Raging Against Obscurity

Two recent books give new spins on the artist’s life: both writers had raging youths but one got famous and one didn’t. Jeanette Winterson and Eileen Myles, tough, smart, ambitious women who escaped ...
Eileen Myles

Two recent books give new spins on the artist’s life: both writers had raging youths but one got famous and one didn’t. Jeanette Winterson and Eileen Myles, tough, smart, ambitious women who escaped the hard-laboring worlds into which they were born, grapple with what it means to seek literary fame. Myles’s Inferno is a grand and comic example of the decadent, urban, blasphemous Catholic style created by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, one that Myles shares with Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Patti Smith. Her Inferno also reminds one of chronicles of middle-aged men’s sexual crises by authors like Hanif Kureishi, Saul Bellow, and Martin Amis. Winterson’s new book is as nerdy as Myles’s is cool. She turns to T. S. Eliot as a source of spiritual sustenance, and she is a great believer in the power of the canon to direct the life of a poor northerner towards the treasures of the beautiful British south. Winterson has had a breathtaking career: best-selling novels, international awards, and, since 2006, she’s even been an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.). Myles has had, well, let’s say that she’s lived a very different version of the writer’s life.

In 1964, Maurice Beebe wrote that there are two kinds of novels of artistic development (the genre’s technical name is the “Künstlerroman”): the “ivory towers” and the “sacred founts.” The “ivory towers” are by writers (like Winterson) who have pursued their vocation to the exclusion of all else, taking a step back from life to be chroniclers of it. The “sacred founts” are by the bohemians (like Myles), the hard livers, the Method actors of the writing world. They immerse themselves fully in experience, and trust that their art will be the richer for it. Of the sacred founts, only the very lucky make it into the pantheon. Usually, being a “sacred fount” is a ticket to obscurity or, at best, subcultural fame, while it’s the ivory tower crowd we end up hearing from.

Jeanette Winterson wouldn’t like being put in the ivory tower. She comes from a very different world than most members of the British literary elite, and she has always seen herself as the valedictorian of the school of hard knocks. Still, in her new book, we cannot help but notice that as lovers (and mothers) come and go, no personal devastation can distract her for long from her devoted climb from the steps of the Accrington Public Library to the cloistered halls of Oxford to the shelves of nearly every bookstore in the English-speaking world.

Once upon a time, a time known as the eighties, Jeanette Winterson was the wunderkind of British fiction. With the rhetorical flair she developed as a Pentecostal preacher and voracious teenage reader, she broke into the fictional domain ruled by the privileged likes of Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. While they were airy and allusive, fiddling while the empire wrote back, she was gritty and lyrical, tough and funny. By dogged determination, she gained the same education they had. In her early twenties she was re-writing fairy tales and grail legends to fit her own life: that of a girl given up for adoption by a teenage mother in Manchester in 1962, and taken in by a larger-than-life evangelical depressive named Constance Winterson. This story made its first appearance in Winterson’s debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985).

Though full of realistic detail, it’s also now clear that Oranges is a classic of British postmodernism. Rich and complex in its symbolism, endearing in its imaginative leaps and in its suggestive, flexible use of mythology, Oranges even includes a three-page section (“Deuteronomy”) that reads like a manifesto for postmodern storytelling. Since that radiant debut, Winterson’s career has been turbulent, comprising some remarkable highs (Written on the Body, The Passion, and Sexing the Cherry), as well as some quiet years that left her most ardent fans wondering when she would write again.

Her latest book, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, is her first major work since The Stone Gods in 2007; in the interim, she has been writing children’s fiction. She seems to have written Why Be Happy for genuinely personal reasons. Yet whether by Wintersonian luck or savvy, it also happens to be an immensely marketable venture: a comeback tour that riffs on her greatest hit, revisiting the terrain of Oranges a quarter century later.

Winterson became a bully, terrorizing her classmates and teachers alike, and when she grew up, “I used to hit my girlfriends until I realized it was not acceptable.”

