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Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery.

Jeanette Winterson has attracted more than her share of media attention, less for her five novels than for her working-class childhood in a Lancashire mill town and her years as one of England's hottest young writers and London's most celebrated literary lesbian. Winterson seems to have decided the time has come to give the public what it wants: her autobiography, complete with details about her lineage and her love affairs. This autobiography comes not as "fiction masquerading as a memoir" (as she describes her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) but in ten essays on art, love, connection, language and literature.

Art Objects doesn't look like autobiography, to be sure, but that is part of the game. Winterson is like a magician who tells you exactly where to look while she performs her trick; if you pay attention, you'll see precisely what she's doing and enjoy it that much more. For Winterson the best autobiography is a "Trojan Horse" that allows the writer "to smuggle into [readers'] homes what they would normally kill at the gate." She delights in the final paragraph of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and reveals her own intentions when she cites it: "About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do? I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it." Just as Stein and Woolf made fiction out of memoir, so Winterson wants to make the critical essay into autobiography. Like Stein, she waits until the end to explain herself, but if you read these essays closely, you won't be surprised by the opening of the last of them: "To talk about my own work is difficult. If I must talk about it at all I would rather come at it sideways, through the work of writers I admire, through broader ideas about poetry and fiction and their place in the world." Because her "Whole self is bound up in [her] work with words," when Winterson writes about writing, she tells the reader the real story of her life; in these essays she shows us where she came from, what she believes, what she loves. The essays are always about her, about what makes her write and why she writes how and what she does. The title of the most explicitly autobiographical of the essays, "Art & Life," seems redundant.

Winterson is in love with books. The woman who grew up in a house where reading anything other than the Bible or the Army and Navy Stores catalogue was suspect now buys first editions with money she makes from her own books. First editions connect her to the people who wrote them and to the writing that has shaped hers. In the most engaging essay in Art Objects she describes some of her treasures: a copy of the Autobiography signed by both Gertrude and Alice. Signed copies of "Ash Wednesday" and A Room of One's OHM. A volume of Roger Fry's woodcuts, printed by the Woolfs and hand-stitched by Virginia. A copy of Lawrence's Pansies, found in an out-of-the-way bookshop and kept because she can't decide which Lawrence would dislike more: "to have mouldered so respectably in genteel Bath, or to have been rescued, cheap, by one of those ego-bound women" (i.e., lesbians) for whom he had such contempt. These are a writer's family heirlooms. This "living library" connects Winterson to her true "lineage": the Modernist writers who transformed English and American literature in the first decades of the twentieth century.

In love with books and consumed by language. If you've read the novels, you know Winterson's writing resonates with the cadences and language of the Bible, the fruits of that evangelical childhood that left her body "tattooed with Bible stories"; but her ideas about art and language are straight out of the twentieth century, courtesy of the Imagists, of Pound and Eliot, Stein and Woolf. The spirit of Eliot presides over this collection; her ideas about "lineage" grow out of his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and echoes of his poetry flash through her prose like the sound of laughter in the apple tree. Modernism was a "poet's revolution," and, like the Modernists, Winterson rejects the distinction between poetry and the novel. Everything they valued - "imagination, invention, density of language, wit, intensity, great delicacy ... play, pose and experiment" - can be found in her novels. Readers and critics who reject Modernist writing because it is too difficult, obscure or dry will be surprised by Winterson's arguments here. Art for her is a matter of love, ecstasy and rapture, and it is the intensity of feeling in the writing of Eliot and Woolf that moves her most. Anyone curious about Winterson as lover should read her on Woolf. Two of the ten essays are devoted to Woolf, and she dismisses critics who are more interested m analyzing the writer than reading the work. Writing about Orlando and The Waves, Winterson celebrates the terrifying "nearness" of Woolf's prose, reveling in the exactitude that allowed Woolf to find "a language for shells, bones and silence."

Winterson sees herself as the fulfillment of Woolf's vision in A Room of One's Own, of the rebirth of "the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister": "Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born." "That is where I am in history," concludes Winterson. You certainly can't accuse her of false modesty. She aligns herself with some of the heaviest hitters of this century, and sets out to boldly go where no one has gone before: "I do not write novels. The novel form is finished." (The statement makes me think of politicians who get elected to public office by promising they will do away with government and make themselves obsolete.)

You don't have to prepare for a world without novels to get along with these essays. You will have to put up with a certain amount of lecturing; Winterson can sound like a teacher telling eighth graders why they shouldn't listen to rock music while doing their homework. It's odd that someone whose novels can be so much fun to read (Oranges makes me laugh out loud, and I've had people sidle away from me on the bus as though I were a crazy person about to start singing or screaming) can make reading sound like such a chore. Art Objects is not always easy or pleasurable, but just when you grow weary of hearing her tell you what language is supposed to do, she just does it: "Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield."
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Author:Jewett, Kelleher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 12, 1996
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