Monday, April 6, 2009

ByattBlogging 5: Sugar and Other Stories

The eleven tales in this collection of short fiction aren’t all ghost stories, though some are, but they all share a sense of desolation, of loss; there’s something haunting about them. Which is to say that they’re effective as short stories, working in a distinctively different fashion than the novel, which can be as discursive and encyclopaedic as it likes. Without being parables, these are stories which work by implication. 

The strongest of these stories show, in slightly different ways than her long fiction, some of Byatt’s key strengths — her ability to depict characters thinking, and thinking about thinking, and feeling about thinking; also, her ability to find meaning in unexpected images, and then meaningful connections between those images. On the other hand, the weakest of the tales, I think, have a sense of borrowed form; of stories written in the shape of other stories. In the form of the stereotypical literary short story, for example, building to a character’s moment of epiphany which resolves in some way the tensions of the story.

The first story, “Racine and Tablecloths”, follows familiar ground for Byatt; it follows a young girl, Emily, struggling to live the life of the mind and escape a repressive school atmosphere for the intellectual life of an elite university. Gender politics are clearly an issue, but at the same time, the antagonist of the story — named as such in the first sentence — is Emily’s teacher, Martha. Emily also has problems interacting with her less-gifted female schoolmates, with whom she signally fails to connect (Emily joins the class as the twenty-ninth girl in the group, when all the other students are already paired off as friends; she is literally the odd girl out). That said, the norms of a patriarchal society clearly underlie the way this nominally female group functions, and even underlies Emily’s own thinking; at one point, we’re told that Emily invents an imaginary ideal Reader for her essays, a male figure modelled on the male Gods she reads of and is taught to believe in.

Emily reads Racine at school, and his Phèdre becomes one of the symbolic touchstones of the story, an image of not-clearly-perceived adult emotions, a world of passion and divine anger. The image of tablecloths derives from a memory of Emily’s aunt, another intelligent woman whose circumstances did not allow her develop her mind; instead, she had to look after her family, doing needlework and embroidery. These things come together as Emily sits for her French exam: “Why go on, a soft voice said in her inner ear, what is all this fuss about? What do you know, it asked justly enough, of incestuous maternal passion or the anger of the gods? These are not our concerns: we must make tablecloths and endure.” The ending of the story, carrying Emily’s story forward into another generation, is powerfully ambiguous while still being clear and precise.

If “Racine and Tablecloths” is one of the stronger pieces in the story, it seems to me that the next story, “Rose-coloured Teacups,” is one of the weaker. It’s a very short anecdote about a mother trying to connect with her daughter while at the same time envisioning a gathering of herself, her mother, and her grandmother. The image of embroidery as a sort of ambiguously-valued female art — beautiful, but domestic — returns. It’s a story of mothers, but also of the influence of fathers; still, it’s very slight, and the form of it feels too simple, too derived from other writing.

“The July Ghost” is an odd story of recurring actions, partly told by one character to another and partly not. It’s a ghost story in the vein of M.R. James, but without the scholarly detachment; there’s a far greater sense of family life here, and of the absence of that life. It’s a story of connections missed; of cycles, and the need for rebirth. And of the refusal of new birth. It’s quiet, melancholic, and very effective.

“The Next Room” is another ghost story, and again changing homes — the main character changing the place where they live — affects the plot significantly. Family matters also play a role; the main character is an aging woman whose mother’s death leaves her free to live. Is it too late, at fifty-nine, for her to have the life she wanted? Byatt gets at a lot of substance in this story, with clusters of significant imagery; death and burial in the earth, miners also digging into the earth, roots in the earth giving new life (a spiritualist with the too-direct name of Mrs. Roote shares a near-death-experience with the main character), the rootlessness of guests in a hotel, then the loss of a tooth as a sign of aging, a real estate agent (who deals in land, in the selling of earth) named Maw. It has to do with restless spirits, with men left for dead by changing times, and with the desire, which may or may not be realised, to make things better for the future and the past.

“The Dried Witch” is a departure, the first story by Byatt not set in England, and perhaps not set in the twentieth century. It takes place in an Asian (probably Chinese) village, with an aging woman, A-Oa, whose family has died and who now has no other option than to desire to be a witch. This does not entirely go well, as the desires of the village around A-Oa, and her own desire for desire, lead her to cast dangerous spells — which might have an effect, and might not. Dryness, an image Byatt has played with in her novels, here takes centre stage; it is the antithesis of desire, of life. A-Oa’s attempt to escape it seems to lead to tragedy; but the ending allows for another reading. That said, although well-written, the story never quite rises to the level of being surprising; it plays out much as one would expect from a story about a neophyte witch in late middle-age living in a male-dominated society.

“Loss of Face” is also set in Asia, this time in Korea (which is not explicitly named). It’s one of the stronger stories in the anthology; an English professor tries to communicate across the cultural divide with Korean scholars, successfully in the case of Professor Moon but failing disastrously in the case of Professor Sun. As in popular stereotypes, the visiting professor has problems distinguishing faces. This is particularly poignant, as the professor’s name is “Celia,” which can mean ‘blind’; Celia is also a popular name in seventeenth century writing, which this Celia teaches; and, of course, images of the sun and moon with human faces are common images from the Renaissance. In other words, the symbols of sun and moon interact here with another set of symbols Byatt has introduced (starting in the title). This is a story about misreadings and the difficulty of translation and intercultural understanding; the Tower of Babel is another image introduced, a literal midpoint between east and west. The tale is slight on a plot level, but, as with the best of Byatt’s stories here, potent on a thematic level, an imaginative level — the writing, the symbols, light a fire in the mind.

