“The black thing in her brain and the dark water on the page were the same thing, a form of knowledge. This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and they do not explain; they are not creeds or allegories. The black was now in the child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.”
Posts tagged ‘A.S. Byatt’
I’ve been reading Maria Tatar’s Annotated Brothers Grimm, which takes a number of the Grimm’s tales and explores their various incarnations, histories and interpretations. It’s a fascinating book in its own right (and a strikingly beautiful one, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane and George Cruikshank, amongst others) but one of the highlights is A.S. Byatt’s introduction.
Of course Byatt’s written about fairy tales before, as well as rewriting a few, and exploring the social context and cost of such tales and their celebration in her remarkable 2009 novel, The Children’s Book. But her introduction to the Tatar is particularly interesting, not least because of its invocation of the work of Max Lüthi:
“The best single description I know of the world of the fairy tale is that of Max Lüthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects, and incidents, all of which are isolated and nonetheless interconnected, in a kind of web of two-dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.”
I assume the book Byatt’s referring to is Lüthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature, which explores this precise quality, and which is itself a pretty remarkable document. But whether it is or not, she’s right: along with the sense that they are accessing something dreamlike and below the level of language, much of the unsettling (and beguiling) power of fairy tales arises from their weird inversion of the normal processes of fate and coincidence. Indeed I’d go so far as to suggest that this inversion is effective at least in part because it reminds us of how the world must appear to children, for whom everything is full of mystery and hidden meaning, and for whom adults must seem both purposeful and frighteningly capricious.
In his novel, The Day of the Triffids and its vision of a world struck blind and menaced by carnivorous plants, John Wyndham created one of the most enduring nightmares of the Atomic Age. Nearly 60 years later, his vision might equally serve not just as a warning of the perils of genetic engineering, but as a powerful reminder of the very different ways British and American writers imagine the end of the world.
Just the other day I was whingeing about the recent proliferation of unreasonably fat books. After slugging my way through 2666, The Kindly Ones and Wolf Hall in the last few months I’ve been feeling a little put upon by doorstop-sized volumes (not least because I was hoping to knock over the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace some time before the middle of the year, a goal whch has now slipped well and truly from my grasp).
But since my review of one of those books, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, has just turned up online (it was actually published back in mid-May, and has taken until now to appear on The Australian’s website), I thought it might be worth linking to it, not least because it’s one of the most remarkable and compelling things I’ve read in quite some time.
A decade and a half ago, A.S. Byatt could do no wrong. Possession had just won the Booker, her backlist was selling by the truckload, and her brand of unashamedly intellectual intertextuality was the height of fashion.
I think it’s safe to say that’s no longer the case. Despite the increasing hybridity of form occurring on the margins, contemporary literary fashion vacillates between essentially decadent reinterpretations of genre, from Twilight to Harry Potter and historical pastiches such as The Meaning of Night, and a sort of stripped social realism (though it must be said books such as Helen Garner’s The Spare Room manage to be both examples of a hybridization of fictional and non-fictional forms and stripped back social realism simultaneously).
In such a context The Children’s Book is both striking and somewhat incongruous. A sprawling historical novel, spanning the quarter of a century between 1895 and the aftermath of World War I, it’s also unashamedly a novel of ideas, drawing upon our contemporary fascination with genre and fantasy, and children’s fantasy in particular, and using it as an emotional and intellectual framework to explore a series of deeply troubling questions about writing, sexuality, and, most importantly, the myths of childhood that lie at the heart of so much of children’s fantasy. And if that weren’t enough, it’s also a cultural history of a very particular variety and a fascinating fictional exploration of the hypocrisies of the social reformers of the late-Victorian and Edwardian period.
Laid out in such a fashion I suspect it doesn’t sound particularly attractive. But in fact it’s completely mesmerizing. Yet it’s also a strangely difficult book to get to grips with. Partly this is because it is, as Sam Leith observes in his interview with Byatt, a disconcertingly centreless book. It’s not just that it’s populated by a vast array of vividly realized characters, nor that the characters whose threads one initially assumes the narrative will be built around, Olive Wellwood, Prosper Cain and the two boys, Tom Wellwood and Phillip Warren, quickly become just part of a much larger fabric. Rather it’s the sense that all of the characters are in motion at all times, moving, wanting, debating, and that while there are characters who are in the foreground at any given moment, their presence in the foreground is only a matter of perspective, and a change in perspective might just as easily bring quite different characters into focus.
But it’s also a function of the novel’s density and richness of allusion and implication. Any good novel, just by virtue of its scale, contains within itself a complex web of meanings. And while the relationship is not linear, as a general rule it’s safe to assume that the longer the novel, the more complex these meanings become. Yet with The Children’s Book their complexity takes on an almost Borgesian quality, a sense of multiplying, and endlessly branching possibilities. In my review I almost described it as prismatic, but refrained, because that’s not quite the right word, not least because the book is so deeply, and darkly organic. Rather the proper metaphor is the one Byatt herself uses in describing the fairy stories written by Olive (herself a version of E. Nesbit) that of the underground labyrinth, and of the seemingly magical and infinite power of story:
“The stories in the books were, in their nature, endless. They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit onot the next moving and coling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning. There were tributary plots, that joined the mainstream again, further on, further in. Olive plundered the children’s stories sometimes, for publishable situations, or people, or settings, but everyone understood that the magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret.
“All of them, from Florian to Olive herself, walked about the house and garden, the shrubbery and the orchard, the stables and the woods, with an awareness that things had invisible as well as visible forms, including the solid kitchen and the nursery walls, which concealed stone towers and silken bowers. They knew that rabbit warrens opened into underground lanes to the land of the dead, and that spider webs could become fetters as strong as steel, and that myriads of transparent creatures danced at the edge of the meadows, and hung and chattered like bats in the branches, only just invisible, only just inaudible. Any juice of any fruit or flower might be the lotion that, squeezed on eyelids, touched to tongue or ears, would give the watcher or listener a way in, a power of inhuman sensing. Any bent twig might be a message or a sign. The seen and the unseen world were interlocked and superimposed. You could trip out of one and into the other at any moment.”
My original review of The Children’s Book is in The Australian. If you’d like to read more, I’d recommend Elizabeth Lowry’s excellent and insightful review in the TLS, or Alex Clark’s in The Guardian. Or for a rather more sceptical view, Adam Mars-Jones’ review in The Observer.
Now I don’t mean to carp, but what is it with 2009 and unreasonably fat books? It’s only May, and I’ve already had to wade my way through the 900-odd pages of 2666, the 1,000 (incredibly dense) pages of The Kindly Ones and the 600 or so of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. And this morning Hilary Mantel’s 600 page-plus Wolf Hall lands on my doorstep with an audible thud. Don’t these people have better things to do with their time?