Thursday, April 30, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different: Wahoolazuma!

One of the few pleasures of being young in the 1980s was the thrill that came from wandering into a comics shop when the new comics came out. In those pre-internet days, you had no idea what the hell you were going to find. Similarly, if you went to another city and found a comics store you’d never seen before, you had the chance not only to pick up back issues not available in your home town, but also to be exposed to a new selection of titles. This mattered, because in the heady days around the alt-comics explosion of the mid-80s, all kinds of oddities flourished. Most of these books were awful, some were good, one or two were excellent, and many were just plain weird. One thinks of George Alec Effinger’s Neil & Buzz in Time and Space, or Arn Saba’s Neil the Horse — I don’t know how to begin describing these things.

Even the popular books were almost self-consciously odd; I mean, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Really? And the more self-consciously artistically ambitious books were also made out of unexpected materials: Cerebus, combining parody of old Marvel Conan comics with the Marx Brothers and Canadian politics; or Love & Rockets, mixing magic realism and women’s wrestling and punk and Archie comics. But the point is, whatever the level of artistic or commercial success, you just had no idea what you’d find on a store’s shelves — you’d see some fifth-generation Elfquest knock-off beside a sensitive and realistic story of a young boy in the Depression wandering the country with a tramp calling himself the King of Spain, or a cheap comics bio of a heavy metal group beside a wise-ass story about Christ returning to earth to fight the world’s only super-hero, the Anti-Christ. I’m not saying the comics field was producing better material then than now, only a wilder mix of things; and, somehow, the fact that it was all contained within a single store — that comics specialty stores were the only place you’d find them, mixed in with Marvel and DC on the one hand and The Comics Journal on the other — gave this disparate collection of stuff a sense of unity, of cohesion.

It’s this latter point, I think, that distinguishes comics-as-they-were from the webcomics field of the moment, which is the closest area I can think of to something like the weirdness of the comics field of the 80s. There are a lot of different webcomics out there, covering a ridiculously wide range of genres; but without the store as a place where these things are all physically gathered together, the feel, to me, is much looser. Then again, it may be only that so far webcomics haven’t yet come up with an Alan Moore or a Love & Rockets; a creator or a work that hits the heights of artistic and formal ambition. At any rate, if such a person or creation exists, I’ve not heard of them yet. One assumes it’s only a matter of time.

But if the current era doesn’t have quite the same creative feel of the years past, it does have this going for it: masses of material, from that time and others, are coming back into print (which was certainly a characteristic of times gone by; classics weren’t easily available. Curiously, although this was obviously a hardship in many ways, in some ways it might actually have been useful — not everything hailed as a classic can survive a close look with older and wiser eyes). So this extended trip down memory lane is all by way of trying to begin talking about Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld, which is now being reprinted by Dark Horse, along with all-new material. 

Very roughly, it’s the story of a society of anthropomorphic beans living in a wonderland-like secondary world — simpler than Alice’s wonderland, the sense of the Beanworld as a place which operates by its own rules of logic and character is still vaguely similar. Much of the story of the comics had to do with various members of the Beanworld — its hero Mister Spook, or its artist Beanish, or its scientist Professor Garbanzo, for example — trying to solve some riddle of the Beanworld’s nature or exploring the world in some new direction. With, always, further riddles appearing once one was solved.

The Beanworld has its own logic, but it also has its own feel. It’s a little like what one thinks of as an underground comic, especially in its early issues; but it’s also gentler, Seussian, and more mythic. The first couple of issues, among the nine collected in the first reprint volume Wahoolazuma! (a cry of joy in the Beanworld), have a satirical tone which is immediately abandoned — for the better, as the book actually gets deeper and more involving without it.

Reading Tales of the Beanworld — now just Beanworld, in its new edition — is like nothing else I know. Not only like no other comics experience, but no other experience overall. It’s gentle, but also ominous, in the way a fairy tale is ominous. It’s vaguely like a computer game, as actions have consequences and the world is built on interlocking riddles; but it’s more organic than that, and the characters are stronger. But then again, those characters are archetypal, as in a folktale. But then on the other hand, the vocabulary and sometimes imagery is more modern than that.

So Beanworld is a mix of a lot of things, and the result is something wholly individual. Something compelling, too; it had been years since I’d read an issue of Beanworld — years since a new issue had been published — but everything came back as I read the collection, in a way that’s unusual with old comics. The thing sticks in the mind.

Some of that may just be due to Marder’s way with craft. Beanworld is in a lot of ways a simple book, literally suitable for readers of any ages, but the comics storytelling is very clever, notably in terms of the Marder plays with page layouts and panel transitions. It’s incredibly clear work, which is impressive given that Marder’s laying out the workings of a world pretty far removed from common experience.

In the end, perhaps the most impressive thing about Beanworld is the sense that it’s managed to find a way to do without conflict as a drive for narrative. It’s vaguely like a really good Hayao Miyazaki film, where the more you learn about what’s happening and why, the more you come to realise that apparent conflicts are simply reflections of a lack of understanding; that, in fact, things are unfolding as they should, and our own slow increase of awareness is itself a part of that unfolding process. At its best, this sort of story is involving, teaching us perhaps something about ourselves that can’t be got at in any other way. Beanworld is in that class of stories; it operates at an almost preconscious level. It bills itself as “A Most Peculiar Comic Book Experience”, and it is that. It’s also a valuable one, and one I’m glad to see back on shelves.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

ByattBlogging: A Provisional Conclusion

Any assessment of a living writer’s accomplishment must be at least in part provisional. Still, when dealing with a body of work like A.S. Byatt’s — eight novels, five short-story collections, and one book of paired novellas — it should be possible to make at least a few observations.

Certainly one can spot recurring motifs. Texts, interleaved into a main text; stories-inside-stories. A concern with women’s roles and the place of women in society over the past fifty years (a concern I have perhaps not highlighted enough in these posts).  Zoology, particularly in the later novels but also present in The Game, her second book (and it is interesting that the zoologist Simon Moffit, from that book, is mentioned towards the end of Byatt’s most recent novel as well). Fantasy, or fairy story, either as a form in itself or as a contrast to a realist work which contains the fantasy as a fiction. A concern with story and storytelling; with the nature of reality. A distrust of theory, and of facile attempts to explain the world. Scandinavia and Scandinavians; as characters, typically male, usually helpful or admirable. Quakers and Quakerism. A concern with the life of the spirit, a search for something resembling God, a modernist deity. A concern with character, and the form of the novel. A recurring interest in certain writers, including Proust, Tolkien, Tennyson, Milton, George Elliot, the Brontës. A concern with painting and visual art, especially Matisse, luxe, calme et volupté. The south of France as a place of light and of enlightenment. The university as a haven for the intellect, a model of reason and a vital element in society. Colours: red and white, green and gold, or else blue and white, gold and silver — linking characters and situations. Mythic images, especially females: the Medusa, Venus Anadyomene, Proserpina.

There’s a lot in there, but over the thousands of pages of Byatt’s books they become recognisable touchstones — enough to create a world, enough to populate it, enough to give it an identity without seeming enclosed. For all the list of motifs above, Byatt is still capable of being surprising; every new book seems to bring in some new concern, or else amplify an existing concern in a surprising way. Crucially, she develops her ideas, her themes, her images, in not only innovative but consistently intriguing ways. They’re like gears, in a sense; they interlock, turning as the pages go by to fit together in new configurations. 

This is quite necessary, I think, for Byatt’s is not primarily a narrative art. Her novels in particular are not hesitant about interrupting their narrative drive to give the gist of a character’s speech on a technical issue of biology or philosophy. They earn the title “novel of ideas”, but at the expense of the forward motion of story. This is much less the case with Byatt’s short fiction, which tends to be focussed on the tale and its telling. In a way, her novels are like her short fiction expanded with more character detail and digression — there is more in them, but more does not necessarily happen.

What makes them compelling, even vital, is not the ideas as such, though; it’s their expression. Byatt is attentive to words, their roots and their development. From this interest she has crafted a powerful style. It’s not based on intricate sentence structure; she rarely tries to dazzle the reader with page-long sentences. Instead, she has developed a language based around hard nouns and precise adjectives. Her narrative voice, her vocabulary, had a clarity to it that compels the reader’s attention. For me, an unfortunate side-effect is that she has not yet found a voice in the first-person (unless one counts the apparently-autobiographical short story “Sugar”) which reads as strongly as her third-person fiction.