Why Be Happy is divided into two parts. Winterson first re-tells her early years up to her time at Oxford, and next she shares the story of her recent search for the mother who gave her up for adoption when she was six weeks old. But “Mrs. Winterson,” the tyrant known as “my Mother” in Oranges, remains the key figure. Reflecting on her from a greater distance of years allows Winterson to fix some medical and social coordinates to the sublimities of her dominating personality: a thyroid disorder, depression, unresolved grief over the death of her own mother, poverty, and shattered expectations. Jeanettes, it turns out, are not the only Wintersons: Constance has a narrative, too. The abuse her adopted daughter suffered at her hands emerges more graphically in the memoir: she was locked in a coalhole, left on the doorstep overnight, beaten by her father at her mother’s command. The cycle of abuse was predictable: she became a bully, terrorizing her classmates and teachers alike, and when she grew up, “I used to hit my girlfriends until I realized it was not acceptable.”

Such unflatteringly honest revelations make this, Winterson’s first foray into the genre of memoir, an admirably intimate and credible effort. But beyond the return to Oranges, the stealth pre-text for Why Be Happy might be a much, much earlier novel. As a kid, like Thomas Hardy’s desperate hero in Jude the Obscure, Winterson climbs the hills of her town and contemplates her future, just as Jude gazes to Christminster (Hardy’s fictional version of Oxford). And when Winterson finally arrives in the university city for an admissions interview, she is rebuffed like Jude because she doesn’t know how to act or speak. Winterson experiences the common feeling of first-generation students at elite universities: “I knew I was not being myself there, but I didn’t know how to be myself there.” She doesn’t get in. But she is no Jude, and she keeps coming.

A few weeks after the failed interview, she and her girlfriend get back in her wonky car and make the long drive to Oxford. This time, she buttonholes an English tutor at St. Catherine’s and talks her way in with a hard-luck story of self-education in “English Literature in Prose A-Z.” Once admitted, she must suffer the clueless tweedy privilege of dons (“you are the working class experiment,” she is told upon arrival), but like so many outsiders in the history of the university, she finds the wider intellectual energy of Oxford infectious.

Winterson’s trajectory was exceptional, but in Why Be Happy we also get a broad picture of 1970s northern British life, as she describes the ways in which her experiences were typical of her time and place. Winterson does some general history writing here, with nods to Engels and suffragettes and the labor history of the north. At times, this just feels dutiful, especially the trek through Manchester history to establish the political guts of the place. But her historicizing makes a more profound impact when it comes in the form of personal memories: hungry children gathered around a dog biscuit factory hoping for scraps at the end of the day, or “Blackout Thursdays,” when all of the families in the one-up, one-down houses along her street ran out of food and fuel. We hear, in more detail than in Oranges, about the severe privation that defined her childhood.

A compelling addition to Winterson’s family history is the elaboration of her relationship with her father, a D-Day vet who, with no bullets in his gun, killed six men with a bayonet. He was close to illiterate, a “road mender” who worked almost constantly. It is through the figure of her father and the peace she makes with him at the end of his life that we best see Winterson’s loyalty and craving to build family ties in spite of her adoptive mother’s determination to drive her away.

As history, Why Be Happy is most compelling as a chronicle of the Thatcher eighties. Winterson locates the origins of her politics in her working-class experiences (“we were the mass at the factory gates”), but as a working-class woman, northern Labor politics don’t fully speak to her ambitions, which helps explain why she fell for the Thatcher revolution.

In a gesture that may come to characterize memoirs of this period (it also appears in Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?), Winterson gives an honest account of her Conservative vote. She felt common ground with Thatcher as a woman who’d had to work, who likewise fought her way to Oxbridge, and whose rhetoric of thrift and autonomy seemed both practical and true. She reflects on how she, though born of the class with the most to lose from Thatcherism (her birth father was a miner), came to vote Tory in 1979: “I had no respect for family life. I had no home. I had rage and courage. I was smart. I was emotionally disconnected. I didn’t understand gender politics.” She had to learn, like much of Britain, what Thatcher’s ruthlessness would mean.