“The Day That E.M. Forster Died” is perhaps the most explicitly self-aware story in the book, the most artificial and literary. These are not necessarily bad things, and Byatt makes her main character — Mrs. Smith, a novelist, who is inspired to write what could be her masterwork — lively enough that the story works. As Smith wanders out into London, turning over her projected book in her head, she finds out that Forster has died; and then she runs into an old acquaintance, Conrad, who believes that he is a secret agent. So this is a story in many ways about the interface not only of art and life, but of art and art; of the different stories we create to make sense of our lives. Forster, but also Conrad. And Tolkien, and epic; Smith’s vision for her story is of unity, tying together a number of different plots, including a semi-parody of Tolkien, into one whole work. But Conrad, with his paranoid ramblings about super-scientific weapons, about reversing death — the idea of which saves us, Byatt tells us by way of quoting Forster — delays her, impedes her, and sets up a powerful, tragic ending. It’s a story about art, and about art which is about art, and about the world which is not art; it’s about time, and the inevitability of death. It’s about beginnings coming together; and about inevitable endings.

“The Changeling” is another story about a writer, in this case Josephine Piper, a writer of books for and about lonely teens. A friend of hers, a school headmaster, asks her to take in a boy which reminds him of one of her most prominent characters, Henry Smee. She used to do this frequently, along with her son Peter, taking in guests from the school at holidays — Lost Boys, she called them. So: Peter, Lost Boys, Smee. But the first two are notable by their absence, and the last doesn’t take the role you’d expect. Josephine writes about fear; her adolescents know fear from the inside out, and that’s the main characteristic of Henry Smee. But the presence of Smee inhibits Josephine, who’s used to putting up a shell, a facade, around other people. She can’t have one of her own characters — or something like one of her own characters — live with her, not and continue to write. Josephine’s shell of self-possession inhibits communication with Smee (whose name can also be read as a cry for individual identity); like Daniel in Still Life, she is in part too strong for her own good. The result of the story feels both inevitable and natural. It’s a well-constructed story, but still feels oddly hollow.

“In the Air” is the tale of an elderly lady, Mrs. Sugden, who lives alone and is becoming increasingly afraid of the outside world. Taking her dog for a walk, she sees a blind woman, and then a man following the blind woman; fearing that this man is a mugger, a rapist, a thug, Sugden strikes up a conversation with the other woman, Mrs. Tillotson. Rather than leave them, the man also begins speaking with them, with the result that Tillotson invites them back to her apartment for tea. In essence, this is a story about Sugden and her growing fears — fear of men, fear of the outside world, fear of all the things that are in the air. The ending, though, is problematic. Is the man — Barry, whose name suggests that he’s a literalised manifestation of the fear, the barrier, that keeps Sugden isolated, alone, unable to connect with others — actually the criminal Sugden fears? The ending implies too strongly that he is. It seems an oddly flat, direct conclusion. Byatt’s successful stories often have particularly strong endings, not only unexpected in terms of their plot, but also throwing a new light on the symbols or themes of the story as a whole; in this case, it feels as though things didn’t quite come together, as though the final mesh of elements resulted in a deflation rather than an explosion.

“Precipice-Encurled” is a multilayered story, with Robert Browning as a peripheral character (the title being a phrase in one of his poems); it can’t help but look forward to Possession. But it also looks back to Still Life; this is largely a story about a moment when vision changed, when incipient modernism — here, as in Still Life, in the form of painting — challenged old ways of seeing the world. It’s a story about intricately-linked lives, including Browning’s, and it plays with perspectives — one of the characters is a twentieth-century scholar studying one of the nineteenth-century characters. The problem is that the different lives we’re given are mostly given in the form of scenes, rather than narrative, which makes it difficult to really grasp them. In a sense, that may be the point; the story is largely about connections missed, opportunities thwarted by fate. So, like many of the other stories, it’s also about the tensions of life and art — the attempt by artists to develop a vision large enough to encompass the unpredictable and cruel world.

Finally, “Sugar” is an apparently autobiographical story about the narrator’s parents — this is the only story in the book, and the only one of Byatt’s stories published to this point, to use a first person narrator — and family myths. It’s about how these fictionalised stories are a manifestation of the story-telling instinct. Legends about the narrator’s family touch the cosmic stories of Ragnarok. Specifically, it’s about the death of the narrator’s father, and his life, and about the difference between her father and her (story-making, untruth-telling) mother. It is about the creation of life, of what we think a life is, from the stories we are given. If it seems autobiographical, it’s because, like the best autobiographies, it’s intensely aware of the multiple levels of truth and fiction, of how a narrative account is defined by what is elided as well as what is included. It’s a strong note on which to end the book.

Overall, these are well-written stories. Byatt’s precise prose style carries even the weakest of them. Her ability to find and manipulate symbols, to draw out unexpected connections, make the best lively and unexpected. The authorial voice is remote from the characters, but this in no way impedes our ability to identify with them, to feel for them. Stylistically, there isn’t a great variation in tone between the stories, though there’s enough difference in terms of plot, setting, and character that this is no real problem — it could be seen as a unifier, in fact, lending the book a cohesion. It’s difficult to read any story here as a masterwork (though the title story and “Precipice-Encurled” are very strong, with considerable structural play), or as possessing the power of Byatt’s novels. But they show Byatt trying out new ideas, new themes, and of course new forms. They’re worth reading in their own right, make no mistake, but gain another level of interest as suggesting a new stage of Byatt’s development as a writer.

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

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