Her character-work generally is above reproach. That she thinks about her characters in depth, and their relation to the world around them, is obvious. It’s something that’s been a constant since Shadow of the Sun, her first book. In that book, the story seemed to move fitfully between pages-long character analyses; since then, Byatt has become much better at working her character description into the unfolding tapestries of her stories. At the same time, her characters seem more prone to come alive, to do things that surprise themselves and the reader, and perhaps even the author. Most important, Byatt’s routinely capable of creating interesting, lively personalities who can carry a novel, or indeed several novels.

I’ve read that Byatt doesn’t like her four-book series — The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman — to be described as the Frederica Potter quartet. But it is Frederica who is the most vivid character in these books, the most alive and the most constant. She is what most clearly defines them for the reader; intelligent, strong-willed, highly sexual, unafraid, working through a society not always congenial to a woman who is any of these things much less all of them. In any event, these books stand out the most in Byatt’s bibliography to date; obviously her longest work when viewed as a unit, they also contain some of her best writing, and some of her most experimental. The last of them, at this moment, is her last major long work. They are, all in all, a good display of her characteristics; they are what she is, as a writer. With the quartet now finished, it will be fascinating to see where she goes from here; how will she change?

Paradoxically, despite a notable lack of jokes or obvious humour in her books, I think it’s possible to view Byatt as a comic novelist. There is a warmth to her writing, for all its ruthless clarity. There is bemusement and invention. There is a constancy of tone, in other words, which is engaging and generous. There’s an optimism about the human condition, married with a real concern about the effect of humans on the planet around them. Byatt is a writer with real concerns, then; but, primarily, she is an artist with a passion for language. It is this which makes her worth reading. Worth thinking about and writing about. She is a writer from whom it is capable to learn much, about language and imagery and structure; she is also a writer who it is interesting to follow across the course of her career. I don’t see any reason to expect that to change in the future.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

ByattBlogging 14: The Little Black Book of Stories

Byatt’s most recent collection of short fiction covers a wide range in its five tales. Not all of them are explicit fantasies, but all of them play with genre and with what is beyond the real. There’s also an element of darkness to them; hence, perhaps, the blackness of the book. 

“The Thing in the Forest” is the story of two girls, evacuated during the Second World War to a house in the country, from which they will be sent on to foster homes; so it begins like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The girls go exploring, and see a hideous monster in the forest. Life goes on. The girls join their foster families, get sent back to their homes, their fathers die and decades later their mothers follow. By this time one of the girls, Penny, has gone on to university and become a psychologist who works with autistic kids; the other, Primrose, has become a nanny to the kids in her community, a caregiver and tale-teller. The two women meet each other back in the country, back in the house to which they were evacuated (where they see a book identifying the monster they saw as a folkloric local dragon); later, first Primrose and then Penny investigate the forest for some sign that can explain the experience of their youth.

The key to this story seems to be the different paths the two women take in life, and then their different reactions to the woods. The point is to compare and contrast; Primrose is inspired as a writer, learning about languages and finding names, while Penny goes further, challenging the boundary of what is the real world and what belongs to the sphere of dreams. But it is Primrose who gets the last word, turning their experience into art, making dreams into language.

“Body Art” is superficially more realistic. A doctor, Becket, at a hospital, St. Pantaleone’s, meets a young art student at Christmas; she’s helping to decorate the wards. The story follows his interactions with her, and with Martha Sharpin, an art historian involved in the administration of the hospital on behalf of one of the institutions which fund it; the hospital has the materials of an artistic and anatomical collection in its basement. So this is another of Byatt’s stories which focus on visual art.

It also, as in her story “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, embroils art with the contrast between the active and contemplative life. Martha, unsurprisingly, is Martha; the student, Daisy, is the unexpected Mary — a botched abortion having left her supposedly unable to bear children, it is described as a “miracle” when she conceives Becket’s child (Becket, incidentally, is a lapsed Catholic, who at one point sees his ex-wife on television playing in — what else? — a Beckett play. It may be significant that he works at a place named for a Commedia character, two different kinds of absurdity; more likely, it’s a symptom of a clash between a godless cosmos and one with some sort of meaning to it). The title of the story nods to the use of art; art and body are united in a number of ways, from the hospital’s collection, to Daisy’s work, to Daisy’s body piercings, to a suggestion by another artist to make art from blown-up x-rays. The ending is surprisingly inconclusive, except in that Martha takes charge; she will be a part of the lives of Daisy and Beckett as they go forward. 

“Stone Woman” is remarkably straightforward; after the death of her mother and an unspecified abdominal surgery, a woman, Ines, slowly metamorphoses into stone. She meets an Icelandic sculptor, who takes her back to his home; the story, it turns out, has been about her finding the strength to go off with the trolls who haunt Iceland — to abandon all that she formerly knew, all that she had been. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of “The Next Room” in Sugar and Other Stories; a mother’s death frees an elderly woman to find her true path. But here she’s not alone; here it’s clear that she’s becoming something new, something grand, something monumental. This is a beautifully-written fantasy, with the inevitability and grandeur of continental drift.

In some ways, “Raw Material” is the most intriguing of these stories: a failing novelist, Jack Smollett, is teaching a Creative Writing class to adults at an arts centre, when he is impressed by — creatively revitalised by — the work of one of his students, a very elderly women who writes detailed, introspective recollections of the domestic chores of decades past. His other students aren’t as impressed, and criticise her harshly; he sends her work off to a contest, which it wins (ironic, as Jack imagines himself being in some way judged by her), but before he can tell her this he finds that she has become the victim of violence, deriving from some unknown past wrong. The other students are secretly happy; they have written stories about murder and violence, and are happy to see that their world has caught up to the writer of elegant slice-of-life recollections.

What’s interesting here is Byatt’s use of a strong prose style as a symbol of both physical and mental cleanliness. Smollett thinks to himself of clichés as a stain, contrasting with the theme of cleanliness in his student writer, Cicely Fox. In the end, her concern with cleanliness may be a function of repressed guilt — there seems to be some connection between her and the woman who ends her life — but it remains as an ideal; and ideal style, in contrast to the trite horrors and slack adjective-filled style of the other students.

If “Raw Material” is the most fascinating of these tales from the point of view of Byatt’s perspectives on prose and style, “The Pink Ribbon” is perhaps the most emotionally immediate. An elderly man is caring for his wife, who lost her mind long ago; he meets a younger woman, who turns out to be his wife’s ghost, or fetch. She instructs him on what he must do. It’s the only story I can think of that balances references to The Aeneid with references to the Teletubbies.

For all the strong emotional material in these stories, Byatt resolutely avoids wringing extra tension out of them. Her style is spare, in a sense pure. She also avoids many of her usual tropes; some appear — a reserved Scandinavian male here, the intense description of a piece of artwork there — but on the whole this collection is filled with new images, new symbols. It’s a strong book, and very promising for Byatt’s future writing as she moves on from the conclusion of her Potter quartet.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

ByattBlogging Bonus: Potter vs. Potter

Well, not really. More like ‘Potter-maker versus Potter-maker’. In 2003, A.S. Byatt, creator of Frederica Potter (and family) wrote an article criticising the Harry Potter series of books, at that time five books in. I though it’d be worth looking at here, insofar as the piece got Byatt a certain amount of notoriety. Some commentators were eager to make her out to be a snobbish member of the literary élite, decrying popular fiction just because it was popular. This, of course, was a profoundly idiotic reaction. 

To begin with, in the same article in which she criticises J.K. Rowling, Byatt praises Terry Pratchett, not exactly the act of a dyed-in-the-wool snob. More crucially, the snob argument is an ad hominem attack, which is usually made by somebody losing a debate. Whether Byatt is a snob or not, it shouldn’t invalidate the critical points she makes either way. If you believe in the distinction between good writing and bad, then the article should stand or fall on the strength of the argument it presents. If you don’t believe in that distinction, then you have several thousand years worth of human aesthetic reaction to language to explain away; you’re also in fundamental opposition, I think, to several major elements of Byatt’s philosophy.

So what exactly did Byatt say in her Potter article? This, I think, is where the article becomes interesting. It’s uncharacteristically slipshod in its construction, and in its thought.

Byatt begins by asking why children like the Potter books so much, and then why adults like them. Her argument to the first question: “they are written from inside a child’s-eye view, with a sure instinct for childish psychology.” As will soon become all too clear, I don’t agree with this statement. But never mind that; Byatt believes that this answer precludes, for some reason, adult appreciation of the books — she doesn’t explain why — and that there must be another reason why adults read Rowling.

