“Magnificent Hybrids.” David Mitchell on the Alchemy of A.S. Byatt’s Stories
"Step inside. Take your time. Savor your discoveries."
A.S. Byatt’s reputation as a master of the long form has been crystallized by Possession, a novel of depth, breadth and heft; the “Frederica Quartet,” a prose tapestry of post-war England; and The Children’s Book, a many-chambered country house of a narrative. Her new collection, Medusa’s Ankles, showcases Byatt’s gifts as a master of the short story. To my mind, she belongs in that select club of writers whose members include Dickens, John Cheever, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elizabeth Bowen, and who achieve virtuosity in both short- and long-form fiction.
The stories beguile, illuminate, immerse, unsettle, console and evoke. They buzz with wit, shimmer with nuance and misdirect like a street conjuror. They amend, or even rewrite, any putative Rules of the Short Story time and again. They possess a sentient quality. If Medusa’s Ankles was a retrospective exhibition, the gallery would need no guide or “explainer” cards stuck next to the paintings—the stories are perfect and lucid as they stand.
A.S. Byatt was born Susan Drabble in Sheffield in 1936, the eldest daughter of a county court judge and a scholar of Victorian poetry. I hereby succumb to the biographical temptation to locate the sources of thematic streams in Byatt’s fiction in her upbringing: notably, a deep moral engagement; the effect of domineering patriarchs; due reverence for intellect; and a friction between the life of the mind and the life of the housewife. All four Drabble children were educated in Sheffield and York, though the communal confines of boarding school did not suit the bookish future author.
Byatt has written approvingly, however, of her Quaker schooling’s respect for silence and listening, and an outsider’s perspective is also a novelist’s perspective. Byatt’s horizons broadened and brightened upon going up to Cambridge to read English in 1954. The emancipations of fifties undergraduate life are fictionalized in her novel Still Life (1978)—as are the casual sexism and taken-as-read elitism. Spells of postgraduate study followed at Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, and Somerville College, Oxford. These, too, would be creatively fruitful: few authors engage with the pleasures of scholarship as persuasively as Byatt.They amend, or even rewrite, any putative Rules of the Short Story time and again.
Several academics inhabit Medusa’s Ankles, and even if jaded or satirical, they love their work. A.S. Byatt married in 1959 and combined raising a family, lecturing in art and writing her debut novel, The Shadow of the Sun, published in 1964. She became a full-time writer only in 1983. Despite living in London, her Yorkshire roots assert themselves throughout her oeuvre: Byatt’s literary England has a magnetic north and a cosmopolitan south. Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990 and made A.S. Byatt a household name, in book-reading households at least. The novel remains the author’s best-known work, and ushered in a remarkably industrious decade.
In addition to serving on boards for the British Council and the Society of Authors, she travelled widely and wrote Angels and Insects (1992), a diptych of lush, learned novellas; the third novel in the “Frederica Quartet,” Babel Tower (1996); three collections of short stories; and a highly original novel, The Biographer’s Tale (2000). She was made a Dame of the British Empire for services to literature in 1999. The “Frederica Quartet” was concluded with A Whistling Woman in 2002, followed by a fourth story collection, The Little Black Book of Stories (2003), her most recent full-length novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Children’s Book (2009) and a novella of reworked mythology, Ragnarok (2011).
Throughout her career, Byatt has written essays, journalism, art criticism and biography, the latter including books on Iris Murdoch, Wordsworth and Coleridge, William Morris and the Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny. Her life of scholarship, literature, art and ideas informs, and is reflected in, her stories. All writers turn their lives and selves into writing: it’s the “how” and the “what” of this act of alchemy that is unique to each writer; and it is to a trio of qualities of A.S. Byatt’s particular alchemy to which I now turn.
Firstly, note the sheer range. Most great short-story writers are distinctive stylists more than they are stylistic chameleons. Most habitual readers of short stories could pass a “Name that Author” test and identify, say, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro by a single page of their prose. As a rule of thumb, however, the more readily identifiable the author, the narrower the world of the author’s literary corpus. Narrowness of world does not equate with narrowness of vision, or mind, or skill. Infinity can indeed be held in the palm of a hand, and eternity in an hour.
