There’s a temptation to begin with death. The dark title of A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories suggests it; the phrase is also a riposte to D.H. Lawrence’s description of the novel as “the one bright book of life,” which was a tormenting orthodoxy of her youth. All five stories here are intimate with the uncanny, animating it in eerie, fleshly forms.
But this black book, like most of Byatt’s work, is also full of colors, almost obsessively named: blues and golds, russets and purples, “shades of ink and elephant.” The northern sky is “opal and gun-metal, grass-green and crimson, mussel-blue and velvet black,” or “trout-dappled, mackerel-shot, turquoise, sapphire, peridot, hot transparent red.” Exact, vivid descriptions bring the page to life: “They sniffed the air, which was full of a warm mushroom smell, and a damp moss smell, and a sap smell, and a distant hint of dead ashes.” There is no sentiment and little mourning. Death is not so much a human event as a copula–boatman and border guard between animate and inanimate, flesh and memory, life and art.
The stories gravitate toward that boundary, blurring it or reasserting its force, in a prose that remains precise and cool. As Freud pointed out, it’s the blending of the familiar with the inexplicable that sends shivers down our spines; Byatt’s tales of the supernatural depend on an almost hallucinatory precision for their haunting effects. “The Thing in the Forest,” the first story, begins like a fairy tale, but for a crucial, small insertion of doubt–“There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest”–and goes on to sketch a generic group of children being evacuated from an English city during World War II: “They all had bare legs and scuffed shoes and wrinkled socks. Most had wounds on their knees in varying stages of freshness and scabbiness.” The long description contains only one simile, which refers us both to the war and to the shadowy forests of the Brothers Grimm: “They were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform.”
The girls, Penny and Primrose, one dark, one fair, are at once fairy-tale sisters and real English children. No one has told them where they’re going, or why; their sense of foreboding is transmitted by the heartbeat of the prose and by the spare and knowing use of metaphor: “the bus bumped along snaking country lanes, under whipping branches, dark leaves on dark wooden arms on a dark sky.” The forest, when they enter it, is a recognizable English wood, vivid and slightly sinister to their urban senses. They hear “the chatter and repeated lilt and alarm of invisible birds, high up, further in.” They admire “the stiff upright fruiting rods of the Lords and Ladies, packed with fat red berries.” Out of these exact observations Byatt conjures up a vile, impossible Thing, which arrives first as a sound and smell and then as a visible worm:
The rest of its very large body appeared to be glued together, like still-wet papier-mâché, or the carapace of stones and straws and twigs worn by caddis-flies underwater. It had a tubular shape, as a turd has a tubular shape, a provisional amalgam. It was made of rank meat, and decaying vegetation, but it also trailed veils and prostheses of manmade materials, bits of wire-netting, foul dishcloths, wire-wool full of pan scrubbings, rusty nuts and bolts…
The Thing is the Loathly Worm of medieval ballads and a version of the post-modern artworks Byatt likes to invent, but it is also, because it is so concretely imagined, incontrovertibly material, present, real. It moves forward relentlessly like time, like stories–and passes the two girls by.
After this the story weakens slightly, as if exhausted by the birth of its prodigy; its mystery is almost hijacked by ideas. Much later, middle-aged and unmarried, Penny and Primrose meet by chance in the same house where they had stayed as children and go back, separately, into the wood. (Here there is an uncharacteristic lapse in continuity: The season changes, overnight, from autumn into spring.) Primrose works as a children’s storyteller and lives in a haze of impressions and fantasies. (Byatt’s disdain for her shows through a little, cracking the narrative spell.) She follows a squirrel to a mossy tuffet in “the centre” of the wood; although she knows the worm was real she doesn’t see it again. It is Penny, a child psychologist concerned with difficult truths, who stumbles on bones and fragments from the monster’s meals. She goes in search of it, the horror at the heart of the world, which, in a different kind of tale, might have been called her fate: “It had trampled on her life, had sucked out her marrow, without noticing who or what she was. She would go and face it. What else was there, she asked herself, and answered herself, nothing.”