(I might as well note here that I can enjoy the Potter books, though I wouldn’t say that they’re particularly good except in certain specific limited ways. I think the plot mechanisms and riddles are ingenious and clever. I think the prose is weirdly readable in a way I can’t explain — it’s literally more difficult to lift one’s eyes from the page than to slide them sideways over the text. And I think that the structure of most of the books, following the school year through, is attractive; the seasons and holidays give Rowling a basic skeleton to follow for each book. For me, the last book, in which she abandoned the school and the school-year structure, was far and away the worst of the seven. If I had to say why I think kids enjoy the books so much, I’d say it’s probably a mixture of the easiness of the texts, the outsized characters — not unlike Silver Age Marvel Comics — and the way the common childhood experience of going to school becomes the whole basis for a fantasy and a magic world.)

Byatt tries to justify her statement about child psychology by the use of Freud, a difficult trick these days. Byatt complains that while the earlier books present a preadolescent “latency-period” fantasy, Order of the Phoenix fails to translate that fantasy into a convincing portrait of adolescence. Which is true enough, but is surely a problem in the earlier books as well; by fifteen, as Harry and his friends are in the fifth book of the series, most kids are well into adolescence.

Let me skip back a bit. Byatt argues that the Dursleys, Harry’s adoptive family, represent, in a Freduian decoding of the stories, Harry’s real family — the world of reality, as distinct from the fantasy-world of Hogwarts. “The Dursleys are his true enemy,” Byatt says. “When he arrives at wizarding school, he moves into a world where everyone, good and evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy him.” 

It’s sadly ironic that Byatt, who mocked the metaphors of Freudian thought in her novels, sees no difficulty in applying its comfortable theories to another text. Probably more importantly, one is also uncomfortably aware that she’s misreading the text at issue in at least two crucial ways. One, the Dursleys have at least some clue as to Harry’s importance; they fear and hate him, for all that he’s effectively sworn to protect them — Marvel Comics, once again — and those emotions are explicitly tied into their actions and dialogue in the framing sequences of the books. Two, the Dursleys are as much a fantasy as Hogwarts; they’re caricatures. To treat them as in any way “real”, much less a “real” fantasy, is about as difficult as treating, well, Hogwarts as a real educational system. The idea of reality is embodied by one about as much as another.

Byatt goes on to say that “Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper.” This is true, but so what? Every secondary world, including Tolkien’s, derives from pre-existing sources. Byatt seems to be trying to say that the patchwork in this case is unconvincing, or perhaps that it does not rise above its sources. It’s a viable point, but it needs to be supported. 

The closest she comes to this that I can see is to say that “Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.” I can’t see why this statement would apply to children any more or less than it would to adults. In either case, it seems to me an issue of temperament — not everyone has the same “power of fantasizing”. “Derivative narrative clichés” (which sounds redundant) work with children because they don’t have the same experience with cliché that adults do; they encounter them for the first time.

“The important thing,” Byatt tells us, “about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman — trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines.” To me, this is where the article really falls down; the statement is not only untrue, it’s a howler. Or, put another way, it’s only true if you’re very selective about who you call a “fairy story writer”. If you’re prepared to eliminate many modern fantasy writers — Michael Moorcock, say, or China Miéville — then maybe you can make the statement work. Though I frankly have no idea how you get around Frank Baum. 

Byatt goes on to say that “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” This is a hell of a statement to make, but set it aside for a moment. “Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family,” Byatt continues, again displaying a breathtaking ability to ignore the text she’s supposed to be analysing — by Order of the Phoenix it’s very clear that the whole magical society’s in danger — and then goes on to say “So, yes, the attraction for children can be explained by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, combined with the fact that the stories are comfortable, funny, just frightening enough.” If this is so, the question still remains as to why Rowling happened to hit that combination just right when no other author in recent decades has managed the trick. What is it that makes the Harry Potter books so different?

Not only do I think this is a poor analysis of Harry Potter’s appeal, but it also seems to me logically confused; Byatt seems to be arguing that children who like Potter follow “soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”. Which seems unlikely. That’s without even getting into the question of what she means by “TV cartoons” — I can easily think of a number of Japanese cartoons, and even some American cartoons, which seem to me to be more valuable and imaginative than the Harry Potter books; whereas Byatt’s implication seems to be that the Potter books work because they’re more imaginative than the cartoons. (I would agree that there’s a lack of the numinous in the Potter books, but I think that’s a function of the limitation of Rowling’s writing talent, not necessarily of the nature of the story.) 

Weirdly, Byatt claims that “These are good books of their kind.” Her problem is a suspicion that people derive from them mainly comfort, with none of the “compensating seriousness” of writers like Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, or Ursula K. Le Guin. This seems to me to be an odd way to read books, and not much to do with what Byatt then goes on to find in these writers: “a real sense of mystery, powerful forces ... we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled.” This is I think a good sentence, and a good assessment of the experience of reading Cooper, Garner, and Le Guin. What she’s talking about is, basically, numinousness again. 

I’d agree that there isn’t much of this in the Harry Potter books, but, again, I think that’s a function of Rowling’s lack of talent, not of something inherent in the structure of the story or in the nature of Rowling’s invention. “Ms. Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds,” argues Byatt. “It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.” But had Rowling more of a knack for atmosphere, that patch of forest would have the danger, the resonance, Byatt is missing; I think that’s what Rowling was trying for in her depiction of the forest. Put bluntly, I think Byatt is talking here about something caused by a lack of skill, and ascribing it to a defect of invention.

(Before I continue, I also have to express my disagreement with Byatt’s opinions about “regression”. She observes that “In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 ‘best reads,’ more than a quarter were children’s books,” and concludes from this that “We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I’m ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.” Restful for some, perhaps; for others, it’s perhaps not particularly noticeable. The idea of returning to a preadolescent state as “regression” seems problematic; who’s to say that it’s not actually a healthy step up? In up and down worlds, up and down are equivocal; one person’s regression is another’s growth. Byatt seems to recognise this herself: “If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for.” But then, part of my dissatisfaction with the article is this sort of equivocation. For example, the BBC survey she cites seems to me to be undermined later in the article when she observes that “A surprising number of people — including many students of literature — will tell you they haven’t really lived in a book since they were children.” There’s no need to go on about “comfort” when this characterises common reading experience. If people haven’t lived in a book as adults, of course they’ll pick their childhood favourite as their best read.)

Parallelling her comments on reality shows and the like, Byatt goes on to say that Rowling “speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.” I don’t agree with these statements. It seems to me to be fatuous to suggest that a basic human experience is not present in the current generation of adults. It seems even more fatuous to suggest that “inhabitants of urban jungles” are in some way emotionally stunted because they live in cities instead of ... well, what? Deep wilderness? Farmland? The “real wild” has been dwindling in Britain for centuries; I don’t know how much of what a Canadian would think of as wilderness was present in that island even a hundred years ago. Finally, the statement about the ersatz seems logically unfounded to me — if your imagination only has the ersatz to work with, won’t that strengthen the imagination? More crucially, the kind of sense Byatt’s talking about here — of numinousness, of mystery, of magic — seems to me not to be dependent on external training, but on inborn nature; this, though, is a position that seems to me incapable of proof or disproof.

Byatt’s next-to-last paragraph seems to me to simply be incoherent. Adults reading Rowling revert to a childlike state in so doing, she tells us, then switches topics to note that many people haven’t “lived in a book” since they were children, a sad side-effect of English classes. If adults are able to live in books, one might reasonably ask, doesn’t that say something in favour of the books that do draw them in? Rather than answer this question, Byatt says: “But in the days before dumbing down and cultural studies no one reviewed Enid Blyton or Georgette Heyer — as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.” I will say that Byatt mentioned Blyton and Heyer previously in the article. Beyond that, I cannot see how these statements logically follow any point Byatt’s made. I’m not sure they even follow each other — she seems to be saying ‘once, nobody reviewed Blyton or Heyer, who are bad writers, just as now they don’t review Terry Pratchett, who’s a good writer.’

