BOOK REVIEW / Just time for one late score: 'Art and Lies' - Jeanette Winterson: Jonathan Cape, 14.99

Rebecca Gowers
Friday 24 June 1994 23:02 BST

JEANETTE Winterson takes as her structural model for this book the trio from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, reprinting the score at the end as if it were closing titles music. She has three main characters: Handel, a celibate priest and cancer specialist who performs mastectomies; Picasso, an artist and victim of repeated fraternal rape, who is now rejecting her family; and Sappho, who is, Winterson argues, as truly Sappho in this fantastical representation as in any other writing about her. The three have separate voices, but intertwining themes; and though there is little plot, they do all finally meet on a train.

The blurb on the jacket tells us that Art and Lies has 'musical power': 'its events, emotions, thoughts and moral forces are brought into collision and directed towards a single end that is linked to the unfamiliar beginning with satisfying inevitability'. This is an oddly limited definition of 'musical power', and in practice Winterson goes somewhat further, but it is true that the book's main strength lies in its gliding surface and broad movements.

Winterson wishes to demonstrate that what ignorance or prejudice may choose to define as dissonant - lesbianism, prostitution, mutilation, celibacy - will cease to seem dissonant if it is resolved into a coherent pattern. Her concerns with gender, imposed identity and voice, for example, come together with precision in the shape of a castrato. Her movement from one voice to another is also frequently deft, and includes pages from the book of a bawd, Doll Sneerpiece, which recur at intervals to provide a delightful and cogent sidelight on the more elevated troubles of the main characters. Sets of themes - marriage, fittingness, severed parts - fold neatly into one another, no matter how inherently jarring.

Winterson writes well enough, enough of the time, for the reader to be drawn into the flow of the book despite its unpredictable current, and there are certain moments where, as she would say, her writing takes wing: 'Outside, the graceful yellow fountains of the arc welder threw down the light into the oily pavement puddles. The light struck off the welder's metal boots in glowing chips. He wore his halo round his feet.' There are also, however, short rants about 'dead' people, and philosophical gobbets that leave one absolutely cold. Winterson takes old chestnuts - words / things, words / sex, the myth of progress - and minces them into meaningless particles - even the do / be problem, as if she has never heard of Frank Sinatra.

More arresting still are the intermittent passages of third rate writing. The book's self-declared 'shocking' beauty asks us to read it with the sort of attention usually reserved for poetry, but, irritatingly for all concerned, the reader is likely to stop and consider most closely the very places where the writing is weakest. Winterson's lyricism sometimes seems more than anything like an overwrought paraphrase of a poem by someone else. 'What contains me? Fear, laziness, the opinion of others, a morbid terror of death and too little joy in life. I am shuttered in at either end, a lid on my head, blocks under my feet. The stale self unrhythmed by art or nature.' If there is music here, it rings false.

Winterson argues for artificiality - art and lies both standing as analogues for 'fiction' - but she doesn't deliver what she promises as a reward, namely an uplifting sense that she has revealed truth within it. Musical transitions and borrowed or perpetuated strengths are essential to her style. She distorts and echoes anything from the Psalms to D H Lawrence; her characters change voice, gender and grammatical person; there are passages in foreign languages; a musical score to be read, and even stumping references to previous novels by Winterson herself. This makes for a potent soup, but hardly a potent argument, Bible-flavoured, with oil of obscurity, Shakespeare extracts and an infusion of ideas: we are meant to drink this down and find our souls on fire, but it is hard to swallow. Winterson, quoting AC Bradley, tells us that a work of art should be 'a world in itself'. The world she creates here is at once impassioned, airy and faintly deadening.

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