Letting Go

Human Voices

by Penelope Fitzgerald
Houghton Mifflin, 144 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Elementals is a collection of A.S. Byatt’s short stories. It was published in Britain last year, and so was The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, introduced by A.S. Byatt. An introduction of that kind can hardly help being at least a little pronunciamental (and in her photograph on the dust cover of the Oxford book Byatt looks positively vatic). It was brave of her to allow such a coincidence to happen. So the questions are: What are her proclaimed standards, and how will she measure up to them?

The first paragraph of her introduction to the Oxford book of stories ends on a note of inviting pseudo-discouragement:

Do we have anything to compare with Maupassant and Chekhov, Shen Tsung-Wen and Calvino, Borges and Kafka? Or, to keep to your own language, with Patrick White, Samuel Beckett, R.K. Narayan, Raymond Carver, and the great Alice Munro? I feared being marooned amongst buffers and buffoons, bucolics, bullies, and Blimps.

Well, with stories by Dickens, Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, V.S. Pritchett, Ian McEwan, and Angela Carter, among many others, obviously it hasn’t turned out as bad as that. Later on, “reading in bulk,” she found herself “developing a dislike for both the ‘well-made tale’ and the fleeting ‘impression”’—she is hostile in fact to the generally accepted conventions that short stories should concentrate on a minimum of characters and incidents and have a single story line. She discovers that “I like stories in which energy overcomes inhibition.” This sounds spunky and promising.

Elementals is subtitled Stories of Fire and Ice. There are six of them, and each is preceded by a reproduction of a work of art—a black-and-white reproduction so small that it comes across as a light-hearted rococo squiggle; and this sets the tone of the collection. Or one of the tones: the other is didactic, and also rationalist. The combination of playfulness and stern agnosticism has something in common with the fables of Voltaire and other Enlightenment writers; and of the six stories, the three most striking ones belong to that genre.

The illustrations include reproductions of two pictures, one by the contemporary artist Darren Haggar, the other a detail from a large canvas by Velázquez. There are also a Matisse etching, a “School of Rembrandt” print, a Roman coin, and a seventeenth-century Venetian glass goblet. The story that goes with the goblet, “Cold,” is a fairy tale set in a mythological age. It is about an ice princess who feels happy only when she can dance naked and unseen in the snow. In summer she stays indoors. There is the usual fairy-story lineup of suitors, but to her parents’ surprise she turns down the Norseman who could have given her what her temperament and physique crave, and chooses instead a dusky prince from a scorching desert country. She gives birth to twins, one fair like her, the other dark like her husband. He has to travel a lot, so the princess sometimes …

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