Traces of the old wonder not enough to keep aloft this futuristic craft
‘ THE first story in English may have seemed like a song,’’ according to Peter Ackroyd in Albion, his history of the British imagination. The eighth- century Anglo- Saxon Chronicle was musical and mystical, full of cadences that might have been taken from epic poetry.
And filled with wonders, which included ‘‘ a sign of the cross seen on the face of the moon’’ and ‘‘ dragons flying through the air’’. The English were susceptible to fantasy, suggested the 12th- century French cleric Nicholas of St Albans, because of the watery setting of their island: ‘‘ They think their dreams to be visions, and their visions to be divine.’’
When Jeanette Winterson burst on to the international literary scene in 1985 with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit , it was as if she was on a one- woman mission to unharness English storytelling from its 20th- century restraints and push it back to this ecstatic and divine tradition. Trained as a revivalist preacher in her teens, Winterson wrested the aphorisms of sermonising away from the Bible and transferred to literary prose the faith she had lost when the church refused to accept her coming out as a lesbian. Her autobiographical novel insisted, gloriously, on the power of writing to transform the world into a richer, more inclusive place.
The powerhouse of Winterson has always been the conceit, the improbable metaphor. No English writer has made such extravagant use of this device since the Jacobean poet John Donne ( himself an Anglican minister), who compared his love to a flea. Both writers use language not only as a mode of expression but as a blunt instrument of passion, a living embodiment of the way our belief in a higher power can break, blow and burn things into a different shape.
No wonder Winterson has so divided readers used to thinking of poetry and prose as opposites, and novels as realist reflections of the world. This is the thing about Winterson. You either love or hate her; or, rather, you choose to believe in her or not.
For many of us, beginning our reading lives in the 1980s, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry were revelations: a liberation from the greyflannel- suited novel. And yet for much of the ’ 90s Winterson seemed to lose this faith in the intense bond her writing forged with her readers, beginning instead to second- guess the way her novels would be read. There were still flashes of brilliance — the hymns to a sick lover’s body parts in Written on the Body , for example — but Winterson seemed to have abandoned the brilliant simplicity her conceits depended on for buoyancy. Abandoning her downtrodden narrators ( chicken cooks, dog women and other savants), she began in Gut Symmetries and Art and Lies to freight her novels with multiple narrators, overwrought commentaries on art and appeals to outside authorities such as Paracelsus. As an essayist she had an even more egregious tendency to hector from on high.
It is a relief, then, to see Winterson, in The Stone Gods , maintaining the equilibrium she seemed to find again in Lighthousekeeping . Gone are the show- offy riffs on music or astronomy. Instead, she returns to her own ecstatic originality in this story of a love affair between Billie Crusoe and Spike that stretches, like a supercharged Orlando , across millenniums and transcends the wreckage of several worlds.
In this eco- fable’s opening story, set in postnuclear London, we see the brilliant Winterson of old. Billie, an unwilling PR flunkey for the multinational company that now controls human fate, falls for Spike, the beautiful robosapiens who has been designed to make rational decisions for the planet.
Billie is also a clandestine organic farmer. Winterson’s description of her home pours forth with the thrilling incantatory force of ( yet another preacher) Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘‘ The burrows, tunnels, nests, tree- hollows, wasp- balls, drilled- out holes of the water voles, otter sticks, toad stones, mice riddling the drystone walls, badger sets, molehills, fox dens, rabbit warrens, stoats brown in summer, ermine in winter, clean as bullets through the bank . . .’’
This last patch of paradise is doomed; it turns out we have destroyed it before and will destroy it again. It seems that Orbus, the new planet destined for human exodus, to which Billie and Spike escape, is what the Earth once was; and what, after a catastrophic attempt to clear its dinosaurs, we may yet become. Billie and Spike part tragically, but meet again on Easter Island ( Billie is a shipwrecked sailor, Spike an islander) as the last tree falls. And again in a future that predates the novel’s beginning ( Spike is bodiless prototype, Billie her programmer).
Winterson folds each story into the next with the clear hope the scale of our potential global catastrophe will impress itself on us. But, unfortunately, she cannot resist the urge to polemicise, which, combined with the sheer silliness of her last story, brings her writing crashing back down to earth.
There is some of the old wonder here, but not — 20 years on from those first extraordinary novels — the divine resurrection of a mystical tradition of English writing that Winterson’s early work seemed to promise.
a Delia Falconer is the author of novels The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and The Service of Clouds.