The moral is that the forces shaping our lives are often inaccessible; their apprehension takes effort and accuracy, even a desperate courage, which fairy tales like Primrose’s deflect. But of course “The Thing in the Forest,” so concrete and convincing, is itself a fairy tale. Like a Möbius strip or a mythological snake, it bites its tail and ends with the sentence that began it, spoken this time by Primrose to children sitting in a circle of little plastic chairs. The story, like the impossible worm-made-out-of-words, itself embodies a paradox, which has to do with fiction and reality.
Byatt wasn’t always a writer of tales. Best known in America for Possession, her 1990 literary romance, she has published eight novels and six story collections as well as several books of criticism. In Britain she is a literary grande dame, though there is something equivocal about her reputation. Possession was a universal success; her other novels have been well reviewed, but sometimes with a polite reticence, as if they were not wholly loved. The complaint most often leveled at them is that they’re too intellectually driven, weighed down with references, mired in a forgotten world where readers were assumed to know their Wordsworth and what it is that happens at the end of A Winter’s Tale. They’re certainly bookish books: Byatt is above all a passionate reader, fundamentally concerned with what it means to live in words. But they’re also hungry for experience, energized by the conviction that, with a Herculean effort, the world can be made accessible to language and to thought.
Byatt began in the English realist tradition of George Eliot and Iris Murdoch–a tradition morally committed to showing the world as it is, not in the documentary sense but by revealing “the real impenetrable human person” (Murdoch’s phrase) against the background of all that eludes human understanding. In an early book-length study Byatt quotes Murdoch shaking her head, as it were, pre-emptively at Primrose: “We are…benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.” For the intellectual circles of Byatt’s youth in 1950s Cambridge, under the stern sign of the critic F.R. Leavis, literature was supposed to seek out truth, to fill the space left empty by religion.
What was a young writer to do with this seductive, paralyzing challenge–especially a woman writer in love with language and ideas? (“Knowledge,” she wrote much later, has “its own sensuous pleasure, its own fierce well-being, like good sex, like a day in bright sun on a hot empty beach.”) Frederica Potter, the semi-autobiographical heroine of Byatt’s tetralogy (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman), doesn’t become a novelist at all, although she thinks she should: “I don’t have any ideas. I’ve been educated out of it. Even thinking of it brings on a kind of panic.”
Written over a period of more than twenty years, the Frederica novels are the trace of Byatt’s struggle with her angel. Taken together, they are a loose, shape-shifting thing, a search for forms that grows and branches with the characters’ search for ways to live their lives. Part family saga, part Bildungsroman, part cultural history, part novels of ideas, they have at their center the problem of how we know and describe the world–which, for Frederica, is also the problem of how to live in both her body and her mind. In Byatt’s best moments, feeling and intellect go hand in hand into uncharted forest, urging each other on. Here is Frederica, in Babel Tower, the obsessively verbal woman making love:
You might think, she thinks, as their bodies join, that there are two beings striving to lose themselves in each other, to become one. The growing heat, the wetness, the rhythmic movements, the hot breath, the slippery skins, inside and out, are one, are part of one thing. But we both need to be separate, she thinks. I lend myself to this, the language in her head goes on, with its own rhythm, I lose myself, it remarks with gleeful breathlessness….
These lines, with their need to name and describe experience as a thinking woman, owe something to Doris Lessing, but Byatt doesn’t have Lessing’s strong political spin. Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman are full of sharp observations about the British 1960s (happenings, cults, the rise of television, the antipsychiatry movement), which Frederica (like Byatt) dislikes for celebrating mindless merging over clarity and precision. But the terms in which she frames them are moral and formal, not social or historical: order against chaos, truth against sincerity, science against religion. Sometimes the weight of ideas threatens to sink the project; characters turn papery, plot machinery lumbers into view. Sometimes the books risk being torn apart by the titanic, muffled struggle going on inside them: Byatt (like Frederica) constantly fights the skein of words in which she is both trammeled and at ease, trying to stub her toe on hard reality. She describes the physical world and works of art, naming colors, scrubbing out every trace of figurative language. (Still Life, the best of the series, began as an attempt to give up metaphor completely.) She brings in mathematics, Darwin, DNA, the life of ants and snails. And she turns the conventions of narrative form against itself–which brings us back to death.
