One of the privileges of maturity and distinction in the world of letters is the power to bestow accolades on younger writers. Such gestures are disinterested only in a materialistic sense. They are always interventions in literary politics, attempts to influence literary taste, rituals of succession, and they carry an intriguing element of risk for both parties. When Gore Vidal declares that the twenty-nine-year-old British novelist Jeanette Winterson is “the most interesting young writer I have read in twenty years”—words that her publishers predictably quote at every opportunity—one sits up and takes notice because he is laying his own literary judgment as well as her merit on the line.
Likewise, and for much the same reasons, such patronage could be a source of anxiety as well as encouragement for Jeanette Winterson. But one feels sure that the responsibility will not oppress her. The overwhelming impression of her work is one of remarkable self-confidence, and she evidently thrives on risk. The heroine of her latest novel is a croupier who sees life very much in terms of gambling:
Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.
We gamble. Some do it at the gaming table, some do not.
You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.
The Passion is Jeanette Winterson’s third novel, and about all it has in common with its two predecessors is a fondness for short declarative sentences and one-line paragraphs. Nevertheless, to respond to Mr. Vidal’s assessment of her talent it is necessary to consider her work to date as a whole. The first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, published in England in 1985 and in the US last year, was an episodic autobiographical novel of childhood and adolescence, familiar in structure but refreshingly distinctive in style and in the social milieu with which it deals. The heroine-narrator (called, with disarming transparency, Jeanette) is brought up in a working-class industrial community in the north of England by a dominating mother who belongs to a strict Pentecostal sect. The difficulties of growing up in a subculture so ideologically and linguistically out of touch with secular modern life are touchingly and amusingly rendered in the account of the heroine’s early school days.
I wanted to please [the teacher], and trembling with anticipation I started my essay…. “This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”
The teacher nodded and smiled.
“It was very hot, and Auntie Betty, whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”
The teacher began to look a bit worried, but the class perked up.
“But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”
“Is your mother a nurse?” asked teacher, with quiet sympathy.
“No, she just heals the sick.”
Teacher frowned. “Well carry on then.”
The strongest character in the book is the mercurial mother, who is in a constant temper with the irredeemably secular world around her and cherishes an ambition for her daughter to be a missionary. Jeanette acquiesces meekly enough in this plan until, after puberty, she discovers that she is attracted to other girls rather than to boys and that what her mother refers to darkly as “Unnatural Passions” is not artificial additives in candies. A series of lesbian escapades provoke punishment, rebellion, and, finally, flight.
The comic realism of Oranges is interrupted, from time to time, by fragments of invented fairy tales that serve as allegories for the heroine’s progress toward liberation and self-knowledge. Jeanette Winterson’s second novel, Boating for Beginners, published in the same year, breaks more radically with realism. Although it won no prizes and has not been published in America it gave me more simple pleasure than the other two, which did, and have. It is an extremely funny travesty of the Book of Genesis, which transfers the story of Noah to our own commercialized and media-ridden times:
Noah was an ordinary man, bored and fat, running a thriving little pleasure boat company called Boating for Beginners. Gaudily painted cabin cruisers took droves of babbling tourists up and down the Tigris and Euphrates, sightseeing…. Noah worked hard and was not pleased to see the fruits of his labour slipping away into dubious community projects. That was the trouble with Nineveh: it had become a Socialist state full of immigrants, steel bands and Black Forest Gateau…. He reached for his heart pills; it was really getting a bit much. Suddenly a huge hand poked out of the sky, holding a leaflet. Trembling, Noah took it. It was yellow with black letters and it said, “I AM THAT I AM, YAWEH THE UNPRONOUNCEABLE.”
There is a heroine called Gloria whose arguments with her mother (who speaks sententiously of “dropping a stitch in the jumper of life”) recall the tussles between Jeanette and her mother in the earlier novel. Gloria goes to work for Noah, colecting animals for his “travelling stage epic about the world and how the Unpronounceable made it,” written in collaboration with the romantic novelist Bunny Mix. Although the comedy is often blasphemous, it is based on affection for as well as familiarity with the Bible. There is a serious and eloquent passage in the authorial voice which is worth quoting at length:
The Bible writers didn’t care that they were bunching together sequences some of which were historical, some preposterous, and some downright manipulative. Faithful recording was not their business; faith was. They set it out in order to create a certain effect and did it so well that we’re still arguing about it…. Believers are dangerous and mad and may even destroy the world in a different deluge if they deem it necessary to keep the faith. They are fanatics, and reasonable people will never deal with their excesses until reasonable people find a countermyth in themselves and learn to fight fire with fire. It’s very potent, that Punch and Judy show book. The Romantics didn’t need it because they found their own fire, but every other quasi-revolt has gone back to it, because when the heart revolts it wants outrageous things that cannot possibly be factual. Robes and incense and larger-than-life and miracles and heroes. It’s all there, it’s heart-food, and the more we deprive ourselves of colours and folly, the more attractive that now legitimate folly will become.
This could be read as some kind of trailer or manifesto for The Passion, in which Jeanette Winterson has gone back to a famous episode in history—the rise and fall of Napoleon—and treated it freely, inventively, and obliquely, in order to produce “heart-food” for herself and her readers. It is a short novel, divided into four sections. The first, entitled “The Emperor,” is narrated by a young boy-soldier, Henri, who becomes Napoleon’s personal waiter during the preparations to invade England in 1804. It begins:
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.
Odd to be so governed by an appetite.
It was my first commission. I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Joséphine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.