Byatt begins her next, final, paragraph by saying “It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon.” I presume she doesn’t mean Pratchett writing amazing sentences. It seems that she doesn’t mean the lack of reviews for him either. It’s hard to see what she does mean; the paragraph is simply an attack on relativistic cultural studies, except that it’s not. Cultural studies are said to have a “leveling effect”, and to be “as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists.” But then: “There is nothing wrong with this,” she says. But then again: “it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's “magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”” 

It’s as if the incoherence and equivocation that’s been at work all through the article bubbles to the surface here, and the conclusion of the essay is lost in a swamp of dithering. It’s a pity. Had the article been as denunciatory as Byatt’s critics suggested, it could have been genuinely interesting on a critical level. Had it been more interested in what the Harry Potter books really were, and how fantasy really worked, it might have been a useful examination of fantasy fiction. As it is, it seems only confused, unsure how to really grapple with its subject, slipping away whenever it gets close to a definitive statement.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ByattBlogging 13: A Whistling Woman

Fittingly, the book begins with an ending. Agatha Mond reaches the end of the fantasy story she’s telling to her daughter Saskia and Frederica Potter’s son Leo; the children are outraged, demanding to know more. It’s a clever way to open the final book in the Potter quartet, and foreshadows a book structured around an artful series of anti-climaxes. In turn, this is an odd structural reflection of a major theme: otherness, the reflection. The thing, and the anti-thing.

On a story level, A Whistling Woman nominally follows Frederica Potter through her developing career as a television personality — she is the anchor of a show called, appropriately, Through the Looking-Glass — while she also deals with ongoing love affairs and the mothering of Leo. Practically, though, Frederica is on the periphery for much of the book. Instead, much of the book is filled with the story of Josh Lamb, née Joshua Ramsden; he is a Manichean visionary who sees sheets of blood overrunning the world. He’s also an intensely interesting figure, a true charismatic; he brings together Gideon Farrar’s Children of Joy and Paul Ottokar’s mystic Quaker group the Spirit’s Tigers. But one theme of the book is the absence of easy faith in the modern world, the need to doubt, the impossibility of returning to old ways of thinking; we know he and his flock will come to no good end.

A major sub-plot in the book is the interplay between a university in Yorkshire and an anti-university which springs up in the town nearby — in fact, on the land where Lamb and his group will ultimately find a home. Lamb’s Manichean thought provides a structure by which to understand the anti-university, an angry, stinking lot which produces no good and only threatens the destruction of the Body-Mind conference the main university is hosting. For Lamb, creation is divided into realms of light and darkness, one (despite the apparent mixed metaphor) a mirror image of the other. So the anti-university is an uncreative parody of the real thing, whose liberal Vice Chancellor underestimates their radicalism; he is himself too good a moderate liberal to understand the dangers of extremism.

If this sounds like a very conservative imagining, well, it is. None of the students, in either the university or the anti-university, are shown as minds worth reckoning with (unless you except some of the graduate students, who we know as characters from earlier books and who are essentially apolitical). The university is shown as caring and humane to a fault in its dealing with the anti-university, which itself is irrational and violent. The deck is stacked, and convenient as it may be for the story, I found it a major flaw in the novel’s construction; it falls flat as satire because it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration of reality, so much as the writer deforming reality in a convenient way.

The title of the book comes from a saying quoted as an epigraph (along with a passage from Alice in Wonderland about Alice’s identity as a girl or a serpent, and a passage from Marvell’s The Garden comparing the soul, freed of the body, to a silver-winged bird) claiming that “A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen / Is neither good for God nor Men.” If part of the book has to do with the various problems with God in the modern world, much of the rest of it — along with the other Potter books — has to do with issues of female identity and expectations of proper behaviour foisted on women. At the same time, the novel links women and hens through a series of images and verbal play (Men, by extension, are, well, cocks. Which itself plays into a subtheme of the book in which a romantically-rejected scientist examines the utility, or lack thereof, of males and sexual reproduction); Frederica holds a “hen party” on one of her TV shows which is actually a parody of real hen party; the farm on which Lamb’s group eventually settles frees the hens formerly kept there, with mixed results. Oh, and there are also semi-monstrous Whistlers, whistling harpy-like figures, in Agatha’s fantasy, who end up as helpful figures when properly approached; winged, they are halfway between earth and air, belonging to neither, choosing to forego mates either human or fowl, but, perhaps, partaking of the nature of those other winged humanoids, the angels.

So, as with most of Byatt’s books, this is a novel dense with images and significance; symbols cluster, and link each to each in unexpected ways. And sometimes take on multiple levels. Lucy, the woman who owns the farm where Lamb and his group end up, joins them after a tragedy mirroring Lamb’s own past; she becomes his follower, and she herself owns a lamb which believes it’s a dog, so: Lamb has a Lucy who has a little lamb.

Certainly the book gains a lot by playing with perspectives. We see Frederica finding her way on her TV show; we see her broadcast with the other two women, then we see another broadcast with two males, a superficially more intellectual program (but we are encouraged to wonder how much of this is actually display by the men for Frederica’s benefit). In the next chapters, the book then moves back to show us what’s happening with another group of characters; we end up seeing Frederica’s broadcasts through their eyes. Then Byatt does the same, following yet another set of characters, and showing us their reaction to the broadcasts. In each case significant correspondences are found; intentionally or not, the characters react to the broadcasts as though they had something to say about their own lives, as though the TV was somehow oracular. 

This is literalised by Josh Lamb, who looks for visions in the snow of dead channels. He finds one, a terrifying hallucination in which he is brought down among the dead, a Blakean experience out of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; but where real-world experience is something shared among different characters, albeit seen from individual perspectives, the visionary experience is by definition singular. Reality, then, emerges from multiplicity, not from individual charisma; while two scientific observers are present in Lamb’s group, they see events differently — one is clear-eyed and reserved, but one has bought into the hope of vision, and loses his sense of events as a result.

Similarly, one of the actual climaxes of the book comes at the Body-Mind conference sponsored by the university, an image of multiple voices uniting. It is also a chance for Byatt to allow her characters to expound on symbolically-resonant ideas for several pages. This works because, in this book as in the previous Potter books, much of the movement in the novel is a function of the ideas it contains. So even though the story may come to a halt for pages in order to enunciate ideas, it works. The story is there, in part, to get the ideas out. The important contrast in this particular case is with the anti-university, which essentially opposes all ideas, and all enunciation.

Byatt stands foursquare behind the university, traditional education, rote learning. Frederica’s son cannot learn to read until he is weaned off the easy-going educational approach which encourages him to go at his own speed; he must be taught phonics. The appreciation of rote learning, of the power that comes with mastering something in the mind, is linked with memory; as a contrast, Josh Lamb thinks he remembers his past, but his recollections are filled with lacunae.

There’s an elegaic yet hopeful tone to the book; a sense of change. Not the revolution desired by the various utopian groups — which is in a sense the end of all changes — but the evolution (a key word, given the book’s zoological preoccupations) of ideas and of science. The development of new ways of looking at the world; new ways to diagnose what is around us. The movement from the first book to the fourth is a movement of ideas, a movement of metaphors; Frederica thinks about metaphors, about the way they changed in history — and that in itself is a metaphor for the change of ideas and images from the 50s through the 70s: metaphor a metaphor for metaphor.

How does it fit with its predecessors in the quartet? The four books strike me as remarkably unified, in tone and conception. The balance of character, story, and ideas are the same in each book, and in all these things each book builds on the one preceding. The use of overlapping temporal perspectives means they fit together with some intricacy, gaining power from the understated sense of a whole life, its shape an inevitability and yet somehow an accident.

Taken all in all, the Frederica Potter books are a success. They’re not particularly dramatic in any traditional sense, but the interplay of ideas and perspectives is made to have its own quiet fascination. Byatt’s sense of intellectual history, both of the eras she writes about and of the eras which gave birth to them, gives a sense of moment to the progression of time, and the development of character and language and science. 

Ironically, these books are in some ways about the ascendance of television, from the tiny black-and-white presentation of Elizabeth II’s coronation to the colourful, monstrous glass box which came to dominate society. Ironic, not only because the nature of TV is inherently opposed to the structural form of the novel in general and these novels in particular, but because in the years immediately following the publication of the last of the books, we are seeing the end of TV’s reign. The internet has replaced television as the most ubiquitous of media. Who will miss it? In a way, the nature of these books makes them an intriguing project for the internet age; their density of symbol seems to cry out for annotation. The images act as non-technological hyperlinks, associating ideas and characters, and await only some future indexer to identify them all.