Near the end of Still Life Frederica’s sister, Stephanie, is fatally electrocuted by a fridge. Although her death is not entirely unprepared–Byatt can’t resist laying a couple of literary clues–it is shocking nevertheless. We have lived in Stephanie’s skin through first love, marriage and the birth of her two children; we know her, love her even. In the world of the novel she has come to stand for feeling, the pull of instinctive life. All our experience of fiction leads us to believe that she will live–or, if she dies, at least die meaningfully.
The accident has a terrible precedent in Byatt’s own life: In 1972 her 11-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver. (Her long account of Stephanie’s husband’s grief is painfully exact.) It also has a theological aspect: Stephanie is married to a clergyman, who is professionally bound to believe in God’s care for his creation. Yet Byatt’s own explanation of Stephanie’s death, given in a lecture in 1999, is formal and literary: “I remember…being so angry with D.H. Lawrence for declaring in Women in Love that there were no accidents, that every man made his own fate, that I constructed a novel with at least six main characters so that I could imagine a real, unpredicted, random accident at the end of the second volume that my readers would experience as accident.”
Something about this virtual murder seems to have set her free, as if she had achieved what she set out to do and had at last struck through to solid rock. Though she returned at length to Frederica and her knotty verbal self, her next book after Still Life was Possession, which juggles genre and pastiche, satire and fairy tale. The collections of stories and novellas that followed–The Matisse Stories, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, Angels and Insects, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye–belong to the same stream, mixing the experience of ordinary people with the life of art and myth. In tales and fables, recalcitrant reality is not an elusive thing to be nosed out by searching sentences, but built into the structure: It is the characters’ fate. Playing with stories is a way of playing with death–the thing that gives time its shape, the spoiler of plots and plans–as Scheherazade plays with the Sultan’s long-deferred desire. “It should have been farce or fable, I see that now,” says Gillian Perholt, the heroine of The Djinn, “and I was writing passion and tragedy and buttons done with verisimilitude…. I got all enmeshed in what was realism and what was reality and what was true…and my imagination failed.”
In the story “Raw Material” from the Little Black Book, Byatt rewrites Stephanie’s tragedy as farce, making sudden death the sting in the tail of a fable about realism. Jack Smollett, writing teacher, insists that his students avoid melodrama and write about what they know. His favorite is an elderly lady, author of detailed, Byatt-like accounts of housework in her youth, “reproduced” here in full. Her choice of words is flawless, her pleasure in them shameless; her writing glitters with “contingent quiddity.” Her fellow students call her work pedantic, pompous, show-off, over-ornate, but to Smollett it’s a revelation, inspiring his own stalled writing: “Miss Fox’s brief essays made Jack want to write. They made him see the world as something to be written.” The astonishing payoff, rendered in prose as vivid as Miss Fox’s, utterly undermines his faith in his art and vindicates the students. As in “The Thing in the Forest,” unforeseeable, unbearable reality has the last word–but it has it in a story.
If “Raw Material” does a danse macabre on realism’s grave, “The Pink Ribbon” goes still further. Its central consciousness belongs to James, a retired classicist, caring for “Maddy Mad Mado,” his wife transformed by Alzheimer’s disease; the humiliations and resentments of their life together are drawn unflinchingly. To preserve his own brain cells he reads Virgil at night–Aeneid VI, the descent to the underworld. As so often in Byatt, the reading permeates his life, stirring up memories of the Second World War, when the line between the quick and the dead seemed thin and provisional:
Friends you were meeting for dinner, who lived in your head as you set off to meet them, never came, because they were mangled meat under brick and timber. Other friends who stared in your memory as the dead stare whilst they take up the final shape your memory will give them, suddenly turned up on the doorstep in lumpen living flesh, bruised and dirty…and begged for a bed, for a cup of tea.
In Virgil’s underworld, those who will be reborn drink from the river Lethe to forget their past. Mado, too, has become a child again, and more: After a visit from a strange young woman in a red silk dress James finds himself invaded by their early lovemaking, “tooth and claw, feather and velvet, blood and honey.”