A.S. Byatt’s stories bypass this rule of thumb with relish. She is both a highly distinctive stylist—ornate, cerebral, “Byatty”—and a short-story writer whose menu of answers to the question “What form can a story take?” is long, varied and rich. “The July Ghost” is a portrait of a mother who has lost a child and an agnostic ghost story. It is subtle, poignant and ever so slightly trippy. In contrast, “Sugar” is a meandering clamber around a family tree, ripe with memorable anecdote and northernhued. “Precipice-Encurled” is a set of framed narratives about the poet Robert Browning, a family he knew in Italy, a young artist and a woman who models for him. It is sumptuous, expectation-busting, heartbreaking and immune to classification. “Racine and the Tablecloth” is a tale of a vulnerable pupil and her ambiguously predatory schoolmistress set in an all-girls’ boarding school. This may be Muriel Spark turf, but Byatt’s story reads like biography and feels shot in black and white.
So much for the first four stories of Medusa’s Ankles: my point is, I could describe the next fourteen in the collection, and none would much resemble the others. When I encounter this degree of writerly omnivorousness, I speculate about its source. Kipling’s formidable range came from a peripatetic life spent in (and between) different worlds; and from, to use a now-quaint word, his adventures. I wonder if Byatt’s range comes from inner conversations with what she reads; from a scholar’s delight in exploring the rabbit warrens of research; and from a likable openness to genre fiction. It was traditional for literary figures of Byatt’s generation and altitude on the literary ladder to distinguish between serious literary fiction and genre fiction, and to allot respect, study and awards only to the former.
As I write in the early 2020s, this distinction is fading—Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Booker longlists may now include graphic novels—but genre snobbery is still alive, well and writing reviews. (I have the bruises to prove it.) A.S. Byatt is the opposite of a genre snob. In this collection, “Dragons’ Breath” uses, well, dragons, in the service of a fever-dream parable. “Cold” is a fairy story with a feminist twist. “Dolls’ Eyes” flirts with Gothic horror, and is steeped in the genre’s history cleverly enough to outwit the reader. “A Stone Woman” melds fantasy, psychology, Ovid and Scandinavian myth to delineate both the metamorphosis of a widow into a crystal she-troll and the stages of grief.
“The Lucid Dreamer,” a tale of an experimental psychonaut entering free fall, occupies that zone of British science fiction staked out by J.G. Ballard and John Wyndham. I’m not claiming that Byatt is a genre writer, or that Medusa’s Ankles should be exiled to the SF/Fantasy section (shudder!). The full spectrum of the English literary canon, in all its realist glory, is present and correct too—George Eliot, Henry James, Proust, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch. As a literary traveller, however, Byatt engages with writers as far off the Leavisite road map as the Brothers Grimm, Italo Calvino, Ursula le Guin, Neil Gaiman. (During a conversation with Gaiman I told him how much A.S. Byatt enjoyed his fantasy novel Coraline. He replied without hesitation, “Antonia’s one of us.”) Byatt’s scholarly knowledge of English literature, combined with her freethinking attitude to genre, produces magnificent hybrids.
To an art historian, angels, dragons and dreamscapes are as legitimate subjects as sunflowers, haystacks and realist portraits. A.S. Byatt’s scholarly knowledge of art informs her prose as pervasively as (Doctor) Chekhov’s knowledge of medicine and human malaises informs his. Certainly, Byatt’s characters are introduced with a portraitist’s eye. Of Ines’s mother in “A Stone Woman” we are told, “[She]—a strong bright woman—had liked to live amongst shades of mole and dove.”
Some of Byatt’s most vivid creations are painters, like Joshua Riddell, the artist in “Precipice-Encurled”; or art lecturers, like Professor Perry Diss (“Bury this?”) in “The Chinese Lobster” who falls foul of campus politics; or artists in the broader senses, like Hew the architect in “The Narrow Jet,” Thorsteinn the sculptor from “A Stone Woman,” or the oneiric artist in “The Lucid Dreamer.” Such characters are Byatt’s conduits for ideas about making art, looking at art and art’s centrality to the mind and the world. “Precipice-Encurled” features John Ruskin—from whom art lecturers claim professional descent—and Joshua Riddell, engaging with Ruskin’s idea’s before our very eyes:
Monsieur Monet had found a solution to the problem posed by Ruskin, of how to paint light, with the small range of colours available: he had trapped light in his surface, light itself was his subject. His paint was light. He had painted, not the thing seen, but the act of seeing.
