Any assessment of a living writer’s accomplishment must be at least in part provisional. Still, when dealing with a body of work like A.S. Byatt’s — eight novels, five short-story collections, and one book of paired novellas — it should be possible to make at least a few observations.
Certainly one can spot recurring motifs. Texts, interleaved into a main text; stories-inside-stories. A concern with women’s roles and the place of women in society over the past fifty years (a concern I have perhaps not highlighted enough in these posts). Zoology, particularly in the later novels but also present in The Game, her second book (and it is interesting that the zoologist Simon Moffit, from that book, is mentioned towards the end of Byatt’s most recent novel as well). Fantasy, or fairy story, either as a form in itself or as a contrast to a realist work which contains the fantasy as a fiction. A concern with story and storytelling; with the nature of reality. A distrust of theory, and of facile attempts to explain the world. Scandinavia and Scandinavians; as characters, typically male, usually helpful or admirable. Quakers and Quakerism. A concern with the life of the spirit, a search for something resembling God, a modernist deity. A concern with character, and the form of the novel. A recurring interest in certain writers, including Proust, Tolkien, Tennyson, Milton, George Elliot, the Brontës. A concern with painting and visual art, especially Matisse, luxe, calme et volupté. The south of France as a place of light and of enlightenment. The university as a haven for the intellect, a model of reason and a vital element in society. Colours: red and white, green and gold, or else blue and white, gold and silver — linking characters and situations. Mythic images, especially females: the Medusa, Venus Anadyomene, Proserpina.
There’s a lot in there, but over the thousands of pages of Byatt’s books they become recognisable touchstones — enough to create a world, enough to populate it, enough to give it an identity without seeming enclosed. For all the list of motifs above, Byatt is still capable of being surprising; every new book seems to bring in some new concern, or else amplify an existing concern in a surprising way. Crucially, she develops her ideas, her themes, her images, in not only innovative but consistently intriguing ways. They’re like gears, in a sense; they interlock, turning as the pages go by to fit together in new configurations.
This is quite necessary, I think, for Byatt’s is not primarily a narrative art. Her novels in particular are not hesitant about interrupting their narrative drive to give the gist of a character’s speech on a technical issue of biology or philosophy. They earn the title “novel of ideas”, but at the expense of the forward motion of story. This is much less the case with Byatt’s short fiction, which tends to be focussed on the tale and its telling. In a way, her novels are like her short fiction expanded with more character detail and digression — there is more in them, but more does not necessarily happen.
What makes them compelling, even vital, is not the ideas as such, though; it’s their expression. Byatt is attentive to words, their roots and their development. From this interest she has crafted a powerful style. It’s not based on intricate sentence structure; she rarely tries to dazzle the reader with page-long sentences. Instead, she has developed a language based around hard nouns and precise adjectives. Her narrative voice, her vocabulary, had a clarity to it that compels the reader’s attention. For me, an unfortunate side-effect is that she has not yet found a voice in the first-person (unless one counts the apparently-autobiographical short story “Sugar”) which reads as strongly as her third-person fiction.
Her character-work generally is above reproach. That she thinks about her characters in depth, and their relation to the world around them, is obvious. It’s something that’s been a constant since Shadow of the Sun, her first book. In that book, the story seemed to move fitfully between pages-long character analyses; since then, Byatt has become much better at working her character description into the unfolding tapestries of her stories. At the same time, her characters seem more prone to come alive, to do things that surprise themselves and the reader, and perhaps even the author. Most important, Byatt’s routinely capable of creating interesting, lively personalities who can carry a novel, or indeed several novels.
I’ve read that Byatt doesn’t like her four-book series — The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman — to be described as the Frederica Potter quartet. But it is Frederica who is the most vivid character in these books, the most alive and the most constant. She is what most clearly defines them for the reader; intelligent, strong-willed, highly sexual, unafraid, working through a society not always congenial to a woman who is any of these things much less all of them. In any event, these books stand out the most in Byatt’s bibliography to date; obviously her longest work when viewed as a unit, they also contain some of her best writing, and some of her most experimental. The last of them, at this moment, is her last major long work. They are, all in all, a good display of her characteristics; they are what she is, as a writer. With the quartet now finished, it will be fascinating to see where she goes from here; how will she change?
Paradoxically, despite a notable lack of jokes or obvious humour in her books, I think it’s possible to view Byatt as a comic novelist. There is a warmth to her writing, for all its ruthless clarity. There is bemusement and invention. There is a constancy of tone, in other words, which is engaging and generous. There’s an optimism about the human condition, married with a real concern about the effect of humans on the planet around them. Byatt is a writer with real concerns, then; but, primarily, she is an artist with a passion for language. It is this which makes her worth reading. Worth thinking about and writing about. She is a writer from whom it is capable to learn much, about language and imagery and structure; she is also a writer who it is interesting to follow across the course of her career. I don’t see any reason to expect that to change in the future.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.