Whether Napoleon really ate nothing but chicken I don’t know, but it is a measure of Jeanette Winterson’s authority as a storyteller that one does not question it. She writes with astonishing poise and directness. Without any of the usual, laboriously researched detail of the orthodox historical novel, she places the reader convincingly in the tented kitchen, the sordid brothel, the seasick-making flat-bottomed barges that never made it to England.
The second section, “The Queen of Spades,” seems wholly unrelated to the first. It is narrated by a young woman called Villanelle, the posthumous daughter of a Venetian boatman. Because her mother bungled the funeral rites, she is born with webbed feet. She works for a fat, repulsive butcher by day, and at the Casino by night, wearing male clothing partly for self-protection and partly because she enjoys cross-dressing. This leads her into an intrigue with a beautiful woman with whom she enjoys a brief, passionate affair while the latter’s husband is away on business. She watches their loving reunion through a window, and rows sadly away into the lagoon. The section ends:
The ancestors cry from about the water and in St. Mark’s the organ begins. In between freezing and melting. In between love and despair. In between fear and sex, passion is. My oars lie flat on the water. It is New Year’s Day, 1805.
The next section, “The Zero Winter,” returns us to Henri’s narrative and the rigors of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. The cruelty and the cold are powerfully evoked:
The Russians didn’t even bother to fight the Grand Armée in any serious way, they kept on marching, burning villages behind them, leaving nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep. They marched into winter and we followed them. Into the Russian winter in our summer overcoats. Into the snow in our glued-together boots. When our horses died of the cold we slit their bellies and slept with our feet inside the guts. One man’s horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn’t free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn’t stop screaming.
Evenutally even Henri’s loyalty to Napoleon cracks. With his friend Patrick, a defrocked Irish priest whose left eye has telescopic properties, and a vivandière (military prostitute) who turns up unexpectedly in a fur coat with pockets full of chicken joints, he deserts and walks back through the frozen wastes—to Venice. For the vivandière is Villanelle. It is revealed that she married the gross butcher (a character who crossed Henri’s path in Boulogne), ran away from him and was recaptured, lost a wager for her freedom, and was sold into Napoleon’s army as a prostitute. Henri falls in love with her and is puzzled why she never takes off her boots, even in bed, until, back in Venice, she gets them both out of a tight corner by walking on the water on her webbed feet. Henri ends up, like his fallen idol Napoleon, imprisoned on a rock, apparently content to sacrifice his freedom to secure Villanelle’s.
In The Passion, Jeanette Winterson’s bent for fantasy, which showed itself in the interpolated fairy tales of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the Monty Pythonesque surrealism of Boating for Beginners, manifests itself as full-blown magic realism; webbed feet, telescopic eyes, a gold locket miraculously preserved in an icicle in the heat of a Venetian summer, and the heart that Villanelle literally left behind her, in the house of her Venetian lover. In an astonishing scene, Henri burgles the house in an effort to recover it for her.
The first door I opened had nothing in it but a harpsichord.
The second had fifteen stained-glass windows.
The third had no windows and on the floor, side by side, were two coffins, their lids open, white silk inside.
And so on, until in the last room
a noise stopped me. A noise not like the sound of mice or beetles. A regular steady noise, like a heartbeat…. On my hands and knees I crawled under one of the clothes rails and found a silk shift wrapped round an indigo jar. The jar was throbbing. I did not dare to unstopper it. I did not dare to check this valuable, fabulous thing and I carried it, still in the shift, down the last two floors and out into the empty night.
Villanelle was hunched in the boat staring at the water…. I heard her uncork the jar and a sound like gas escaping. Then she began to make terrible swallowing and choking noises and only my fear kept me sitting at the other end of the boat, perhaps hearing her die.
This is as good as Poe: it dares you to laugh and stares you down. But, like Poe, Jeanette Winterson sometimes seems a slapdash, lazy, and derivative writer. That powerful description of the soldier with his feet encased in the frozen corpse of his horse is spoiled by the hackneyed spine-chilling formula, “He wouldn’t stop screaming.” The short, declarative paragraphs do not always earn by the profundity of their meaning the lavish white space that surrounds them on the page:
But darkness and death are not the same.
The one is temporary, the other is not.
Fragments of modern poetry, like the last line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” are anachronistically put into the mouths of the characters with no discernible reason except to contribute a spurious touch of class to the discourse:
In our dreams we sometimes struggle from the oceans of desire up Jacob’s ladder to that orderly place. Then human voices wake us and we drown.
In that interesting passage on the Bible in Boating for Beginners, quoted earlier, Jeanette Winterson observes that the Romantics freed themselves from the influence of the Bible by creating their own myths, and in The Passion she has continued her own flight from a repressive Christian upbringing by embracing the Romantic tradition of storytelling, the tradition of Poe, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë. Whereas the realist tradition reflects back to us a familiar world subtly defamiliarized, and thus made more luminous or comprehensible or meaningful than it was before, the Romantic tradition deals with the unfamiliar, transgresses known limits, and transports the reader into new imaginative territory. There is a certain stylistic price to be paid for this adventurousness, and a certain danger to be faced. Marie Corelli belongs to the Romantic tradition, too. The Romantic novelist tends to be an intuitive, hit-or-miss writer, too impatient to search for le mot juste or test the ring of every sentence, like Flaubert or Joyce, and lacking in the ironical self-consciousness that saves a writer from bathos and pretentiousness. We know from her first two novels that Jeanette Winterson is not lacking in a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd, but these qualities are greatly attenuated in The Passion, and one must hope that she does not renounce them altogether in pursuit of romantic high seriousness. In other respects The Passion represents a remarkable advance in boldness and invention, compared to her previous novels, and suggests that Mr. Vidal’s assessment of her ability is, though hyperbolically expressed, fundamentally sound.
September 29, 1988