Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend recently about the films of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch, how I love their artistic sensibilities but yearn in vain for, as my friend said, an intersectional lens. I love these stories but I can’t put away my ideological discomfort about them. I get the impression they are not meant to be read ideologically, but we already know what the absence of an ideology amounts to… Anyway they are lovely, very graceful and clever, but a little too obedient, too restful, compared to, say, Angela Carter.
The first story introduces the overall theme, which to my mind is the impact of storytelling on storytelling (I believe that we apprehend through stories and exist as stories, so this topic is entirely congenial to me). This theme runs in the recurrence of acts of intervention when a character becomes conscious of the narrative conventions of their situation and use that awareness somehow. The hero is the proverbial ‘little tailor’ and he rescues an institutionally desirable white, blond sleeping beauty from the depredations of a ‘black artist’ (these words unfortunately do not denote a person of African descent engaged in creative production but a stereotypically creepy magician who can’t handle rejection (view spoiler)) The tailor’s own ‘virtue’ is treated realistically, against the wide-eyed innocence of the fairytale voice, and perhaps the messy ending is a deliberate resistance to happily ever after, or abdication of authorial power, but it was halfhearted if so!
The second story caused me to reflect that my passion for folklore does not readily extend to fabricated folklore.
The story of the eldest princess was more to my liking as it poked critically at some especially unpleasant narrative conventions, replacing the evil witch with a wise woman skilled in healing and able to set her female visitor free, and gave a normally glossed-over character the right of reply to the stories that have forgotten to mention her more than in passing. This is a rehabilitation of sorts. As in the first story of the tailor, I enjoyed the intelligent presence of the animals in this story and how they collaborated with the human protagonist very much. Still, why do fairytale morals positively require kindness to animals yet condone meat eating? Often fairytale is a location for the mythologies of meat, such as that it is given gladly by animals, but Byatt simply places compassionate behaviour to animals alongside the eating of dead flesh, casually erasing the animal on the plate.
The fourth tale seems to have some relationship to Byatt’s story ‘The Thing in the Forest’ which, in my reading, imagines war, or the second world war, or the civilian experience of that war, as a monster. (view spoiler)
The title piece, which takes up the great majority of the book, is a virtuoso piece of writing inspired by the 1001 Nights. Our protagonist is middle aged ‘narratologist’ Gillian, who has recently become single as her husband has run off with a younger woman, a plot detail that Byatt ostentatiously marks as tedious and commonplace. In fact the tedium of patriarchal oppression is the villain of this tale; one of its internal stories is that of Chaucer’s Patient Griselda. I was very cross though that Byatt prominently chastises Muslim women who wear hijab, identifying them (in the form of three women in the front row at a lecture Gillian gives in Turkey) with this patriarchal tedium by making them silent, impassive, explicitly obedient to the men in their lives; she both speaks for and silences them. Ahdaf Soueif wrote a similar scene in In the Eye of the Sun which in the context of a novel from the viewpoint of a Muslim woman functioned as an effective critique of Egyptian patriarchy, but here in a story about classical Arabic literature from a white woman’s perspective I feel it is othering and essentialising, reinscribing the colonialist/Orientalist tropes of the Lost Islamic Golden Age and the oppressed hijabi that speak over writers like Soueif.
One delightful thing about this story is the quality of the description which is, as always, sensuous and sumptuous, but also witty, when Byatt describes features of contemporaneity with the arch expansive tone of once upon a time, a technique I usually enjoy in magical realism because it reminds us that what we take for granted daily is wondrous and would have seemed fantastical to our ancestors: in England we dream of peaches in the dead of winter and ‘find them’ spread on our breakfast tables. I thought it clever and apt that the flying djinn found the air crowded with ’emanations’ meaning signals at non-visible electromagnetic frequencies. Modernity has made some aspects of the magical real, and Byatt arranges them like a composer into poetry.
Gillian’s Turkish colleague Orhan gives a lecture on a story from the 1001 Nights that illuminates the approach to storytelling in the classical Islamic-World tradition. My impression of this strand was that djinn tend interact with the human world as aesthetes, appreciative observers of a drama, rather playfully manipulating things like the gods of the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, except that humans are occasionally placed in positions of power in relation to them. This threads into the theme of wish fulfilment which Gillian pursues as an object of study having gained a few of her wishes – meeting the theme of ‘stories of women’s lives’ and the question of ‘what women most desire’ is it beauty, love or to give shape to the lives of others? Or is it the freedom to dream?
I think the reason this story is so bewitching is that it combines the unsettling mythological quality of classical storytelling and its sonorous, poetic voice with the critical subjectivity of the novel and its concomitant interiority. Fairytales do not tell us what people feel except in the broadest strokes possible (fear, excitement, happiness, despair) but here the resolution of emotion is 20:20, we feel, for instance, Gillian’s frustration at her inability to communicate bourgeois distaste to someone who has never sat in a lower-middle class English drawing room. Byatt synthesises these disparate voices really effectively, mining all of their discords for delight (the brief teleportation of Boris Becker is particularly delicious) and stirring ancient pleasures into a modern symphony.