‘There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies’
This was my fifth book by Winterson. I absolutely loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Christmas Days made me all warm and fuzzy in that special time of year. Only to be slightly disappointed by Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. And then to be challenged, in a good way, by Art Objects. Essays On Ecstasy and Effrontery. This one seemed like a perfect choice. A book about Handel, Picasso, and Sappho fleeing London on the same train, drawn into the same book. What could be better?
Well, as it turns out a lot of things. And maybe it was the fault of the setting I read it in. the fifth week of my working from home and the third week of the official lockdown. I thought my mind would be ready for something a bit more challenging but maybe it wasn’t, or maybe the book is just bad. I still cannot make up my mind.
Handel and Picasso are not really Handel or Picasso. Handel is an ex-priest turned doctor, now fleeing the city in disgrace, carrying another mighty secret with him. Picasso is a young woman, painter, forbidden by her father to paint. She is shaped mostly by the years-long violent sexual abuse from her brother, happily ignored by the entire family for years. Sappho may indeed be Sappho, for her parts feel very ethereal like she is not a physical being, but a ghost of consciousness floating around events, able to impact them.
Each character owns a few chapters, they take their turns telling their story. What they also do is share a free flow of thoughts about anything and everything. Things like death, light, purpose of life, suffering, happiness, what makes for a worthy life etc. For about 80% of the time, their ruminations are barely understandable and possible to follow. You could ask why then did I struggle?
I asked myself the same question more than once. First of all, I hate not finishing books, what if they are redeemed towards the end (this one was not)? Secondly, it really is not that long, just over 200 pages. The third reason was the several passages that I found fascinating and very appealing. Because even if the book did not appeal to me, Winterson is still a master of language. She can make it into a surgical instrument at times.
It just feels like either there was not enough focus while writing the book, or she was trying to say too much. The countless ‘deep thoughts’ spill out with no particular connection, order or logic. While reading I moved from annoyance at the pretentious musings to awe at the best paragraphs. It is a very uneven book, and probably according to Winterson from Art Objects it would be the fault of my education and me not being open to new ways of storytelling. That may as well be, but I am not fully on board with this book. That said, I will share the passages that drew me in in another post.
Quotes from Art & Lies