Fitness guide for women

ART OBJECTS: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson, Cape pounds 9.99; Suddenly she's off again with her compulsive swank
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The Independent Culture
HOW one would like to like Jeanette Winterson: for her stubbornness, her total commitment, her sparkling intellect, her talent. But how hard it is when she has omitted to learn the basic playground lessons of likeability: don't be a swot, a snob, a whiner or a show-off. This collection of intertwining essays defends Modernism and Gertrude Stein; demands that we honour the imagination and the integrity of the artist; celebrates reading; frowns on the decadence of baths and central heating. But when, in the title essay, which documents her typically autodidactic quest to unlock the mysteries of visual art, Winterson makes a passionate plea in defence of "the artist", we suspect she really means "me, me, me".

Flashes of sly wit have an epigrammatic power: Roger Fry "gave us the term Post-Impressionist, without realising that the late twentieth-century would soon be entirely fenced in with posts". Virginia Woolf "smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband: lesbianism, cross-dressing, female power". On Joyce, Woolf, Conrad ("the Salieri of letters"), the "consummate bluffer" Dickens and the development of English literature she is acute and always interesting. Then suddenly she's off again with her compulsive swank: "The most important thing about Oranges [Are Not The Only Fruit] is not its wit nor its warmth, but its new way with words."

There's an abiding sourness about literary critics ("Journalism encourages haste...and haste is the enemy of art") and, more worryingly, readers: "The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks...will glance up, flick through...then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant." Winterson's pique is paradoxical for one so extravagantly praised. But nothing less than critical unanimity will do.

Several years ago, Winterson wrote a fitness guide for women. Its injunctions, which went, as far as I remember, drink real coffee, eat small amounts of very good chocolate and lift weights, are mirrored here by another practical self-improvement programme: why not flog the video and buy real art instead! "The Psychometry of Books" lists her mouth-watering collection of first editions: a Natalie Barney novel with signed dedication from the author to her lover, Romaine Brooks; a signed Jacob's Room; a copy of a literary magazine owned and annotated by T S Eliot. The next minute she's calling herself, without irony, a member of the proletariat. And the next, she's sneering at her mother's pathetic collection of parlour knick-knacks and "bought biscuits".

These meditations are woven from glittering stuff, but here and there grammatical slips flaw the fabric: lip-service as a verb, "longeurs", an ignorance of "whom", and the ubiquitous "outside of". Yet despite everything, this is a covetable volume: infuriating, stimulating, lovely to hold and look at, with a cover painting by Winterson's favourite painter, Massimo Rao. And at a price that makes the concept of waiting for the paperback redundant.

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