bending was fruit-grafting and the quest for the elusive and mysterious feminine crystallised into the pursuit of a beautiful dancer. The discourse on love, mediated partly by excursions into myth and fairytale, is spoken mainly by the masculine voice. The feminine is an impossible dream that dissolves, at the book's end, into 'empty space . . . hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.'

In Written on the Body, which came out in 1992, Winterson apparently changed tack, setting her genderless narrator - a very modern lover, by turns boastful, adolescent, vulnerable, potent and insecure - in contemporary London. The deeper consistency with her earlier work was two-fold: the fairytale princess trapped in her tower-like house reappears, while Winterson's desire for universality and transcendence, linked to her evolving dislike of a narrative position bound up with a feminine-gendered one, made it quite logical for her not to tell us her protagonist's sex.

It's an interesting experiment, of the sort pioneered by Maureen Duffy in Love Child, but the erotic scenes are less believable and less sexy because they are partially disembodied, while the narrator simply sounds like a boyish girl, with the ardent navete of all Winterson's earlier narrators.

Some critics disliked the central part of the book, with its hommage to Monique Wittig's Le Corps Lesbien, where the narrator gets right inside the body of the beloved. But this is less grotesque or sadistic, as some claimed, than a satisfying metaphor for a lover's hunger to possess. It's associated with the heterosexual impulse, the leap back inside towards the paradise womb, but it makes sense in a lesbian context too - which is what I think Written on the Body offers us, while it asks: when I love the body of a woman, am I a man or woman or both, what is the difference between female and feminine, can I be both subject and object, both lover and artist?

These are the questions Winterson's oeuvre dramatises, questions born of the life of the psyche and imagination that then get mapped on to an entire cosmos, the whole of history, all the books ever written. They are questions that obsess every generation of young women.

Her power as a writer comes partly from the originality of her prose, partly from the storytelling of its unconscious level, where the anguish of adolescent female choices is battled out, and where the delight of adolescent female desires to be everything and give up nothing can be acted. Freud thought that women lacked penises, phallic power. Winterson's work, on one level, shows that the magic wands we seek, in a world hostile to female completeness and female creativity, have more to do with a capacity to imagine ourselves as big and bright as we want to be. In a world which frightens girls by equating femininity with constriction, self-sacrifice and lack of potency, who can blame a female hero for choosing transcendence, denial of solidarity with 'ordinary' women, the need to rise on golden wings of stern moral conviction and fly away?

Now that I've made up a story about the possible subject of Art and Lies, I shall go back and read it again. This time, I've got hold of a thread to guide me through the labyrinth.

'Art and Lies' is published this week by Jonathan Cape at pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)