Goodbye to A.S. Byatt
A. S. Byatt died yesterday, aged 87. She had what people will say was ‘a good innings.’ I wonder why we feel that cricket is the appropriate metaphor for a long life, well-lived? Cricket is a game which goes on for weeks, of course, but is it a sign of having lived well? Maybe that’s where the good bit comes in. Do we ever say that someone had a bad innings? Could it be long and bad or is the length of the innings the sign of its goodness? I don’t know. Cricketing metaphors aside, the news made me sad.
I, like so many people, discovered Byatt through the Booker Prize winning, Possession. I didn’t read it because it won a prize. I picked it up because it had one of my favourite paintings on the cover, The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones. I love that painting because it is unashamedly dark and twisted and deeply sexy. It strips away all that Pre-Raphaelite guff about honour and chivalry and points to the unapologetic kink beneath the surface. What I read on the back didn’t sound like it would match what the cover promised butI hoped it might. It did.
I was completely pulled in to Byatt’s world. She invented dark academia long before it had a title to describe it. Since then I have read countless books that promise to do what she did so effortlessly, but none have delivered like she does. For me it remains the ur text to which others only aspire. Babel by R.F. Kuang has hints of it, but there is a little too much awkward polemic. A bit too much tell and not enough show.
Once I’d finished Possession I was gripped by the need to read everything else Byatt had written. She was one of those writers I would save up to buy hardbacks for, which is an accolade I think isn’t used enough, but should be.
It’s hard to pick a favourite of her books because she wrote so many surprising and brilliant books that it was almost like discovering someone new all over again every time you started one of her novels. I think, if forced to choose I’d cheat a little and go for the Virgin in the Garden tetralogy, which across four books (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman), plots the life and times of Frederica Potter, a strong, strange and complex woman who is so vividly drawn that she became tremendously real to me, to the extent that I was bereft that the series didn’t continue forever.
For me, these are books which nudge me to think about Virginia Woolf and the idea that Frederica has a Mrs. Dallowayish air to her, except that Frederica doesn’t get submerged in her own thoughts. Frederica always comes out fighting.
There is just so much to love about Byatt. Like Woolf, she wrote about her passions, her problems and her ideas in an immensely readable way. If she was enthusiastic about something, she found a way to turn it into a story that shared that enthusiasm. It’s through Byatt that I learned about Linnaeus and his taxonomy of creatures (The Biographer’s Tale) in a way that I understood. Whenever I come across a reference to Linnaeus now, I think of Byatt.
Science, nature, art and writing go hand in hand across Byatt’s works and she uses them to create a darkly grown up, folkloric world full of unsettling magic that sits under the surface of the real world and sometimes bursts through in unexpected ways. Her novella, Morpho Eugenia, published in the collection Angels and Insects is a superb example of all of this, coalescing into an eerie, gothic tale with more than a nod to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and a hint of The Collector by John Fowles.
I am not a huge fan of the short story, but Byatt’s are a triumph. I’d be hard pushed to choose between The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye in terms of favourites. I’m erring towards The Djinn because I’m thinking a lot about folk and fairy tales at the moment and am about to start re-reading Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence after having seen her talk at the British Library recently. It would be remiss not to mention Byatt’s elegiac Ragnarok at this point, part of the brilliant, Canongate Myths collection, all of which are excellent.
Let us end with The Children’s Book, her last novel. It’s a novel that feels like a goodbye. Based loosely on the life of E. Nesbit, this is a book that draws together every element of Byatt’s world in one, epic work. Myth and reality mingle freely in these pages. What we make of our lives is played out both literally and metaphorically as artisans and artists weave new worlds out of their experience of everyday life. Pottery is as important a theme as writing here. There is a rich seam to be mined through the language of clay and the firing process that points directly to what the characters in the book go through.
Byatt shows us the seductive glamour of taking the mess of life and ordering it into something rich and beautiful. Through her insistence on pointing out the magic and mystery that sits under every workaday thing, she creates a world riddled with trapdoors into the dark below. It’s a world that may offer freedom, but which may equally ensnare you. What you make of it ultimately depends on you.