This conversation happens across years and ontological boundaries. Few writers embed theory in their fiction with Byatt’s boldness and success. The theories of art are sometimes illustrated by the very story that houses them. The line quoted above—“He had painted, not the thing seen, but the act of seeing”—is embedded in “Precipice-Encurled” as much by characters’ perceptions of what happens, as by what actually happens. Art powered by the dissonance between characters’ interiors and the world’s exteriority is as old as Shakespeare and Cervantes, but Byatt elevates this dissonance itself to subject and theme. And plot and structure, when occasion permits. “Ekphrasis”—the use of a work of visual art as a literary device—is a word seldom reached for in everyday conversation, but it’s a perfect fit for “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” The story imagines the circumstances around the titular painting by Diego Velázquez—a picture that encloses a picture—from the viewpoint of Concepción, the cook who appears in the Velázquez painting. This story is unfussy about those oft-mystified concepts “inspiration” and “the creative process.” It bestows dignity upon art in all its manifestations, including cooking. Byatt’s Velázquez addresses Concepción not as a disposable domestic but as a respected equal:
The cook, as much as the painter, looks into the essence of the creation not, as I do, in light and on surfaces, but with all the other senses, with taste, and smell, and touch, which God also made in us for purposes . . . the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it. You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, as all skills are.
Byatt can describe a painter at work with the vivacity and precision of a skilled football pundit. I would call these passages “notoriously difficult” to write, but the phrase feels misleading—so few writers even try. In this sensuous passage from “Precipice-Encurled,” artist Joshua Riddell sketches Juliana Fishwick, daughter in the family with whom he is staying in Italy. It is a double love scene between Joshua and Juliana, and between artist and vocation:
His pencil point hovered, thinking, and Juliana’s pupils contracted in the greenish halo of the iris, as she looked into the light, and blinked, involuntarily. She did not want to stare at him; it was unnatural, though his considering gaze, measuring, drawing back, turning to one side and the other, seemed natural enough. A flood of colour moved darkly up her throat, along her chin, into the planes and complexities of her cheeks.
If Velázquez is an established artist and Joshua Riddell a wunderkind, Bernard Lycett-Kean in “A Lamia in the Cévennes” is an artist-in-progress. The story is comic—a lamia gets trapped in an English expat’s swimming pool—and cerebral, as we watch Bernard fall in love not with the mythological seductress, but with art itself. The story is a kind of serio-comedic miniature of Van Gogh’s collected letters to his brother Theo—a self-drawn road map of artistic growth. In this passage, Bernard notices that reality represents itself as shifting fields of colors and luminosities, mirrored by Byatt in her prose:
The best days were under racing cloud, when the aquamarine took on a cool grey tone, which was then chased back, or rolled away, by the flickering gold-in-blue of yellow light in liquid. In front of his prow or chin in the brightest lights moved a mesh of hexagonal threads, flashing rainbow colours, flashing liquid silver-gilt, with a hint of molten glass; on such days liquid fire, rosy and yellow and clear, rain across the dolphin, who lent it a thread of intense blue.
It is not easy to think of another writer with so painterly and exact an eye for the colors, textures and appearances of things. The visual is in constant dialogue with the textual. One after-effect of reading Byatt resembles the after-effect of a morning in an art gallery whereby, upon leaving, I find myself framing rectangles in my field of vision and looking at them—at the world—as I might a painting. These stories are in constant dialogue with reader, asking, “What is art?” and “Why do we need it?” and “What does it do to us?” and “Why make the damn stuff?” These questions linger long after putting the book down. This thought-bubble of Bernard’s could feasibly puff out of the skull of any writer, or artist of any bent:
He muttered to himself. Why bother. Why does this matter so much. What difference does it make to anything if I solve this blue and just start again. I could just sit down and drink wine. I could go and be useful in a cholera-camp in Colombia or Ethiopia. Why bother to render the transparency in solid paint on a bit of board. I could just stop.
He could not.
These remarkable stories, too, are many things at once. Chains of cause and effect. Puzzle boxes. Meditations. Learned discourses. Statements of regret and offerings of solace. X-rays of the heart. Showcases of beauty for beauty’s own sake. Views of a world where, to be sure, bad things can happen to good people; but also where happy-ish endings, qualified by realism, are not beyond hope. Step inside. Take your time. Savor your discoveries. “They sat in silence and were amazed, briefly and forever.”
Adapted from David Mitchell’s introduction to Medusa’s Ankles by A.S. Byatt. Introduction copyright © 2021 by David Mitchell. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Knopf.