Still, when all’s said and done, these books are about Frederica Potter, oddly contradicting Byatt’s own statements about the nature of the novel; she has spoken about preferring multi-centred novels, but while individual books may have other characters who can stand as contrasting centres, overall there’s no doubt Frederica’s is the dominant personality. An interesting personality, too, driven by intelligence. There’s almost a sense in which the books perhaps don’t give her a chance to really demonstrate all that she is, or could have been; but then that’s the nature of life for many people. The fact that Frederica has enough in her life for four books is a sign of her vitality — vitality which animates the books, and which gives us reason enough to keep turning pages when the smoothness of the prose and the fascination of the ideas aren’t enough. For all that character, in certain ideological circles, is suspect, it is Frederica who makes these novels a success; or, more precisely, it is in the creation of her that they are most memorable.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ByattBlogging 12: The Biographer's Tale

You could look at this book as a departure for Byatt, or as an experiment in voice. It’s told in the first person, by a male protagonist, and the voice of the book follows from that, using the language that’s natural for the narrator. You could also look at it as a self-satire, Byatt’s own parody of Possession. Like that book, the hero is a scholarly male who becomes sceptical of literary theory; who tries to uncover the truth about the life of a dead writer; who finds love during the course of his journey; and who learns to focus on the world of physical fact rather than on scholarly theory. Like Possession, the book is stuffed with other texts, providing other perspectives on the novel’s themes. Unlike Possession, though, the protagonist fails in his quest; rather than become a poet, he abandons writing for the tangible world of things, threatened as it is by human agency; and rather than find love once, he finds it twice.

The tone is different, too. It feels like a satire; Possession, of course, consciously modelled itself after a romance, which almost by definition makes that book ripe for satire. The Biographer’s Tale deals with things like sex and money in a way that’s not so much clear-eyed as perhaps corrective. So the main character doesn’t begin with a girlfriend supporting him. Sex isn’t the end of the story, it’s something that happens along the way, and not always at obvious points. And new texts or diaries or letters aren’t conveniently found to answer questions or suggest new ones.

The Biographer’s Tale is harder to like for all these reasons, but also for deeper reasons as well, I think. The language of the book isn’t as rich as Possession, or most of Byatt’s other work, and while there’s a gain in terms of the depth of character presented, there’s a loss of linguistic felicity which probably wasn’t worth the sacrifice. This was a characteristic of Byatt’s first-person short story “Jael” as well; I can’t help but wish Byatt had tried for the best of both worlds, creating a character who reveals himself or herself through the use of a rich style. Still, at a deeper level, I think The Biographer’s Tale suffers because, hand-in-hand with the (relatively) emptier style, there’s also less going on than in Possession; less incident, less imagery, less variety of character, less thematic richness. The book is still too varied to really gain the intensity of a stripped-down vision, though. In all, it feels like an interesting experiment, but one which, at least in part, never quite comes off.

This is not to say that it’s a bad book, or an uninteresting one. Byatt still layers in a number of clever ideas. Phineas Gilbert Nanson, a postgraduate English student, decides to give up his current scholarship in favour of producing a biography; he ends up choosing to write about Scholes Destry-Scholes, the biographer of a Victorian traveller, romancer and translator named Elmer Bole. So the book, Phineas’s journal, is an autobiography of a would-be biographer of a biographer of a translator — although Phineas resists, for as long as he can, the idea that he’s writing an autobiography. 

Phineas fails to write his biography, unable to gather enough primary source material to unlock the life of the mysterious Mr. Destry-Scholes; he finds other consolations, and ends up moving away from writing to focus on “the too-much loved earth” that “will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it.” Phineas’s rejection of theory leads him to the concrete; no longer thinking of a work of literature as a self-contained structure leads him to focus on language’s inability to completely capture the thing-in-itself, and thus to move beyond language. Presumably, this is reflected in the way Destry-Scholes is a kind of layer between Phineas and Elmer Bole, whose own name identifies him, basically, as a tree, a part of the natural world.

Phineas’s somewhat half-hearted efforts to learn about Scholes Destry-Scholes (School Destroy Schools? Schools Destroy Souls?) lead him to three documents which seem to hint at a work or works Destry-Scholes was planning before his untimely death in the Maëlstrom. They’re fragments of writings about Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen (men interested, in one way or another, with the definition and classification of reality, the depiction and nature of character). Phineas also meets Destry-Scholes’s niece, and finds a set of index cards holding fragments of other texts; also 366 marbles (one, I imagine, for each possible day of a year) and a list of names which may go with the marbles — though each word may fit several marbles, and each marble may fit several words; so names and the things named have a slippery relationship.

Phineas also starts a relationship with another woman, a bee taxonomist named Fulla Biefeld. The novel builds a strong case for the importance of Fulla’s research, for her subject, but Fulla herself never comes alive. We don’t understand what it is that attracts her to Phineas. Nor, for that matter, so we understand the attraction he has for Vera Alphage, Destry-Scholes’s niece (whose name, I suppose, may mean something like “true letter-eater”). At any rate, Phineas continues to sleep with both women through the book, not bothering to inform either one of the other’s existence, not unlike Elmer Bole, who also maintained two households.

If the two-timing makes Phineas sound like an unattractive character, one can only say that this fits the characterisation the book gives us. He’s not particularly intelligent, not particularly good with words, not fast on his feet, not perceptive, not particularly driven or competent at what he chooses to do, not particularly empathic, and lacks a considerable amount of self-knowledge. In other words, he has few definite, positive qualities, for good or ill. It’s a coherent picture, but not, on the whole, either sympathetic or interesting.

The novel could overcome this if its ideas were interesting, or were dramatised in an interesting way; personally, I found that neither was the case. There’s a series of reference to the body, which seems to look ahead to Phineas’s choice for a world of things, and to fragmentation, which seems to be a commentary on the book’s form. These images don’t seem to combine with the felicity with which Byatt usually links her symbols; an early nod to Frankenstein is a good start, but the end of the book suggests merely that the world is full of variety and interest, to much to fit into a coherent order. This may be so, but the fatal weakness of The Biographer’s Tale is that it doesn’t convince us of this fact. For all Phineas’s desire to move beyond writing, the only way for literature to look beyond literature is to succeed as literature. The Biographer’s Tale, while interesting, while not without grace notes, does not. It’s worth reading, but I can think of no way to consider it as other than a minor work in Byatt’s bibliography.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

ByattBlogging 11: Elementals

It’s difficult to find a literal meaning to the title of this short story collection. The significance seems to be that the characters in these stories have to do with elemental forces, but in at least one case, “Jael”, the story is about a character evading her realisation of the elemental significance of her actions. It could be said to investigate characters who are out of their elements, but then again “A Lamia in the Cevennes” doesn’t really fit that pattern. Some of the stories are fantasies, some are not. 

Perhaps the closest one can come is to say that the stories involve stripping the characters down to some core element, some key aspect of what they’re about. That’s a good dramatic principle, and it does fit with the six stories in the book. But then the subtitle is “Stories of Fire and Ice”, and ice isn’t really an element, and anyway on a literal level the statement is inaccurate — not all the stories are about ice and fire. So whatever meaning we get from the phrase must derive from an interpretation we put over the story. It may be as meaningless a phrase as “fairy story” was on the Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye collection. Or it might refer to the meeting of opposites, which is a theme we might be able to find, or imagine, in many of these tales.

The first story in Elementals is “Crocodile Tears”. Superficially, it seems simple: a woman, Patricia, loses her husband unexpectedly, and the shock leads her to step away from her life up to that point and flee to the south of France, to Nîmes, where she meets a Norwegian fellow-tourist, Nils, also fleeing loss; the two gradually restore each other to something approaching normal life. The artistry here is in the way the plot of the story is handled, the delicacy of the language, the closeness of observation.

Also, of course, the complexity of the symbol-structure in which the characters move. Bullfighting, a preoccupation of Nîmes, is linked to ceremony, to rites and mysteries, and then debunked. The warmth and sun of the south is contrasted with the Norwegian cold, and both those things are unified by Nils’s theory that Valhalla was a mythic recollection of a Roman arena. Perhaps most structurally significant, a Norwegian folk-tale Nils retells, in which a man is helped three times by the ghost of a man whose burial he ensures, is reflected in the events of the story, as Nils three times saves Patricia’s life from half-aware suicide attempts. Time is significant; the opening of the story tells us “Patches of time can be recalled under hypnosis”, referring to the experience of looking at pictures in an art gallery; Patricia is looking at a dandelion clock when she has her last words with her husband; later, she reads Proust (in a city on a plain) and a guidebook in the Place de l’Horloge.

The title refers literally to crocodiles, a recurrent decorative motif of Nîmes, we’re told. It was a sacred beast to the Egyptians, and crocodile mummies are seen in a museum. Patricia remembers a line her husband once delivered on stage: “Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun: so is your crocodile.” So the crocodile is a sign, perhaps, of the union of two dissimilar things. And water, in fountains, in the source of the water which underlies the city, is another recurring image; so Patricia wanders in the Jardin de la Fontaine, where there is a crocodile made of bronze plants. This is the core of the story, I think: dissimilarities united.

