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.

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