Why black? Because black absorbs and radiates? Because the subjects are full of pain? Because the black book contains our connections? Because the dark is where we paint our fears and hopes?
I am cursed with this line-seeking mind. I abandoned Ariadne. Why will this story not lie flat and hand me the thread? Literature, why do you merely intrigue me, draw me deeper, without ever solving the labyrinth?
When I read Byatt I argue with my inexplicable sense that this is the only literature: be calm child, there are millions of books! (is this even true?) I’m dissatisfied, I’m lucid, I beat the walls. There’s only this place! I’m dreaming and there are only dreams!
The Thing In The Forest
When I went to see War Horse I was very upset, even though the ending was happy, because there is no consolation for the war that mowed down a generation; when I think of it I ache. In contrast when I saw a production of Antigone I actually laughed aloud when they all came back to bow covered in blood (spoiler: everyone dies). I think this story gives shape to the ineffable aching grief that WWII wrought in the hearts of Byatt’s generation. An actual shape.
Nightmare strays into the world, like the demon in The Ring who crawls through the television (it took me six weeks to repair the breached boundary in myself and I’ll never watch a horror film again, ever, of any kind). I suppose the war was like that to the children in the story, an unreal horror that lurched across the bridge of fairyland and stole the people who protected them.
The girls react differently. The women react differently. The world reacts differently. And I must find my own way out.
Byatt is baiting me and I am wriggling on that hook. I will wriggle and writhe all she wants. I’m saying my piece. Stop right there male protagonist and rewind. That moment where you, the maternity specialist, noticed the homeless art student you had taken in standing by your bed in her underwear and you decided it would be ‘rude’ not to have sex with her… Argh! I have no spoiler-free words for my rage
While rape culture looms LARGE and very UGLY in this story, art, as so often in Byatt, threatens to steal the show gloriously from that mess. And while the ending hardly delivered justice, it gave our survivor-hero a shred of power-through-love.
A Stone Woman
Byatt just can’t resist revelling in the paradise of sonority and etymological delight that is geology. I loved the introductory part about the love between daughter and mother, and all the sensuous description, and the smallness of sentimental Christian iconography in the shadow of geological time. This made me want to go to Iceland even more than I do already. The cherry though is the folk-tale inclusion that Byatt’s tale spectacularly mirrors. Not since Dracula’s dem die Todten reiten schnell* has a line in a foreign language delivered such a delicious chill.
*for the dead ride fast (sorry if my German sucks)
I often fail to get the unlikeable protagonist thing. I’m a naïve reader, easily led and oblivious. Not only do I hunt for the thread and the exit, I also conjure a minotaur where really there is a man, human and redeemable. This story about a creative writing class at first bubbles along full of cartoon villains, mimicking the teacher’s lack of inspiration… I imagine Byatt didn’t know what to do with these beautifully written ethnographic essays, and at last settled on weaving them into this cunning demonstration not exactly of how to write, but of how open minded we might need to be about writing? A pat conclusion seems imminent when… something totally horrible and unexpected and melodramatic happens. But as with all these stories, the pain is real, like the war that made me cry at War Horse. Did I learn the lesson ma’am?
The Pink Ribbon
Another white male lead who behaves with subtle delusions of entitlement (I know, you’re stunned). I don’t know the idea of the Fetch, but I do enjoy how she gives the protagonist’s wife the voice she dared not use until it was too late. I wonder why she comes clothed in his desire. I wonder if it’s signifying the unintentional nature of male privilege – it’s structural! It’s automatic! You have to actively work to turn it off! I’m projecting feminism. But feminism is my project… And yes, we need so many more stories about getting old.