“A Lamia in the Cevennes” is almost the opposite; characters here do not necessarily unite, and are better for it. A painter in the Cevennes finds a Lamia, a magical snake-like beast, in his swimming pool; the Lamia consents to model for him, if he will kiss her and turn her human and be her lover. But this is not what the painter wants, and he postpones this destiny until it is no longer a threat.

This story doesn’t have quite the emotional weight of “Crocodile Tears”; it’s too wry. It is quite effective on its own terms, though. Byatt has a real talent for fantasy; her style gives these stories a grounding in reality which makes them live. This is another tale which touches on the importance of Matisse, of luxe, calme et volupté, but that ideal works here in a way it didn’t always in The Matisse Stories, because the painter, Bernard Lycett-Kean, seems to embody those virtues, to consciously make them a part of his life and work, in a way that the quieter Matisse Stories did not as effectively dramatise. Bernard insists on the primacy of his art, giving up the magic of the Lamia and its love to focus on his painting; and he is, in a way, rewarded for it — at the end of the story, his creativity finds a new focus, leaps from one subject to another. It’s a story about the magic inherent in the world, and the depiction of that magic, the freedom of spirit that allows an artist to move from one theme to another (in a way that Robin Dennison could not, in “Art Work”).

It’s tempting to view “Cold” as the central story of the collection. It’s another fantasy, and certainly one in which ice and fire are dominant. A princess is born; at puberty she turns out to be an icewoman, who needs cold to survive. But when a competition is held for her hand, the prince who wins her heart comes from a desert country. How will she survive in her lover’s arid kingdom? As it turns out, by the power of art, by his ability to remake the world in a new medium, to create a space for her to live and imagine: “We can make air, water, light, into something both of us can live in,” he says, and the ‘we’ seems to me important; again, two dissimilar things find their union.

The prince, Sasan, is a glassmaker; in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, Byatt told us that the magic of glass lies in the way in which it unites all the elements in one form. So it is here, as Sasan creates models of the Tree of Life to impress Fiammarosa, the ice Princess. As glass was important in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, it’s tempting to think that glass and fantasy have some connection for Byatt — glass as magic, glass as a way to recreate the world in art. But then again, glass has had similar meaning for her in other stories as well; one thinks of the glass serpent in The Game.

“Baglady” is the shortest story in the book. The wife of a businessman visiting the Far East goes with the wives of her husband’s colleagues to a high-class shopping mall; she loses track of time, loses her purse, loses her identification. She’s left hoping her husband will come for her, for if he does not she will either be locked in the mall forever, or else evicted to join the “human flotsam and jetsam, gathered with bags and bottles around little fires of cowdung or cardboard” which she has glimpsed earlier in the story. It’s a story about an aging woman; “Time has passed at surprising speed” once the main character, Daphne, enters the mall. Bit by bit, she loses her identity, who she thought she was; it is stripped from her, as though time was moving at a super-accelerated rate. 

The story is vaguely reminiscent of “Loss of Face”, from Sugar and Other Stories, in that it’s about a well-off Western woman facing a cultural divide with the Far East. Two dissimilar things. But this is a simpler, terser, story; there is no potential point of connection here. Indeed, the Good Fortune shopping mall has something sinister about it; it is likened to Aladdin’s Cave, which we might remember was originally the haunt of thieves. As Daphne’s panic mounts, she finds that it “extends maybe as far into the earth as into the sky”; there is something hellish here — shopkeepers are “watchful in their cells”, “fire-escape-like stairways” lead back into mall corridors. Daphne ends the story alone, threatened by a policeman, sans watch, sans purse, sans everything; stripped to some elemental essence of who she is, able only to sit and wait and hope that her husband will come, unable to imagine escaping Good Fortune.

“Jael” is a story of treachery. The main character recalls drawing the Biblical story of Jael, who led the Canaanite Sisera into her tent before killing him in his sleep; she recalls her childhood at school, where she committed an act of treachery she can’t let herself remember; she is betrayed in the present, as her assistant schemes to displace her from her job as a director of television commercials. The lead character fears being judged, even for minor and unknowing transgressions; she has convinced herself that her childhood act of violence, which had repercussions she did not intend, is only a fiction. The result is that she’s locked herself into a cycle of treachery, of betrayal and being betrayed.

Unusually, this story is told in the first person. Byatt captures her character’s voice, but at the expense of her usual precision of prose. Still, it’s a worthwhile endeavour, as we learn to question everything the character says, to consider how her memory is betraying her, how she betrays herself. Her tragedy is that, shallow as she is, she isn’t shallow enough to work in television — perhaps her brief touch with the elemental character of treachery, much as she might try to hide it from herself, has given her too much depth. A far cry from her assistant, Lara, who “lives in a world of interactive computer-generated gladiators, bomb-lobbers, kamikaze scantily-clad dolls, headsmen with swords and laser duellists”. 

The last story in the collection, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, returns to Byatt’s concern with painting. A cook in an upper-class household, Dolores, is brilliant at her job, an artist, but unhappy in her place, angry at being below her mistress in the social scale. Her friend Concepción tries to console her, to remind her of her status; Concepción’s friend, a young painter (who we might eventually conclude is Diego Velázquez, from which we could deduce this is 17th-century Spain), asks them both if he may paint them, put them in the scene from the Gospel of Luke of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. They agree, and to Concepción’s surprise, although the painting shows that Dolores is unattractive — hard and unlovely, she is caught as though in the life — still Dolores is delighted by it, and so the three of them sit down to eat together.

In the Gospel story, Martha, serving dinner, demands that her sister Mary cease listening to Christ to help with the dinner, only to be gently rebuked by Christ. Martha thus became the image of the active life, Mary of the contemplative. So in the story Concepción asks Velázquez if Dolores should not be content and submissive; Velázquez says no, that Dolores investigates the nature of things in food as he does in oil, and that the world is not divided between servants and masters so much as it is between the inquisitive and the incurious. “The Church teaches that Mary is the contemplative life, which is higher than Martha’s way, which is the active way,” he says. “But any painter must question, which is which? And a cook also contemplates mysteries.” His painting unites them all, active and contemplative, and so they sit down together to the meal; but more even than this, his painting of Dolores’s anger dispels it — “The momentary coincidence between image and woman vanished, as though the rage was still and eternal in the painting and the woman was released into time.” It’s a powerful note on which to end the collection.

This may be Byatt’s strongest collection of short fiction overall. It’s more diverse than Sugar and Other Stories, structurally and dramatically; there’s a greater range of characters, style, and situation. It seems to me to be perhaps less united but more thought-through than The Matisse Stories. There’s almost a sense of liberation to the collection, as though dealing with elemental subjects frees Byatt in some way to more daringly investigate her favourite themes. She takes some risks here, does some uncharacteristic things, working with fantasy and first-person perspectives, and by and large they pay off handsomely.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

ByattBlogging 10: Babel Tower

This book is about language, like many of Byatt’s books, and the misuse of language, and the gaps in language. It’s also about education, about the teaching of grammar and about formative experiences; about finding a voice. It’s about the formation not of individuals alone, but of groups. It’s about the structure of things, about race — in that it is about the four-letter DNA alphabet that makes living things what they are. It is about class, in all the senses of the word: school classes, social classes, scientific classification. It is about the way all these things come together.

More precisely, this is the third book in the quartet which follows the life of Frederica Potter. This volume opens in 1964, with Frederica stuck in a terrible marriage to Nigel Reiver, and now the mother of a young son, Leo. Over the course of the book she leaves Nigel in dramatic circumstances, moves to London, builds a life, and engages in divorce proceedings. She becomes a teacher, a writer, and is tangentially involved in the publication of a book, Babbletower, which troubles the powers-that-be. By the end of the book, the court case for the suppression of Babbletower is moving in parallel to Frederica’s divorce.

The book opens with several hypothetical beginnings: “It might begin ... Or it might begin ...” Slowly, these openings come to cohere, to draw together as parts of one narrative. We’re reintroduced to Frederica’s brother-in-law Daniel, now manning a suicide help-line in a London church; we’re introduced to a text, which turns out to be from Babbletower, in which a group of friends seek escape from the French Revolution inside a vast tower where they will form a utopian society; we follow one of Frederica’s old London friends as he runs into her by chance, which meeting leads to a conspiracy among Frederica’s friends — a group unified by their care for her — to get her out of her unhappy situation.