Though the great theme of Winterson’s life has been love for women, usually unavailable women, it was always, she suggests, because they replicated the unavailability of both of her mothers.

Winterson is insightful about her place in British history, but the heart of the story here is a personal one, the pursuit of her birth mother. Their reunion has surprising consequences for her sense of identity. Since Winterson is one of the most famous lesbians in the world, long-time readers of her work may be surprised by her cavalier comments about her sexuality. She might, she confides, have, just like her birth mother, married a man (or four of them, as Winterson learns she did), were it not for the early losses and displacements of her adoption. She doesn’t want to make her sexuality seem more fated than it was: things could have gone differently. Though the great theme of her life has been love for women, usually unavailable women, it was always, she suggests, because they replicated the unavailability of both of her mothers. Perhaps psychologist Susie Orbach being Winterson’s girlfriend has brought about this most “therapized” of Winterson’s books.

Winterson’s obscurity ended when she was twenty-five, with the publication of Oranges. For Eileen Myles, the American author of indie classics like Chelsea Girls (1994) and Cool For You (2000), not to mention a substantial body of poetry, obscurity has been a chronic condition. Myles has been slogging away in the trenches of poetry, performance art, and fiction for three decades, and she tackles her stubborn unfamousness head-on in Inferno. She has passionate fans, but still no major publisher. Her credibility is high in the GLBTQ world (she won a Lambda Literary Award for Inferno), but a wider audience has, to date, escaped her. Inferno preserves the beatnik, confessional charm of her earlier writings while adding a new element—an enthusiastic embrace of D-list abjection.

Inferno is the wry, self-deprecating account of a weathered East Village hipster. Myles begins her version of a Künstlerroman with her working-class Boston Catholic childhood, poking fun at the idols of this world. “I am a Kennedy” she laughs in her favorite of her own works, “An American Poem.” The piece is a satire of Kennedyhood’s deadpan entitlements, told in the voice of a dry, poshly educated Kennedy woman who merges into the voice of the poet herself, Eileen Myles, a working-class, Catholic, queer poet. While her Kennedy doppelgänger seeks the pleasures of obscurity, Myles tries just the opposite, brashly scrambling for recognition. As a narrator Myles comes across as equal parts humble, down-to-earth, and class-conscious, but above all, funny.

The details of her childhood are American Joyce: all nuns and roughhousing. Accounts of poverty are sparing, though we learn that her father (an alcoholic mailman) died young, and that being with her family “was like living with cruel cats.” She is proud of her escape to the University of Massachusetts, proud to be on the other side of the town/gown rivalry. For Myles, college is not just a way out of blue-collar labor, it is also an escape from the responsibilities of being a woman, a respite in which she doesn’t have to decide between “poet or whore.” Working long hours in bars and in other hard jobs, Myles establishes her independence in New York City, shoulders her way into the St. Mark’s Poetry crowd, and gradually and circumlocutiously comes out.

Winterson’s Why Be Happy gives the impression that it went to print before the ink was dry, whereas Myles’s memoir, though breezy in its beatnik tone, is comprehensive and formally structured. If Winterson is a high romantic, Myles is a low one; “cool” is her highest accolade. For her, poetry isn’t something you do alone in your room, it’s “watching, watching the scene.” Dropping out of a graduate program at Queen’s College and pocketing her stipend, she embarks on a mythic search for the perfect canvas bag, one to carry her poems in.

Of course, there’s no money in poetry, there’s only the bohemian currency of being a starving artist and an endless stream of grant-writing and shifting from one friend or patron’s country home to another.

