The artist's nemesis

ART OBJECTS: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery Jeanette Winterson Cape pounds 9.99
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Just as there are people who are their own worst enemies, so there are books which are their own worst reviews. Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects is one such. No review of this collection of "essays on ecstasy and effrontery" could possibly be as damning as a verbatim reproduction, without editorial comment, of its 200 or so pages.

I have, however, been commissioned to write a review, and the first question, when so much is hideously wrong, is simply: where to begin? Winterson implicitly invites the reader to apply to her book the same evangelical fervour with which she herself has, she insistently assures us, always devoured literature and the language in which it's couched: "A link of commitment to pursue language, the one writing it, the one reading it, a shared belief in a serious endeavour". So, all right, let's take Art Objects seriously. But when I say seriously, I mean seriously. Let's subject it to precise textual study.

On page 8, there is a sentence which begins: "It may be that if you have as much difficulty with museums as I do, that the only way into the strange life of pictures . . .". Two "thats", one grammatically redundant.

On page 13: "A picture, a book, a piece of music, can remind me of feelings, thinkings, I did not even know I had forgot." "Forgot", note, not "forgotten".

On page 28, Winterson alludes to 19th-century "realism", qualifying the term with this parenthetical aside: "(not the Greek theory of nemesis)". Is it "mimesis" she's thinking of? And doesn't she know what "nemesis" means?

On page 40, she writes "Art for Art's sake, which was really the chant of Marinetti and the Futurists . . .". Can this unreconstructed aesthete be the same Marinetti who worshipped the tank and the aeroplane, who called for the Louvre to be razed to the ground?

On page 62: "We all know the story of Coleridge and the Man from Porlock." This is a bizarre error for a feminist to make, since the canonic reference is of course to a "Person from Porlock".

I could go on. In fact, I could go on and on. And none of it, alas, is nit-picking, as it might be with another book and another writer. For precision of language is Winterson's central theme, the notion that, in a great writer, "there is no fight between exactness and rapture". As it happens, the great writer in question is Virginia Woolf, the author's obvious model and the subject of two of the book's essays. Yet, while there can be no doubting Winterson's own rapturous response to Woolf's prose, where is the precision? Apart from the sort of howlers cited above, the essays are riddled with a cod-lyrical rhetoric that one thought had died with the Georgian poets. One example will have to suffice: "She [Woolf] was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream." Now what does that tell us about Orlando?

In another essay, on Gert-rude Stein, Winterson makes the unexceptional point that "when Stein re-ordered her own identity in the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas she was preferring poetic emotion to everyday experience", and that the complaints, by such as Matisse and Braque, that she had misrepresented the past, were absurd coming from painters who themselves had consciously distorted reality in order to generate art. And she makes the point. . . and she makes it. . . Fifteen pages to ram home an insight that could have been dispatched in two paragraphs.

There is, unfortunately, much more in the same vein, effusive and often syntactically insecure bromides on the concept of art as a transcendent force, which say absolutely nothing that hasn't been said before, and far better said. ("A good test of art is that it should continue to work on us long after contemporary interest in its ideas or even its subject matter." Shouldn't there be more to this sentence - a second verb, perhaps, of which "interest" would be the subject?) But it's not just that Winterson's discourse is so flagrantly second-hand, so helplessly stuck in the groove of turn-of-the-century belle- lettrisme, that makes her book all but unreadable. It's also because it's impossible to take seriously a writer for whom linguistic exactness is the cherished ideal, and who meanwhile uses language so sloppily - writing of Milton's "wilful cul-de-sacing", for example, or of "the eagerness with which the sentimental and the sensational was mopped up by [19th- century] readers" (was? were? mopped up? lap-ped up?). For the moment, at least, Winterson's love of words would appear to be unrequited.