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Authors: Jeanette Winterson

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Art & Lies

BOOK: Art & Lies
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Acclaim for
JEANETTE WINTERSON’S
ART & LIES

 

“A rare treat: an opportunity to experience the pure pleasure of reading for reading’s sake. So innovative are her approaches to language and form in this book, I feel as if I had to exercise new muscles to read it.
Art and Lies
is the most exhilarating book I’ve ever read.”

—Sandy Leonard,
Boston Globe

 

“A beautiful, challenging novel.… Winterson’s poetic language explores how art and sexuality shape consciousness.”

—USA Today

 

“A series of intense, artful musings that are exhilarating and visionary.… Unsettling yet strangely satisfying.”

—Newsday

 

“Like a female Prometheus unbound, Winterson leaps into the realm of high-octane prose-poetry, reminiscent of Shelley’s lyrical drama.
Art and Lies
is saturated with echoes of Shakespeare and Blake and Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot.”

—The New York Times Book Review

 

“Ambitious and intriguing.… Displays the idiosyncratic artistry you expect from the creator of splendid fictions.… A meditation on art, eros, and politics.”

—Out

 

Books by
JEANETTE WINTERSON

 

FICTION

 

The PowerBook

 

The World and Other Places: Stories

 

Gut Symmetries

 

Art & Lies

 

Written on the Body

 

Sexing the Cherry

 

The Passion

 

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

 

NONFICTION
Art Objects

 

Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959, grew up in Lancashire and now lives outside London.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
won the 1985 Whitbread Award for First Novel. Her novel
The Passion
won the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; for
Sexing the Cherry
, she received the 1989 E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Written on the Body
, published in 1992, has been translated into sixteen languages.

for Peggy Reynolds with love

 

My thanks are due to Don and Ruth Rendell whose hospitality gave me the space to work.
To Philippa Brewster and Frances Coady, and to Caroline Michel and Rachel Cugnoni who arranged things.
Thanks for their advice to Angela Leighton,
Harriet Marland and James Marland,
Caroline Bloch,
and especially to Dr Anna Wilson.

 

T
HE NATURE OF A WORK OF ART
IS TO BE NOT A PART, NOR YET
A COPY OF THE REAL WORLD
(AS WE COMMONLY UNDERSTAND THAT PHRASE),
BUT A WORLD IN ITSELF,
INDEPENDENT, COMPLETE, AUTONOMOUS;
AND TO POSSESS IT FULLY
YOU MUST ENTER THAT WORLD,
CONFORM TO ITS LAWS,
AND IGNORE FOR THE TIME THE BELIEFS,
AIMS, AND PARTICULAR CONDITIONS
WHICH BELONG TO YOU
IN THE OTHER WORLD OF REALITY
.

 

(OXFORD LECTURES ON POETRY:
PROFESSOR BRADLEY: 1901
)

 

Contents

 

Handel

Picasso

SAPPHO

Picasso

Handel

SAPPHO

Picasso

Handel

Handel

 

F
ROM A DISTANCE
only the light is visible, a speeding gleaming horizontal angel, trumpet out on a hard bend. The note bells. The note bells the beauty of the stretching train that pulls the light in a long gold thread. It catches in the wheels, it flashes on the doors, that open and close, that open and close, in commuter rhythm.

On the overcoats and briefcases, brooches and sighs, the light snags in rough-cut stones that stay unpolished. The man is busy, he hasn’t time to see the light that burns his clothes and illuminates his face, the light pouring down his shoulders with biblical zeal. His book is a plate of glass.

I was not the first one to find the book. There were notes in the margins, stains on the pages, a rose pressed between leaves 186 and 187. Cautiously I sniffed it. La Mortola. There was a map of The Vatican, a telephone number scribbled down the blade of a sword, a letter, unopened. A feather had been used as a bookmark or perhaps the book had been used as a feather store. There was a drawing of an ugly man, face like a target, nose like a bull’s-eye, and, on the corresponding page, a quick pencil sketch of a beautiful woman, the flesh braced against the bone.

The pages were thick, more like napkins than paper, more like sheets than napkins, glazed yellow by time. The cut pages had tattered edges but not all of the pages had been cut. In spite of its past, this book had not been finished, but unfinished by whom? The reader or the writer?

The book had no cover. While sleeker volumes cowered inside their jackets, this one lifted its ragged spine to the sun, a winter sun of thin beams and few hours. A sun that sank red disc of hosannas.

I untied the waxy string and the book fell over my hands in folds of light. My hands shook under the weight of the light. Those heavy yellow squares saturated my palms and spilled down on to my trouser legs. My clothes were soaked in light. I felt like an apostle. I felt like a saint, not a dirty tired traveller on a dirty tired train. It was a trick, of course, a fluke of the weak sun magnified through the thick glass. And yet my heart leapt. In the moment of the moving pool my heart leapt. I put my hand on the book, it was warm, it must have lain in the sun. I laughed; a few lines of physics had been turned into a miracle. Or: A miracle has been turned into a few lines of physics?

I turned to see my own reflection in the black window …

300
BC.
The Ptolomies founded the great library at Alexandria.

400,000 volumes in vertiginous glory.

The Alexandrians employed climbing boys much in the same way as the Victorians employed sweeps. Unnamed bipeds, light as dust, gripping with swollen fingers and toes, the nooks and juts of sheer-faced walls.

To begin with, the shelves had been built around wide channels that easily allowed for a ladder, but, as the library expanded, the shelves contracted, until the ladders themselves splintered under the pressure of so much knowledge. Their rungs were driven into the sides of the shelves with such ferocity that all the end-books were speared in place for nine hundred years.