But perfect bag or no, her experiences on the poetry circuit do not match her ambition: she feels scorned at a reading in Princeton, gives performances in the shadow of Patti Smith and Kathy Acker (“I am the backup singer to Kathy Acker’s fucking tattoos,” she realizes at a reading in Germany). “Of our bunch I had become the famous poet,” she tries to brag at one point, but she never seems as sure of this as she is of her failure to win awards, to attract high-profile commercial publishers, or to find the kind of fame that she’s always craved. Of course, there’s no money in poetry, she keeps reminding us—there’s only the bohemian currency of being a starving artist and an endless stream of grant-writing and shifting from one friend or patron’s country home to another. Nestled in this Inferno, in fact, is a kind of purgatorio—grant-writing—and in the middle of the book we find Myles’s parodic grant proposal for the book itself, submitted to the fictional “Ferdinand Foundation.”

The book’s conceit—a personal version of Dante’s Inferno—is a bit unwieldy. Perhaps in her use of the “mythic method,” her mix of the ancient and the everyday, Myles had Ulysses in mind. But the Inferno metaphor becomes belabored on at least one occasion: Myles walks through a version of hell, to the heart of an active Hawaiian volcano, and is stranded there overnight. This set piece, which reads like a college application essay, narrates an experience that meant more to the writer than she is able to make it mean to the reader. Otherwise, Dante’s structure serves her well. If grant application is Dantean purgatory, and if her own struggles with alcoholism, loneliness, and creative doubt are the road through hell, then heaven—the title of the last section of the book—is found between a woman’s legs.

Sex is a subject that is circled around, mentioned, and then shied away from until the very end of the book. Myles develops crushes on women, but sleeps her way through a 1970s-era quantity of men. Her heterosexual experiences sound like Orson Welles’s description of the two emotions one feels on a plane: boredom and terror. Fears of pregnancy make sex with men always fraught: “He wanted to fuck me and I knew for sure in that moment that I would become pregnant,” she writes, with classic Catholic-girl conditioning. Pregnancy and artistic success are inversely correlated, and she knows it. Once she starts having sex with women, the problems are different. Her heart is on the line now, in the way that her body was before.

Myles is painfully aware that her love life keeps coming down to incestuous attachment dramas, but she typically handles these insights with grim, passing wit rather than Wintersonian earnestness: “Rose reminded me of my mother. Is that too fucked up to say.” Myles’s sexual identity is complex: at one point she imagines herself as a Madonna holding a little boy, and the little boy is herself. This male identification is not acknowledged by the feminist scene she inhabits in the early 1980s, and so she frequently feels as estranged from feminist and lesbian culture as she does from the broader poetry world. It is an estrangement that continues to define her experience of life. She expresses sadness that much of her best work has ephemerally passed away. Myles’s melancholy couldn’t be much further away from the individualistic, inner-light-guided inscriptions of Winterson, who has firmly joined the “W” section in the Anglophone world’s libraries and bookstores.

While Winterson’s memoir finds a shadow text in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Myles’s book has a pedigree in Joycean sojourning. This time, Leopold Bloom is a wandering “dyke with half a brain,” driven to distraction by women, always uncertain about their fidelity and about her own prowess. She knows and loves the streets, and like Stephen Dedalus, she wrestles with the contradictions of Catholic sexuality, its absurdities, repressions, and bodily violations. Like Joyce, she draws from Catholic theology a set of metaphors for thinking through her desire, an erotic Mariology full of graphic and joyous and unglamorized explorations of women’s bodies. She finds creative inspiration in the ordinary—in the details of pubs and in the pleasures of doing nothing and in her love for her dog. She doesn’t, however, end with Molly Bloom’s “yes.”

For Myles, the more reliable and realistic succor against depression is the company of friends. She closes with a vision of 1970s party-going with her friend Tom, whose social exuberance compensated for her own anxiety, and who taught her a new definition of “grace”—the right time to leave the party, the right time to end the book: “just finish your line and get the hell out of the room.” On that humble and unheroic note, she ends—paying homage to her artistic community and the privilege of a life spent raging against obscurity. icon

Featured image: Eileen Myles, October 13, 2010. Photograph by kellywritershouse/ Flickr