THE VIRUS OF LOVE
At daggers with routine, Jeanette Winterson likes nothing as much as subverting novelistic forms. To whit The Powerbook, a fantasy romance where the virtual comes to the aid of the real.
The.Powerbook by Jeanette Winterson
Translated from the English by Suzanne V. Mayoux.
Editions de l'Olivier
254 pages ¤20
The sign is there, the white letters, which are flaking off in places, peeling away from a run-down old shop front: VERDE & CO is written on the now empty window. "It's right down in the City. The Roman London, Falstaff's London, Dickens' London", explains the narrator of The Powerbook, giving her address to the woman she loves. "Tell me the name of the place, the number", pleads her interlocutor. "VERDE. Ask for the old market. (...). You'll find it. It's an old house." All around it, glass buildings have pushed back the London of bygone days, the London of brickwork and sash windows. But, as if by chance, the avant-garde English novelist Jeanette Winterson has chosen the most decrepit building in the street. And it is in a delightfully shabby decor, right above a closed-down grocers that this successful author - also a controversial one, particularly with regard to the strength of her feminist stances - is talking about a work in which fiction is constantly haunted by autobiography. Small and slight, with a very ready smile, Jeanette Winterson has never drawn a line between her fiction and her personal experience, as the inclusion of her address in her most recent novel indicates.
"I like the collision between different realities", she says, as she prepares two mugs of Irish tea. "It's exciting at the level of the imagination, because it allows for an expansion of perspectives. For example, you are walking down a real street and you also in a street in your mind that hardly exists.
Curiously - and via a gradual process of adjustments - her oeuvre began with an autobiography, and then progressed to a mixed form in which numerous strands of fiction are woven around an autobiographical base. While **Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - her first book and the one that made her famous (it received the Whitbread First Novel Prize in 1985) - was a more or less faithful account of her childhood in a strictly Pentecostal family in the North of England, The Powerbook is a kind of fantasy permeated with autobiographical allusions.
(JWS NOTE _ That bit about ORANGES is bollocks).
It is the story of the blossoming love between two women, told against a background of "turqueries" and forays into computing.
The narrator being also a writer, her pursuit of the woman she loves is described through a variety of very different stories (Lancelot and Guinevere, George Mallory, the mountaineer, and the wonderful story of the rubbish-dump kid) and through the use of her computer. The chapters seem to lead us into an information technology treasure hunt or into a nightmare for hotline users: "Open the hard drive", "Empty Trash "New document" etc. So the book ends up as a kind of electronic sequel to the Thousand and One Nights, where the virtual comes to the rescue of a love that is threatened by reality. Although a little too prone to aphorisms and to a ping-pong style of dialogue, Jeanette Winterson displays great elegance in her choice of metaphors, the poetry of her descriptive passages (especially the wonderful account of a Frisbee game on a Capri piazza), and the unquestionable acuteness of her reflections on fiction.
What she most enjoys is mixing and matching in order to "create something new". "Nothing is just one thing at a time, the boundaries have come down during the twentieth century", she maintains. "And the people who criticise modernity, especially when it comes to the visual arts, are the people who feel angry that the boundaries are not being respected." Breaking out of all genre conventions, Jeanette Winterson inhabits a hybrid literary space that is arranged like a huge collage.
Inside it, the writer leads the reader through sequences that are presented as fortuitous inspirations ("I want to start with a tulip") and philosophical thoughts (about time, for example, or about the way in which the memory assembles different moments, from which it forms a single recollection). All this without ever departing from a language that is at one and the same time naked, precise and ironic. "I battle with language in order to split it from its established categories", she explains, "in order to find something that strong and contemporary.'
Contemporary: there's the crux. At the risk of seeming presumptuous, the author believes that "genuine artists" always end up attempting to change established forms. She believes that they inevitably "work against their age". In this context, the novel was always in trouble in the eyes of someone who claims to feel "uncomfortable" with the very word. "The term, the idea, they no longer have any use", she declares. Then, a moment later, "It meant something in the nineteenth century, the weaving of characters around a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The great novelists from that era did it wonderfully well, but now...". Having thus done away with the novel, Jeanette Winterson turns to fiction "per se", preferring "the mistakes of writers who dare to experiment" to the false triumphs of those who "reproduce the past out of laziness". At daggers with routine, fighting against the narrative comfort of established forms, Jeanette Winterson is on a mission to discover the excitement of newness. And at times she manages to transmit this excitement to her readers.
**Editions Des Femmes 2001.