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.

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