(But the first hypothetical beginning of the book is a scene of ruin, a broken tower, accompanied by a thrush — which bird later recurs in a fairy-tale imagined by the woman Frederica comes to live with — and broken alphabets. Among the fallen letters are the signifiers of the four DNA amino acids, G, T, A, and C; also the sign for infinity, which was perhaps derived from the letter omega, and the letter alpha, so that in a sense in the end is the beginning is all things. Snails are there, too, with helical shells; the helix is a recurring image in this book, referring back to the shape of DNA. The thrush sings a limited song which nevertheless gives pleasure; questions are thus raised of the nature of art and the perception of the beautiful and in what does pleasure consist. So this collection of images symbolises much of what will come later in the book.)

The book covers three years in details; it moves through Swinging London, presenting a cynical, outsider’s view of the period. It’s effectively done; it feels incomplete, but for the most part incomplete in an appropriate way — the book, the characters, are watching something without being inside it, seeing the folly and errors those who have absorbed the values of the time are blind to. Youth culture is parodied by Babbletower, which itself is ironically put on trial by The Establishment. Utopian dreaming falls apart, again and again, when faced with the real world. This in a sense is the novel taking the easy way out: easy to mock the weak-minded utopians, but what if a utopian is found who has a tougher understanding of human nature, who understands, as the author of Babbletower does, the human urge to hurt others? 

In this way, the novel’s use of Blake and Tolkien is instructive. There’s some appreciation of both authors (though Frederica finds fault with the language of Blake’s poetic books, a judgment perhaps appropriate to someone of her intellectual background but one with which it is difficult to sympathise), but a different appreciation than the uncritical adulation of the counterculture. Near the end of the novel, idealists put on a “happening” celebrating the mythopoeic imagination of both writers — which event is invaded by another, more radical, wave of dreamers; the Girondists are deposed by the Montagnards. While Byatt uses the images of Blake and Tolkien in various ways, it’s hard not to think that these are writers who are in some way not central to her preoccupations; there’s a quality of vision that they have which doesn’t find its way into the book. The book has other antecedents, is in that way more purely a novel; that is what is in Babel Tower’s own DNA.

But in a sense to speak of DNA is problematic. The book seems concerned more with the fusion of many fragments of experience into one artistic whole than with genetic integrity. We get an early intimation of this when the windows of Daniel’s London church are described — shattered in the war, the splinters gathered and re-fused into a new whole. It becomes especially clear with Frederica, on her own, asserts her creativity and intellectual independence by filling a notebook with pieces of text, literary and non-literary, in an attempt to make a coherent work out of them. Laminations, she calls it, things separate yet joined together. We’re given some excerpts of Laminations, appropriated passages that happen to have recurrent themes — one set of selections, for example, seems focussed on femininity, blood, evil or the perception of evil.

Laminations is one example of the way in which individual things can be put together to make something new by their configuration; so it is with people. A committee or a school class is defined by the list of people which make it up, some of whom we later come to know as individuals and some of whom we do not; the committee or class is subsequently referred to as a unit, an entity unto itself. Frederica forms a new group around herself, just as Nigel has his family group, his women; these two groups come into conflict by the end of the novel, just as the debate over Babbletower is fought out as a debate over, in essence, community standards and community views.

The climactic court cases bring together much of the disparate symbolism of the book. The Old Bailey becomes a literal manifestation of the Tower of Babel, of the destruction of language; the law uses language to distort, not to clarify. The court system, which Frederica is told works on the principle of opposition, of confrontation, becomes a venue for the dissolution of meaning — again and again the legal language becomes parodic, ironic, as when the prosecutor responsible for trying to suppress Babbletower praises the “decent society where [a witness] is free to say what he pleases because his rights are protected by the vigilance of courts like this”. Oddly, the results of the trials are either acceptable, or understandable — that is, the wrong results in Frederica’s trial are produced not by a misuse of language, but by simple deception. By lies, and the creation of a false story.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Babbletower as a book, despite the lengthy extracts from it which make up part of the substance of Babel Tower. Nobody seems to doubt that it’s shocking, and contains radically transgressive passages; the text in Babel Tower hints at that, but avoids what must have been the more explicit passages — even given the tamer morality of the mid-60s, it’s hard to imagine the writing on offer provoking the outrage Babbletower supposedly did. Then again, many of the characters who provide testimony about the book suggest that good writing contains an element of sexual pleasure, which is difficult to understand (perhaps it’s meant to be an example of the 60s pleasure principle at work); even harder to grasp is the fact that they uniformly state or imply that Babbletower gave them sexual pleasure — that the book was sexually stimulating. I can accept that I’m less likely to be sexually stimulated by a novel than most, but even so, I wouldn’t expect a book written in the style of Babbletower to be likely to create a genuine sexual frisson; it’s so thickly ironic it’s impossible to sympathise with emotionally. As pornography, it seems neither heated, inventive, nor even especially explicit. Still, as Byatt wisely withholds the full text of the novel, it’s at least possible to imagine that the rest of the book was lurid enough to provoke the trial.

In a way Babbletower can be seen as a kind of mirror to Babel Tower; as the names suggest, a near-twin, with significant differences as well as similarities. Babel Tower is certainly concerned with this kind of otherness; Frederica takes a lover, John Ottokar, who has an identical twin — amusingly, the twin is named Paul, so that the parody of 1960s counterculture finds a new level. Paul is mentally troubled in a way that John isn’t, a distinct, if troubled, personality; so Babbletower is a troubled mirror to Babel Tower, a helical contrast to its framing text. The book is described by a prosecution witness as “a text that twists round and round itself like the snake round the tree”; its author, Jude Mason, is seen as a kind of scapegoat. He and his book are made into the Other, made evil, sacrificed.

Both books are concerned with the use of language, the nature of language. Culvert, the leader of the utopians in Babbletower, entrances his followers with rhetoric, which slowly disintegrates when faced with reality (when, near the end, his wife flees and he hunts her down, she hears the noise of his hounds as a “babble”; such is the ultimate state of decrepit language). Babel Tower, on the other hand, considers language from a host of perspectives. Is language use learned or innate? What is grammar, and how is it to be taught? One of the surprising contentions we find in the novel is that language is a function of the body; Nigel Reiver is inarticulate in every other way, but his body speaks a common language with Frederica’s, and this is why their marriage can work at all. The discovery of the photos changes this; the language becomes babble; there is no ground for communication left between the two of them, and so the marriage must end. 

(And all this is anticipated by Babbletower: “language is a bodily product,” Culvert proclaims, “a product of our earliest intimacies and desires, from the babble of the infant at the breast to the impassioned discourse of the visionary who tries to speak what is yet unformulated and unshaped.” Babies and visionaries, and babble, and the speaking of the unshaped — these things become preoccupations of Babel Tower, so again the two books circle around each other, like a helix, like a DNA strand.)

Conversely, one of the charming aspects of Babel Tower is the way it analyses itself; the way its characters are aware of the resonances within the languages they use. Frederica goes wandering through her husband’s ancestral home when he’s away, and discovers a box of pornographic pictures, to which she reacts with all the shock, horror, and naïveté that 1964 has to offer. There’s an obvious parallel, given Nigel’s status as a figure out of romance, with Bluebeard (indeed, the unshaved Nigel is described as having a “mussel-blue” shadow of a beard); Frederica and the other characters soon realise as much, and say so. And if Frederica’s own reaction to the pictures seems extreme, she herself later refers to this, noting her surprise at her own visceral response. So the characters of the book are briskly aware of the resonances through which they move, almost challenging the reader to keep up with them. When Frederica sees Jude Mason, in the witness stand, staring at his wrists and imagining shackles, we’re almost pleased that we recognise the reference to Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” but Frederica doesn’t. Mason’s own name is unpacked for us, its weight of meanings laid out, but the unspoken irony is that the most obvious associations of the name aren’t spoken — Jude, patron of lost causes; Mason, a builder of towers.

Babel Tower’s reconstruction of the 1960s, its attitudes and prejudices, seems to me who did not live through these things to have the ring of truth to it (although I do note that Byatt has the Batman TV show debut several years before it actually did, and apparently in black-and-white; perhaps British TV ran the old serials in the early 60s). I wonder, though, whether there isn’t an omission in the description of the debate over Babbletower: there’s no hint about any international reaction to the book. This seems odd, given the reception of the novel — we are given reviews which appeared in many of the newspapers and journals of the day, including an article by Anthony Burgess (who also takes to the stand during Mason’s trial; perhaps an ironic nod to the controversy around the film version of A Clockwork Orange), and you’d think a book that got that amount of press, and was then prosecuted for obscenity, would gather interest in the rest of the world.

