The second book in the Potter quartet, Still Life continues the stories of Frederica Potter, briefly an au pair in southern France and then a Cambridge student; her sister Stephanie, married and working through joys and discontent; and their brother Marcus, a broken natural mystic. Woven into their stories are familiar supporting characters, notably Daniel, Stephanie’s husband, and playwright Alexander Wedderburn. Alexander, now working in TV, is contemplating a new piece about Vincent Van Gogh; from this play Still Life takes its title, theme, and several images.
It’s an ambiguous title — obviously referring to a genre of painting, but also implying a range of qualifiers to ‘life’: quiet life, or life continuing, or mere life. In view of the ending, featuring an unexpected death, there’s an irony at work. But let’s look at that first meaning, the form of painting. It’s a reference to a mode of representation; and that is a key theme of the book.
There’s much less figurative or descriptive language in Still Life than in its predecessor The Virgin in the Garden. There’s some play with colour, especially contrasting qualities of gold and violet (hence, perhaps, a play on suffocating purple prose), of rainbows and of the polyvalent symbol of the rose, but for the most part this is not that kind of book. Its language is not of that order. In a prologue — which takes place in the Royal Academy of Arts in 1980 just as the prologue to The Virgin in the Garden, featuring the same characters, took place in 1968 in the National Gallery — we are told that Alexander Wedderburn had hoped to write a plain verse with no imagery, but was betrayed by the nature of language — by the metaphors lurking in the roots of words — into figurative speech. Later in the book, we are told by Byatt herself that she began the novel with a concern echoing her character’s; like him, she found her plans for her language impossible to achieve.
A long discussion in the book on language and its inaccuracies includes a disquisition on the impossibility of attaching a precise meaning to a term like “plum coloured” (because it only raises the question of what sort of plum we’re talking about, what shade the fruit is itself, which can ultimately only be defined by looking at it); the next chapter uses “plum-coloured” as an adjective. The point seems to be that while you can question the precision of language as much as you like, it nevertheless accomplishes its task of communication quite nicely. On the other hand, the adjective refers to the eyes of a painting, and the painting “annoyed Frederica [the sitter], whose eyes were not that colour.” So visual art can be as misleading as language. It’s all perception.
What Byatt realises, what this book expresses, is that the point is not to represent life. It is instead, like Van Gogh, to represent the medium by which we understand life. It is not to paint what we see; it is to paint the air through which we see colour. This means turning aside from realism, perhaps; if so, it is to turn inward, to the emotional colouring by which we understand the world. “We all remake the world as we see it, as we look at it,” Byatt tells us on page 108, and “we always put something of ourselves — however passive we are as observers, however we believe in the impersonality of the poet, into our descriptions of the world, our mapping of our vision.” This understanding, Van Gogh’s understanding, “is new and the opposite of innocent: it is seen, and thought, and made.”
So the book is concerned, like the poet Raphael Faber whom Frederica meets at Cambridge, with the disjunction between language and meaning; a fall from the Edenic unity of name and named object (and, perhaps, namer). Frederica initially is drawn to Faber, intellectually and sexually, but ultimately turns away from him, from his skepticism of “English nature mysticism”, his dislike of Blake and Powys and Vincent Van Gogh. Instead she takes up with an unexpected and unlikely figure out of a romance novel, who exalts Tolkien and adventure stories; it’s as if the book has gone completely past problems of narrative representation of the stuff of life, past the concern of the realistic novel and of the novel of ideas, and come out the other side. It has emerged into Romance — and, indeed, Byatt’s next long work would insist upon its identity as a Romance, not as a Novel.
But this novel is not at an end, and that comes about only through the unexpected incident, the unforeshadowed stuff of life. Through misfortune, which could have been tragic in a lesser work but here is merely the occasion for pain. Through death, and learning to live after death. Through a literalising of the Venerable Bede’s image of human life as the brief flight of a bird through a lit hall in winter, coming from the night out into darkness again; only for a moment in a human space, among fire, among colour, perceptible.
