A.S. Byatt wrote Degrees of Freedom, a book of criticism dealing with the novels of Iris Murdoch, in 1965. I have an edition from 1994, which adds a number of articles Byatt wrote about Murdoch’s work during the intervening years, and tops it off with a short essay reviewing Byatt’s own then-recently-published Angels & Insects. This piece, “The Religion of Fiction”, written by Michael Levenson, considers Byatt’s work in relation to Murdoch’s; it talks about some of the points of congruity between the writers, describes some ways in which Byatt is indebted to Murdoch, and generally suggests ways of looking at Byatt’s fiction in light of Iris Murdoch’s accomplishment. So the book as a whole seemed worth considering, if only briefly, as I try to find my way through Byatt’s works. Since the edition I read concludes with the review of Angels & Insects, I’ve chosen to put these comments after my post on that book.
The Levenson essay first. It begins by considering whether Byatt should be considered postmodern, a difficult word in many respects. On the one hand, she shares a postmodern tendency toward pastiche, and a habit of playing games with narrative. On the other, Levenson argues, “you miss a good deal of what is most interesting in Byatt, and what is most significant in the movement of which she is a part, if you ignore the way her postmodernity finds its ground in something else, something older, namely an earnest attempt to get back before the moderns and revive a Victorian project that has never been allowed to come to completion. What you have in Byatt is an odd-sounding but perfectly intelligible creature, the postmodern Victorian. She knows where we live and when; she knows her Joyce and Woolf and Beckett; but she is undeterred in the belief that the road into the twenty-first century winds exactly through the middle of the nineteenth.”
This, I think, is a good description of the nature of Byatt’s work. I should note that I don’t think writing of this nature is as unusual as Levenson apparently does. It seems to me that while modernism in many ways rebelled against or subverted traditional literary forms, much of what is called postmodernism is actually a late form of modernism which took that rebellion further. So, say, Eliot’s free verse and use of myth in a parodic way in The Waste Land challenged traditional ideas of what poetry was (for me, the grail motif in The Waste Land specifically looks back to and revises The Idylls of the King for a new century); but something like Nabokov’s Pale Fire goes further, challenging the idea of interpretation of a work of art, and extending parody into new forms — the book parodies its own central text, the poem to which much of the novel is an extended commentary. So if modernism tried to bring out meaning through new and mroe fragmented forms, this sort of postmodernism uses that fragmentation to call the idea of meaning into question.
I’d argue, though, that the sort of postmodernism Byatt represents is a truer postmodernism: it takes up the structural ideas of the moderns and late moderns, and uses them in a way which is both knowing and also a deliberate attempt to connect with generations before modernism. It is, literally, what happens after modernism. So for true postmodernists — I’d include someone like Peter Ackroyd in this category, as well as Iain Sinclair — the modernist revolution is simply another phase in the ongoing development of literary traditions. It seems to me that one way to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ postmodernism is in the use of pastiche as opposed to parody; pastiche, as in Byatt’s work, uses the voices of previous times or traditions for contemporary purposes, while parody tends to be more destructive in nature. So Levenson’s “postmodern Victorian” uses the techniques developed over the course of the twentieth century as a way of revivifying the nineteenth.
Now, what about Iris Murdoch? “Murdoch,” says Levenson, “has been [Byatt’s] literary mother.” He’s referring to Byatt’s championing of an essay by Murdoch, “Against Dryness”. For Levenson, it’s been a constant throughout Byatt’s career, and it’s tough to argue with him; images of dryness — and its reverse, water — are constant in Byatt’s work. Degrees of Freedom begins with an examination of “Against Dryness”, which Byatt describes as essentially a critique of modernist, or symbolist, ideas; dryness has to do with structure in art, with form, at the expense of the living, of “the accidental, the idiosyncratic happenings of life, or [Shakespeare’s] power to arouse in the audience an immediate emotional attachment to Falstaff.” Dryness, for Murdoch and Byatt, also has to do with the small and the crystalline, and is opposed to the nineteenth-century novelistic conception of character.
Further, Murdoch (as Byatt presents her) suggests the main twentieth-century alternative to dryness is a sprawling, shapeless, “journalistic” novel. Both the journalistic novel and the “dry” novel fail to grapple with human character; the dry novel in particular, says Byatt, tends to present main characters who are self-contained, not depicted as part of a society. Dryness is equated with a facile sincerity which is self-centred, as opposed to truth, which is other-centred. The title of Byatt’s book on Murdoch comes from “Against Dryness”; for Byatt, the phrase seems to suggest the freedom inherent in the idea of the naturalistic or novelistic character, as balanced against the society in which that character is a part and the values which form both society and character — “a rich and complicated world,” as she quotes Murdoch, “from which as a moral being he has much to learn.”