Still, as a novel, Babel Tower is remarkably well-designed. It manages to bring alive a host of characters and ideas. It’s packed with incident, with colour. And it builds nicely; there’s the feel of a story gathering momentum, of events of importance manifesting like a storm which slowly gathers and then breaks. It’s not metafictional in the way of Still Life, but it’s still a ferociously self-aware book. Rather than have the text try to break down the text, the characters analyse the text in which they live — while a counter-text within the main text provides contrast, the second half of the double helix, an otherness that gives the book as a whole another dimension. Babel Tower is structurally adventurous, its prose is compelling, and its thought is graceful; it’s a fit successor to The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

ByattBlogging 9: The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye

The subtitle of this collection of short fiction is “Five fairy stories”, which isn’t quite right. Four stories could be described as ‘fairy stories’ — they’re told in a style that’s a pastiche of traditional fairy tales or folk tales, with much of the armature of princesses and ghosts and stock motifs that make up those kinds of stories. But the last story, the title story, which takes up more than half of the book, is nothing of the sort. It’s set in the modern world, and is told in much the same voice Byatt uses for her other fiction; it deals with love and power through the relationship of a woman and a djinn, and feels like what it is — a fantasy story, something you could find in a genre magazine like Fantasy & Science Fiction. So “fairy story” here is apparently meant to be read like “magic realism”; a marketing term, an attempt to signify to an audience that a given fantasy story is meant to be read as literary fiction, and more precisely that a book of fantasy stories is aimed at the readers of literary fiction. 

I mention this mainly to explain why I don’t intend to discuss the “fairy story” aspect of the collection, especially with respect to the title piece. That tale aside, this is a fairly slim book. Two of the remaining four stories, “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story”, were originally written as part of Possession. They stand alone quite well, but to my mind don’t gain anything by being removed from their framing novel.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess” was written (Byatt notes in an afterword) for a volume of stories in which writers were asked to make fairy tales of their own lives. Byatt chooses here to play around with fairy tale motifs; as the eldest child, she makes her heroine the eldest princess of three, rather than the youngest. But she also makes her princess aware of the standard way these stories play out; the Princess expects to fail, knowing that it is always the youngest who is destined to succeed, and so abandons her given quest to seek out another story entirely. 

Much of what follows is simply an inversion of standard fairy tales, in which the Princess is helped not by traditional archeytpes, but by a scorpion, a toad, and a cockroach (who all insist on their status as animals, explicitly disavowing any hidden human part). They teach her to shun a fowler, a huntsman, and a woodcutter. The Princess, having refused the quest she has been given, believing herself doomed to fail, instead finds a witch with power to heal — again, the image of the evil hag inverted — and a kind of resolution: “We are free, as old women are free,” the witch tells her, “who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.” Which sounds good at first blush, but the more you think about it the more you wonder: to what extent is that really freedom, and to what extent is it sour grapes, an excuse for being content with a life others have defined? Can a Princess really simply choose not to worry about Princes? This Princess never accomplishes what she sets out to do because she chooses not to try; it is unclear whether she finds a new goal, or remains with the witch, acting like an old woman while still young.

On the other hand, we’re given a tale told within the story, which follows her sister as she does accomplish the needed task; and then another tale of the third sister, finding her own way. So the most engaging aspects of “The Story of the Eldest Princess” are its insistence that every creature has its own story, and that the proper response to these stories is to believe them as they are being told and then to use them as a guide to one’s own action. The problem is that these things aren’t particularly new or weighty, and there’s no kind of real critical reaction to the stories being told — a surprising omission from Byatt. It’s hard, reading this story, not to feel that it’s a bit too facile, a bit too easy; if it subverts old tropes, that subversion is by now almost as hoary as the tropes themselves.

“Dragon’s Breath” is to my mind more successful. But I wonder if it can be said to be a proper fairy story. In essence, it follows three siblings in a village, which is menaced by a number of unstoppable earth-dragons that come down from the mountains, slowly grinding along in the earth breathing fire. The village is abandoned, the dragons burn and destroy and kill, and finally meet their end through no human action, reaching a cold lake into which they vanish. The survivors must return and rebuild their village.

So this is a story about surviving violence and devastation. It’s well-written, but the story’s meditation on the relationship between truth and fiction, especially fairy story, seems to me to be misguided. At the very end, stories are made out of the dragon attack, but: “Some things they made into tales, and some things they did not speak.” Bravery is celebrated, but not “the day-to-day misery of the slowly diminishing hope” that someone lost in the dragon attack might survive. “And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became[,] in time, charms against boredom for their children and grand-children, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.” The bit about boredom refers to the joy of the villagers in simply being alive after the coming of the dragons: “Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss.” Which is fair enough, but how is that really transmissible to children?

There seems to me to be an implication that these are lesser stories because they leave out certain aspects of the true experience, the lived emotion. But as the stories are re-told by later generations, surely these things would be added back in, if they make for better stories? Even if “slowly diminishing hope” is used as no more than a single line in a folk tale to help break up the action, it can do something for that tale.

“Dragon’s Breath” is a story about the absence of heroism — not the absence of good intentions or strength of will, but about the inability of people to do anything in a life-threatening situation. Which is fine, but I’m not sure that can be said to be a “fairy story” in any meaningful way. I don’t know whether its plot and structure can be said to fall under the definition of “fairy story”. Again, it’s a fantasy story, told in a certain style with a certain kind of vocabulary. Like “The Story of the Eldest Princess”, it celebrates a kind of quietism, a withdrawal from the broader world to focus on more local concerns and an awe of the meaning in everyday life. “Dragon’s Breath” seems to me to be much the stronger, more emotionally coherent and far less vulnerable to the question of the abdication of responsibility. 

Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced by either. After reading both of them, I had a distinct feeling that Byatt hadn’t quite worked out how to use the style she was employing to get the most power out of the stories. There seemed to be a struggle between what she wanted to say and the half-memories of traditional fairy tales; as though they had gone part of the way toward revising the fairy tale, but not all the way. If “The Glass Coffin” and “Gode’s Story” worked because Byatt was able to inhabit another voice to tell them — the voices of the characters in Possession — “The Tale of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragon’s Breath” seemed to me to be hampered by an inability to fully inhabit the voices of the narratives.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, though, is literally another story. The lead character is Gillian Perholt, one of Byatt’s scholarly elder women, who goes to Turkey to deliver a speech at a narratological congress. Her surname may be meant to evoke French fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault; at any rate, her speech deals with the story of Patient Griselda, a medieval tale of a long-suffering women which appears in Chaucer and Boccaccio. While in Turkey — after assorted visits to museums and the Hagia Sophia allow Byatt to bring in references to ancient Mesopotamia and unaging mother goddesses and the like — a friend gives Perholt a glass bottle, made of a type of glass called Çesm-i bülbül, literally “nightingale’s eye”. The bottle turns out to have a djinn within it, and the rest of the story essentially follows Perholt as she and the djinn fall in love and find a sort of modus vivendi.

This is largely a story about love and freedom; about the different kinds of bonds lovers may put upon one another. It’s also about the passage of time — Gillian has a terrifying vision of an aged, desiccated woman during her discussion of Griselda, an image of what she fears awaits her; the story of Gilgamesh is retold, at one point, in such a way that the object of Gilgamesh’s quest becomes the restoration of youth rather than the resurrection of his best friend; Gillian’s first request to the djinn is that he make her younger. Aging and the restrictions of love are recurring themes for Byatt, but the introduction of the djinn gives her a new way to explore them. Further, in addition to the obvious fantasy element, Byatt uses references to other mythologies to create a certain kind of atmosphere within her tale, linking it to a tradition of storytelling. At the same time, of course, she’s analysing the nature of story; so Gillian speaks of the Griselda story as an example of the way in which women’s stories may be seen as being about “stopped energy”, which returns not only to the theme of aging women but also hints at the image of the djinn within the stoppered bottle.

But primarily one notices the range of other tales which Byatt brings into this story. The Arabian Nights, of course; also Coleridge (a later conference, in Toronto, is held at the Xanadu hotel), The Thief of Baghdad, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (with whom the djinn has interacted), The Winter’s Tale, Persephone — the latter two of which point to a theme of rebirth, not unconnected to the issue of aging. “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is almost overrun with other stories, complementary stories, contrasting stories. Even tennis becomes viewed as a kind of story; story is the lens through which we see and understand the world.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is a success as a story in its own right, and a success as a fantasy story. Byatt’s prose and use of imagery is as fine and detailed as ever, but the ability to transgress the limits of realism gives her work a new force. Stopped energy is released. Fairy story or not, it shows a writer exploring new resources, new possibilities for form. It may be Byatt’s strongest short piece to date.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.