What I know of England, I know only from its writers. Now nearing the start of my year-long sojourn in Norwich, I thought it prudent to brush up on contemporary British literature. What better way to get acquainted with the newest UNESCO city of literature? So recently I went on a Bookay-Ukay spree and brought home Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, and A.S. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. (Okay, I bought them so I could get them signed.) The Matisse Stories, a very slim collection, came as a late birthday gift from Danica, who also got me Junot Diaz’s Drown.
It’s my first time to read Byatt, but I didn’t need more than a few pages to know that I was in the hands of a master. “Medusa’s Ankles” opens innocuously: a Le Nu Rose copy entices a middle-aged woman to enter a salon for the first time. But when she becomes a regular customer, Lucien’s bears witness to her gradual disintegration in more ways than she intended. At 28 pages, the shortest of the three stories, “Medusa’s Ankles” comes across as a very sharp, very tight piece. The setup is fitting, the combination of details symphonic; no description seems superfluous. By contrast, “Art Work” meanders for several pages, introducing us to its characters, slowly, slowly, slowly. We do not even get a whiff of the conflict until past the halfway point; everything before that is just description, backdrop. That hypnotic, auditory opening? That five-page litany of Robin’s color “fetishes”? That’s Byatt setting you up. That’s her anticipating the conflict, laying down bricks for the concluding twist. At times I no longer knew whether some details were integral to the story—and frankly I didn’t care. The writer had already earned my trust, and I had long relinquished the critical stance for the sheer pleasure of her prose, which lilts and dips and somehow always allocates the right word to the right place. Even pox-infected skin occasions a lyrical description: “a wonderfully humped and varied terrain of rosy peaks and hummocks, mostly the pink of those boring little begonias with fleshy leaves, but some raging into salmon-deeps and ochre crusts.”
I do not have a favorite, but “The Chinese Lobster” is by far the most subtle of the three. Much of the narrative revolves around—and is indeed attributed to—an unstable girl named Peggi Nollett. Only later do we realize the story is not hers at all, and plumbs a concern much more delicate than the one she stresses. Byatt’s talent for articulating human vagaries is apparent from the first story, but it is in “The Chinese Lobster” that I find this gem:
Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, or hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.
Apart from Byatt’s adroit handling of language, what strikes me most about these pieces—especially the last two—is how they reflect the author’s uncanny intelligence. Her casual familiarity with pigments often made me reach embarrassingly for the dictionary. Her knowledge and self-assurance create a fertile foundation on which she constructs these stories. As a young writer, I am envious. I cannot even imagine undertaking a project of this scale: a collected ekphrasis devoted to one of the most celebrated painters of all time? The prospect is more than daunting. But then again, we’re talking about A.S. Byatt—Booker Prize winner, honorary degree collector, and international literary giant. I fervently hope to meet her one day. And get that autograph.
She came to trust him with her disintegration.
They call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives them.
It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person.