What is most unnerving in this moving story about memory and loss is the origin of Mado herself. For Iris Murdoch’s steel-trap mind was also destroyed by Alzheimer’s (“like moth-eaten knitting,” says James, echoing Frederica’s definition of the novel as “a long thread of language, like knitting, thicker and thinner in patches”). And Murdoch in her late decline was famously soothed, like Mado, by the Teletubbies. The story is at once an act of mourning and of matricide, a murderous tribute crafted out of Byatt’s own worst fears and most demanding talent, her relentless honesty. Jack Smollett could not make art out of Miss Fox’s end; Byatt has no such compunctions. Bereft of memory the human body is, in more senses than one, no more or less than raw material.
Or is it? “Body Art” also probes the tricky seam between what’s human and what’s merely organic, setting an obstetrician interested in abstract painting against a young woman artist interested in bodies. The doctor has lost his Catholic faith before an awkward carving of the crucifixion; the woman has lost her fertility because of a botched abortion. Hired to help catalogue a collection of medical relics, she uses them to make a sculpture of the goddess Kali, as always meticulously described: “Her four arms were medical prostheses, wooden or gleaming mechanical artefacts, ending in sharp steel and blunt wooden fingers…. Her earrings were preserved foetuses, decked with beads…. Her crochet hooks were the tools of the nineteenth-century obstetricians, midwives and abortionists.” The sculpture comes to represent the battle between doctor and artist for control of the artist’s body; the story ends, unexpectedly, with the adoration of a baby: “He was overcome with dreadful love and grief. She was a person. She had not been there and now she was there, and she was the person he loved.” But “Body Art” is no antiabortion tract. As Kali brings together creation and destruction, the birth of the baby simply shows the other face of fate. Emerging from the story’s tangles as the Thing emerged from its forest, it brings with it a sudden and disarming clarity, a different confrontation with reality’s mystery.
The Frederica tetralogy also ends with a surprising pregnancy, which follows a performance of A Winter’s Tale in which Stephanie’s daughter seems momentarily to reincarnate her mother. But Byatt has only limited tolerance for symbolic babies or the idea of art as consolation: For her, art is a more unyielding and inhuman thing. The central story in the Little Black Book is a countermyth to the story of Pygmalion, whose perfect statue was brought to life by Venus, and to Hermione’s transformation from stone to living woman at the end of Shakespeare’s play. In Byatt’s version a lexicographer undone by grief finds herself turning to stone, not smoothly and generically but in specific excrescences: “flakes of silica and nodes of basalt,” “bubbles of sinter,” “layers of hornblende,” “dikes of dolerites.” Being an etymologist she searches for herself in dictionaries and relishes the “lovely words: pyrolusite, ignimbrite, omphacite, uvarovite, glaucophane, schist, shale, gneiss, tuff.” As she stiffens in her mineral carapace the prose becomes encrusted with polysyllabic nouns, embodying her in lapidary sentences.
In “A Stone Woman” all the borders are blurred: art and nature, organic and inorganic, living and dead. Rocks, thinks the lexicographer, are often formed from things that once were living; the names of stones are full of organic metaphors: “Carnelian is from carnal, from flesh.” Her metamorphosis is, as usual, painstakingly imagined from within. A sculptor takes her to Iceland to record and decorate her; red threadworms burrow in her crevices; her slow thoughts “rumble” in her stony mind. Eventually she finds ecstatic liberation in the northern hills, running like one of Picasso’s great stone women to meet the shadowy figures who live among the rocks. “Preserving solitude and distance, staying cold and frozen,” Byatt once wrote, “may, for women as well as artists, be a way of preserving life.”
To Lawrence’s “one bright book of life,” Byatt has opposed a set of crystalline stories, mined from deep structures in the human brain. In fables she has found a way to contain the paradox of realism–its necessary artifice–without giving up on reality: Her most extravagant visions depend on precise representations of a palpable world. She is an athlete of the imagination, breaking barriers without apparent effort; at a time when British writers tend to have their eyes on the Atlantic, she has placed herself in an old tradition that runs from ancient myth to Italo Calvino, from Iceland to Arabia. But still, I hope she will not turn her back on novels and their struggle with history. There’s something in the messy latitude, the restless searching after truth, the vital imperfection of the Frederica books that feels especially necessary in these nightmarish, bedazzled days.