The Game, A.S. Byatt’s second novel, seems almost to contain her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, in the same way a cube contains a square. One of the main characters, Julia, is a novelist, a writer of books about women enclosed in the circumscribed world society prescribed for women in the mid-to-late 60s. Novels, that is, very like The Shadow of the Sun, though perhaps less thoughtful, less artistically ambitious. But in the first two chapters we also meet Julia’s husband, Thor, and her sister, Cassandra; and besides these two mythically-resonant names there is Simon, an old flame of both Julia and Cassandra, who now presents television documentaries about snakes in the Amazon rainforest — another mythically-resonant name, and a setting expressly compared to the Garden of Eden.
Much of the book is about the interaction of these characters, along with Julia’s daughter Deborah, and Ivan, a television producer who puts Julia on an arts discussion programme and becomes her lover. Thor is a Quaker, like Julia and her parents; he believes in doing good in this world, and putting imagination to the side. Cassandra has become an Oxford don, a rare female professor; she’s a medievalist, concerned with symbols and abstraction. So as much as the book’s about the interaction of characters, it’s also about Julia’s situation as a creative artist between these two points of view. The Game is not shy to bring in self-conscious and nearly-metafictional discussion about the role of abstraction in art and art’s place in society, while maintaining The Shadow of the Sun’s concern with the details of character. In fact, the character work here is probably more detailed, more sophisticated, the characters more aware of the effects they have on each other, even as the themes and symbols are more allusive, more complex.
And these things dovetail through clever irony. By the end of the book, Thor the pacifist Quaker turns out to have more in common with his namesake than we at first see. And Cassandra, fascinated by the meaning of costume in Arthurian epic, is appalled by a novel which finds moral significance in the fit of a modern woman’s dress. Julia goes from watching Simon on television discussing snakes to watching snakes through glass in a zoo with Simon beside her. Snakes are associated with rebirth, a shedding of the skin; that association becomes subsumed in a discussion characters have about fertility myths; but by the end of the book at least one character has sloughed off an old self and been reborn.
The book is much concerned with reality and with symbol. The titular game, a childhood pastime of Julia and Cassandra, created by them and incorporating maps and miniature figures and medieval stories (sounding in all oddly like Dungeons & Dragons, which would not be created until several years after The Game was published), is an image of reality simplified or reality heightened by being made symbolic. “A common myth,” Cassandra describes it at one point, which perhaps “contained and resolved [their] difficulties.” Myth is key in this book, sometimes the same as and sometimes in contrast to religious faith: characters ponder their relationship to their Creator, even as some of them consider their relationship to the act of creation.
Cassandra associates the game with innocence, which she had previously dismissed as unreal. But then Cassandra meditates often on images of glass, models and windows and mirrors; things which sometimes afford a clear view, and which sometimes frame or confine. And if this seems like formal play, its relevance to life is made ruthlessly clear by the end of the novel: we create reality, especially the reality we call other people, by the stories we tell ourselves about them.
This last point is crucial, because it informs the style and structure of the novel. Consider this sentence, from late in the book: “In the old days she would have attributed Simon’s persistence in telling her about Julia to a largely conscious malice, a desire to stir things up; now she was sure that he thought he wanted simply to prove, both to himself and to her, that he lived on a neutral level, they were all together, people with equal weights in the world.” That’s Cassandra speaking, a naturally rigorous thinker. But consider how much that sentence does. We get a hint of Cassandra’s growth, and her awareness of her own growth, in the first clause. Then the complexity of “she was sure that he thought he wanted” — emphasising her perception of Simon’s motives, and how certain she is, but implying also the multiple levels of desire: what he wants is not what he thinks he wants, there is something more. But the novel is also aware that this is Cassandra’s view of him, not necessarily the reality. So: what is striking here is not the sophistication of thought or of character, but the sophistication of the character’s thoughts — and of the limits of that sophistication.
The book seems to me a vast improvement on its predecessor. There’s more to the plot, more choices and agency given the characters, more action to follow. The characters have more scope to develop themselves, and their motivations are more complex and more concisely described. The prose keeps a level tone, rarely rising to the heights of visionary description of The Shadow of the Sun but never bogging down; instead, items acquire symbolic weight, making a simple declarative sentence heavy with thematic resonance, with meaning. And the theme itself is more complex and allusive. Images are better-developed. Published only three years after The Shadow of the Sun, this seems a far more mature and accomplished work.
On a final note, it’s interesting to see echoes of previous and later work in this novel. “There is no possession,” Julia thinks in a curiously striking passage near the end of the book. More resonantly: virgins and gardens are obvious symbols in this book of innocence, which itself is a somewhat-debated concept. But it’s also difficult to forget that The Shadow of the Sun began with young Anna Severell in a garden shed, her secret retreat where she developed a kind of proto-artistic sensibility. And for those looking back over Byatt’s career, it’s interesting as well that her next novel, published eleven years later, is titled The Virgin in the Garden.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.