Academic journal article Style

Expression in a Diffuse Landscape: Contexts for Jeanette Winterson's Lyricism

Academic journal article Style

Expression in a Diffuse Landscape: Contexts for Jeanette Winterson's Lyricism

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Jeanette Winterson writes against the overused expression, the dull image, the cliche. While something of a postmodernist (continually presenting alternative realities, fragmented or genderless bodies, and textual pastiches), at the same time she resists participating in what the postmodern era calls the "literature of exhaustion"; her writing exposes the richness of both language and experience. In defying formulae, seeking precise and unique expression, Winterson's language follows a plot of its own, only somewhat tenuously related to the proairetic narrative of events. She produces endlessly quotable passages of figuration, dazzling wordplay, poetic rhythm, and double entendres: "The cities of the interior are vast and do not lie on any map" (Passion 150); "This is the one place where everybody comes" (PowerBook 205); "He cried out of the heart of him, cried up all the lost days and mortal indecisions that he had thought were gone but were still stored in the skin and bone of him, a tank of pain, tapped" (Art & Lies 177); "Love cleaves through the mind's mathematics" (PowerBook 218). We might ask where to find this vast city of the interior in which an author can defy mathematics and wax lyrical about love--in an antilyrical age, where can poetic prose take root and grow?

Winterson presents herself as a writer struggling to enrich the language. In 1992, during an interview about Written on the Body, she said, "Few writers achieve their own form and open up new landscapes [...] I want to encourage language in all its complexity; that's what really excites me. Too often it is just sloppy and dirty" (Thomson). (1) Appropriately enough, then, when Winterson was asked to name her favorite writer working in English, she chose herself, because "No one working in the English language now comes close to my exuberance, my passion, my fidelity to words" (Pritchard 14). And when a London newspaper invited her to name their book of the year in 1992, she picked Written on the Body. However tongue-in-cheek her comments might be, she constructs herself as a zenith of stylistic achievement. (2)

Her achievement is a portrayal of fantastic possibility more than everyday (read: banal) reality regarding plot, setting, and mode of expression. In Written on the Body--artistically perhaps her most successful novel to date, and therefore the primary focus of this essay--the genderless narrator's love for Louise, the dazzling redhead, inspires such passages as this one, in which the lovers climb the stairs to Louise's bedroom: "It seemed that the house would not end, that the stairs in their twisting shape took us higher and out of the house altogether into an attic in a tower where birds beat against the windows and the sky was an offering" (51). The wonder here echoes some of what we find in The Passion, as when the gambler-boatwoman Villanelle describes her birth: "I was as impatient then as I am now and I forced my head out while the midwife was downstairs heating some milk. A fine head with a crop of red hair and a pair of eyes that made up for the sun's eclipse" (51). Both of these quotations contain elements of the fantastic: a stairway into the sky, a child with enough will and sell-knowledge to orchestrate her own birth) Readerly belief in the fantastic image, in the artistic conceit, is possible because of the spell Winterson weaves with words: extensive use of figuration, measured rhythm, and judicious alliteration, as well as some more casual momentary slips such as omitted commas. In a review of Art & Lies, William Pritchard notes that "there is, at any rate, a lot of 'poetry' in her prose" (14), thus intimating that her works belong to a genre more traditionally associated with figurative language and wordplay than novelistic narrative is. These techniques are most commonly associated with poetry, with the highly "literary," "fancy," and often "difficult" mode currently dubbed the lyrical. …

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