I’ve never read Murdoch’s novels (though Degrees of Freedom intrigues me enough to want to start), but it certainly seems to me that this is a very good description of the values underlying Byatt’s own writing. Her characters are not only well-rounded, but, crucially, clearly function as part of a society — they act as people in a given time and a given place, and in many cases must struggle to define their own freedom of action or of thought against the conscious or unconscious barriers of the world around them. Thus Frederica Potter. At the same time, they are capable of surprising things, or of having surprising things happen to them; thus Stephanie Potter.
Levenson suggests (and Byatt in her introduction to this book implicitly endorses his view) that this idea to character should be seen as a very nineteenth-century approach. There seems to be a link here: Victorian character, Victorian settings in Angels & Insects and Possession. But at the same time, the setting is in a sense incidental; the aim is to show an individual in relation to society. So the Potter books, set in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, also show the societies of their times and individuals acting in relation to them. This seems to me to justify the use of these past settings, if they needed justification — by seeing individuals set against the confines of their own societies, we gain an insight into our own relationship to the world around us. The degrees of freedom we have, or lack, in our own life and thought.
Against the complexity of character and society, against the transcendent Good which Murdoch (says Byatt) believes to exist and to be comprehensible in art, Murdoch places egoism and theories which claim to explain the world. Freudian theory, for example, or Marxism. Again, this seems relevant to Byatt’s work, especially Possession, which explicitly questions the value of ideology in interpreting the world; but then much of Byatt’s fiction may be said to be warning us about allowing theory to be our guide to reality, about difficulties of perception, of the slipperiness of analogy. More: when Byatt discusses Murdoch on the question of representing the world in language, or on the way we now think about language, it’s impossible not to recall Byatt’s use of painting (in Still Life, for example, or the short story “Precipice-encurled”) as a way to discuss problems of representation in her own work.
So when Byatt writes about Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, it’s interesting to find an examination of an image which seems to me to be important for this theme and for Byatt’s work in general. That is the image of the net; which also turns up as a mesh, or perhaps as needlework. It’s a symbol from Wittgenstein; the net is meant to be a simplified image of reality, a unification of the world which must leave out fine details. The net here is roughly analogous to a low-resolution TV or computer monitor. You get a picture, but not an entirely true picture. Any description of the world is a kind of net, which must leave out some level of detail. But, conversely, the net itself can be shaped into art; thus, perhaps, the embroidery which turns up in much of Byatt’s later fiction. This shaped net, this distortion of the world, is the crystalline consolation of form against which Murdoch wrote; but it is also, perhaps, an element which should be seen as being in creative tension against the shapeless of the journalistic novel.
One can find incidental observations in Degrees of Freedom on other symbols which have turned up in Byatt’s own writing. For example, speaking of Murdoch’s use of the Medusa, Byatt refers to the Freudian idea that it represents the male fear of castration and the female genitals, while Sartre saw it as simply the fear of being watched; either of these might suggest something of the way she used the image of the Medusa head in Possession. Byatt notes that Murdoch’s choice to name a character Jesse may refer to the Biblical Tree of Jesse; it’s hard not to remember that Byatt used two characters named Jesse (historical people, it has to be said) in her novella “The Conjugal Angel”.
Similarly, some of the asides in the book are oddly striking not for what they say about Murdoch but for how they might describe Byatt’s fiction. In particular, Byatt quotes Murdoch as stating that “all novels are necessarily comic” (also that “Art is adventure stories”, which seems suggestive in light of Possession); it’s intriguing to consider this dictate in light of Byatt’s own work. Her writing has rarely seemed to me to be laugh-out-loud funny, but she certainly has an eye for the absurd. Should Byatt be considered a comic novelist? Can comedy be considered as a generosity of spirit and invention, a straight-faced exuberant creation? A matter of warmth? It’s a question of definition; but also, to some extent, of perspectives.
In her introduction to this book, Byatt asks that it be seen “not as a book about my writing, but as a writer’s book about writing, a book by a writer reading.” So it is unwise to try to read too much into a quotation here, an aside there. Still, the book displays something of the nature of Byatt’s thought, in a discursive as opposed to narrative form. We can see what her concerns are. By seeing what she thinks, we can perhaps intuit something about how she thinks. Which then can be used, tentatively, to inform a reading of her fiction.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.