The book could justifiably be called a Novel of Ideas. Which may sound overly intellectualised, but the novel is nothing of the sort; even when the narrative is on hold, there’s the sense of something vital happening. If the book feels plotless, formless, at some level that has to be deliberate. The concern with representation extends to the structure of events, or lack of same. Rather than detailed scenes showing character development, we are told about, for example, Frederica’s progress through Cambridge and the young men thereof — not unlike a 19th century novel, mixing anecdote and direct address. Other parts of the book pause the narrative to consider an idea, a notion, to present at length the gist of a speech a character gives — at the opening of a University, for example, a long discussion on picture-making (the male artist gazing at the female subject) against the reality pictured, the search for truth in art and science.
The book’s art lies, in large part, in concealing its art (even while proclaiming its artfulness). The result, as with most great novels, is curiously like life: the characters go through and help to shape events, and are changed in meaningful ways, but at the moment things occur those things seem mysterious if not random; it is only at the end that the significance of events comes clear. And here even that may be only in part, for more of the characters’ stories will come in later books.
Certainly this book contains themes from The Virgin in the Garden, and indeed from Byatt’s other works. The suffocation of an intelligent woman in marriage and family is dramatised by the domesticated Stephanie slowly losing her vocabulary, her words — losing, specifically, her book of Wordsworth (a name almost inherently significant, especially here), thus losing poetry. On the other hand, early in the book, Frederica has intimations (a peculiarly Wordsworthian word) that “Wordsworth’s language was for his time and place only”; still, his language, and her ability to modify his language, gives her a voice, a way to express herself, if not understand Wordsworth’s mythic vision of the world. Frederica’s wrestling with these tensions looks forward to the end of the book, to the aesthetic and life choices — the two, here, are one — that she makes then. And, meanwhile, she attends presentations of Shakespeare in French, Macbeth “more damned troubadour than Scots butcher”, speaking “strange, denuded fast prose”. Translation; the finding of the right language for the right representation.
Like The Virgin in the Garden, the book plays different times against each other to gain a sense of perspective, of layering. Still Life goes beyond its predecessor, though, being in no way shy about its own status as a fiction; but rather than weaken belief in the story, it strengthens it, as though the fourth dimension was not enough to make things real. So Byatt address the reader directly, as in expressing her concern over language; and then later, in a crucial discussion of fertility and the germ that is life, which gives rise to her revelation of the germ of the novel: a woman and a child considering seedlings. An imagined scene? A real scene? It touches the quick of the book, the patterns of death and rebirth barely perceptible in its language and its story.
The book is concerned with patterns of this sort, the patterns we see and those we only imagine. The spectre of Freud is raised, examined, discarded. A character takes an unfashionable anti-modernist stance, insisting that there is order of some kind to human experience, scientifically verifiable if not with our present science; he is described as “prophetic”, and in many ways seems to be speaking with something like the author’s voice.
How are we to perceive or understand works of art? Hospitals and other institutions in the book hang prints on walls. The Reaper and the Sower, paintings meant by Van Gogh to illuminate (we are told) the extremes of experience, come to be “bourgeois brightening-up”. But then again, visual art isn’t writing: “Pigment is pigment and light is light in any culture. But words, acquired slowly over a lifetime, are part of a different set of perceptions of the world, they have grown with us, they restrict what we see and how we see it.” Stephanie’s loss of language is the loss of her world. This perhaps marks a difference from the previous novel; where unheard melodies were sweet in The Virgin in the Garden, here the things not said seem to cry out to be articulated — to be understood, in the case of Frederica’s intellectual development, or to be revealed, in the case of sexual abuse which never quite gets made public.
Still Life is a major book. It’s heftier than The Virgin in the Garden, more powerful, and more passionate. It carries on from the previous novel, and expands its scope — theme, character, and structure all become weightier, denser. It’s sometimes wearying to read, yet, curiously, at the same time it is invigorating — Byatt’s characters think with passion, which is both fatiguing and inspiring. It is a book that literally challenges its readers to consider how they see the world; its strength may be that it justifies the challenge, and helps suggest a new and better vision.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.