What was to be done? There were scribes and scholars, philosophers and kings, travellers and potentates, none of whom could now take down a book beyond the twentieth shelf. It soon became true that the only books of any interest were to be found above shelf twenty-one.

It was noticed that the marooned rungs still formed a crazy and precarious ascent between the dizzy miles of shelves. Who could climb them? Who would dare?

Every boy-slave in Alexandria was weighed. It was not enough to have limbs like threads, the unlucky few must have brains of vapour too. Each boy had to be a medium through which much must pass and yet nothing be retained.

At the start of the experiment, when a book was required, a boy would be sent up to get it. This could take as long as two weeks, and very often, the boy would fall down dead from hunger and exhaustion.

A cleverer system seemed to be to rack the boys at various levels around the library, so that they could form a human chain, and pass down any volume within a day or so.

Accordingly, the boys built themselves eyries in among the books, and were to be seen squatting and scowling at greater and greater heights around the library.

A contemporary of Pliny the Younger writes of them thus:

Fama vero de bybliotheca illa Phariaca, opulentissima et certe inter miracula mundi numeranda, siparis ventisque mercatoriis trans mare devecta; nihil tamen de voluminibus raris ac pretiosis, de membris scriptorum disiectis fractisque, de arcanis Aegyptiacis et occultis devotis, quas merces haud dubio sperarent nostri studiosi, renuntiabant nautae, sed potius aulam esse regiam atque ingentem, tecta ardua et cum solo divorum exaequata ut dei ipsi tamquam in xysto proprio vel solario ibi gestare possent; quibus in palatiis tecto tenus loculamenta esse exstructa et omnes disciplinas contineri, nec tamen intra manus studentium venire sublimitas causa. Maxime enim mirabantur tantam illam sublimitatem quantam nemo vel scalis vel artificiis machinarum evadere posset, nisi tantum turba innumera puerorum, quibus crura liciis tenuiora, quibus animus ceu fumus in auras commixtus, ut Maro noster, per quos denique multa transmittenda sed nihil retinendum. Illi enim circum bybliothecam in tabulatis semper in altiora surgentibus collocati, ratione propria quadam ac secreta inter se mandata permutare poterant et intra tam breve tempus unius diei quemlibet librum demittere.

There is no system that has not another system concealed within it. Soon the boys had tunnelled behind the huge shelves and thrown up a rookery of strange apartments where beds were books and chairs were books and dinner was eaten off books and all the stuffings, linings, sealings, floorings, openings and closings, were books. Books were put to every use to which a book can be put so long as it is never read.

‘And whilst a book is nothing to me but a box of dainty handkerchiefs to wipe myself against once off the pot,’ said Doll Sneerpiece, ‘I darken that gentleman’s merits if I call him anything less than a Walking Library.

‘Very Right. Very True.’ said her companion, Miss Mangle, who had lived so long beneath the bells of St Paul’s that she could hear nothing at all. Having an ordinary desire to appear both sociable and wise, she answered any address to her with the words ‘Very Right. Very True.’ In this way she retained a large circle of friends, none of whom guessed that their tolerant confidante was stone deaf.

‘And if I were to say that I would care to turn the pages of that gentleman one by one, and to run my fingers down his margins, and to decipher his smooth spine, and to go on my knees to enjoy his lower titles, and to upturn that one long volume that he keeps so secret to himself, what would you say?’

‘Very Right. Very True.’ said Miss Mangle.

‘You are a broad-minded woman and a proper friend,’ said the Doll. ‘I tell you, if my clothes were vellum, and my flesh, parchment, he would take me in both his hands, he would press me against his lips. Yet, when he sees my poor silks and lace, when he smells the passing of my perfumed body, what does he say? He says, “Madam, Madam, do you not yet repent?”’

‘Oh repent! repent! I do repent a thousand times. I repent that I was not born a book and comfortable in your library right now Sir, this very morning. Already perhaps you would have lifted me down and laid me out on your little table with a pot of coffee standing by.’

Doll Sneerpiece suddenly stoppered her flow, for the man of whom she spoke passed by the window.

‘It is his hat,’ she cried, ‘and his dear head beneath it.’ She rushed forward and flung her upper parts out of the frame so that her breasts took leave of her bodice.

‘Ruggiero!’ she cried, ‘Ruggiero!’ It was his fitted coat, his slender back, his emphatic leg.

‘Very Right. Very True.’ said Miss Mangle.

I shut the book against her cry. That was too purple and exotic for my taste. My tastes have always been austere. I prefer to be slightly cold, slightly hungry, to spend less on myself than I could, more on others than I should. I do not think of myself as a masochist, not even when I rise in the early morning dark to run my blue body through a mile of frost. Such habits, and a contemplative nature, have not fitted me for a world that knows neither restraint nor passion. The fatal combination of indulgence without feeling disgusts me. Strange to be both greedy and dead.

For myself, I prefer to hold my desires just out of reach of appetite, to keep myself honed and sharp. I want the keen edge of longing. It is so easy to be a brute and yet it has become rather fashionable.

Is that the consequence of leaving your body to science? Of assuming that another pill, another drug, another car, another pocket-sized home-movie station, a DNA transfer, or the complete freedom of choice that five hundred TV channels must bring, will make everything all right? Will soothe the nagging pain in the heart that the latest laser scan refuses to diagnose? The doctor’s surgery is full of men and women who do not know why they are unhappy.

‘Take this,’ says the Doctor, ‘you’ll soon feel better.’ They do feel better, because little by little, they cease to feel at all.

BOOK: Art & Lies
6.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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