This is a collection of lectures on the topic of storytelling. As with much of Byatt’s writing, it’s interesting both in its own right as criticism, and in what it says about her particular creative projects.
The first chapter, for example, is a consideration of the historical novel — how it has been viewed, examples of what has been done with the form, and what makes it important, especially in Britain. Byatt is strong on the value of historical fiction: “the aesthetic need to write coloured and metaphorical language, to keep past literatures alive and singing, connecting the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of reading.” The next chapter extends this discussion of the variety of pasts being created, and the voices being created; the ventriloquism which brings a past to life. (It is no surprise that Peter Ackroyd is discussed at length here.)
The next chapter considers the meta-narratives which frame a writer’s understanding of the world; Christianity, Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolutionary theory, the definitions of the world of which the writer is a part. Taking evolutionary theory as perhaps the most important for the present day, Byatt identifies a trend to the investigation of natural history, the discussion of the animal world, in several key (to her) novelists. This ends up as a consideration of Victorian thought and art, in the course of which Byatt discusses her own work in Angels & Insects. The book is discussed even further in the next chapter, which is about research and precision and, inevitably, language. Rather tenuously, Byatt links fiction’s alleged turn towards scientific accuracy with history and criticism’s turn towards ‘artfulness’. That’s arguably fair enough in the case of non-scholarly history, but much of academic history of the past generation or two has been marked, I think, by a move away from narrative. And to prove her point in terms of criticism, Byatt cites the puns found in a book by the critic Mary Jacobus; but the passages Byatt quotes seem merely trite, forced attempts to move from one subject to another or meaningless — perhaps anachronistic — attempts to avoid coming to grips with the writers Jacobus is trying to discuss.
In fairness, Byatt’s take on Jacobus is far from unmixed. But then she contrasts Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Melville and Poe, and I’m not sure she does the latter writers justice. Byatt specifically discusses colour symbolism — black and white — in these writers, and I’m not entirely convinced by her summation of their work. The symbolism is too uneasy, too multifarious, to be convincingly described or dismissed in a few sentences. (It probably doesn’t help that I thought Beloved was good, but not great.)
At any rate, Byatt then turns back to her own work, and it’s fascinating observing her discussion of her working procedure. She convincingly describes some of the moments of revelation common to writing — the points when suddenly things come together, and you realise you’ve become aware of something you’ve known all along. The points when something finds its voice, finds its form.
Which then leads into a chapter on storytelling and form, and European traditions with regard to story. Byatt here makes a firm distinction between tales, the romance tradition, and the novel, which is fair enough. But her discussion of storytelling involves, always, either classic stories — The Arabian Nights, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa — or self-consciously literary fiction: Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter. I found myself wishing that she’d move beyond this frame of reference to consider the output of Carter’s colleague Michael Moorcock, whose work covers a wide variety of storytelling forms — such as the pulp novel. What I mean is that I found myself wondering why, if Byatt wanted to talk about storytelling, she didn’t turn to the most prolific source of stories in the contemporary world — popular fiction, which, especially in the form of fantasy, is not only close to fairy-tale and myth in its plot structures, but also comes in a range of sophistication. Moorcock alone has written both potboilers and formally ambitious fantasy fiction; why not look at these things?
Byatt makes an interesting point in this chapter that tales have to do with death — or the avoidance of same. The story, she points out, is immortal; it outlives both reader and writer. It’s a good insight, but when Byatt goes on to try to contrast the tale with the literary story she runs into problems, and I think in part it’s because she’s missing a term in her argument; without the popular story, she can’t make things cohere. It’s no help that some her readings here are suspect; she refers to Tolkien, implicitly, as lacking “social density”, which suggests that she has not read The Lord of the Rings very closely at all (or else that she needs a more intuitively obvious phrase than “social density”). Byatt does, at the end of the chapter, bring in Terry Pratchett, and even calls him “one of the great modern storytellers”; one wishes she was able to present something of the context in which he writes, in the way in which she’s able to get across something of the intellectual background common to writers like Calvino and Calasso.
A chapter on “Ice, Snow, Glass” then follows, apparently because the book has reached a point at which an excursion into sheer symbolism is appropriate. Byatt considers this imagery in various writers and works, many of which have haunted her fiction even as the images of ice and glass have. Again, this piece is fascinating as a window onto Byatt’s own writing.
The conclusion, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is about The Arabian Nights, and its manifestations in writers like Proust and Rushdie. It’s a brief meditation on storytelling, the endless immortal death-challenging urge. It’s a nice coda, a subversion of the idea of endings; a justification of storytelling and life against destruction and death. It’s the proper way to conclude the book, an ending about endings and stories that do not end. If the book has begun with sophisticated modern and postmodern takes on the novel, it must end here, with pure romance, with tales interlinked with tales — in a structure more complex, told often with language more elaborate, than the literary novels with which this volume began. Byatt has worked her way back to the ocean of story (to borrow a term from another vast collection of narratives), and so we are released, as her critical writing ends, to find our way ourselves back into the fictions which she has just discussed; perhaps with better understanding, perhaps more aware, at any rate made joyful at, the freedom of all fictions.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.