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 feels lonely. She also longs to “roam amongst fjords and ice-fells, [but] this was not unusual, for no one has everything she can desire.” So she studies the flora of her new country and becomes a serious botanist in correspondence with other botanists all over the world. There seem to be two morals: the first is that interracial marriage works; the second is a version of the Protestant work ethic. Both are so simple and obvious that it’s hard to believe there’s not another hidden meaning somewhere.
“A Lamia in the Cévennes” is also a fairy story. It is set in the 1980s, and that gives it an amusing Angela Carterish edge of incongruity. The plot is so neat, shapely, and satisfying that it falls into the spurned category of “well-made tale,” and is all the better for it. It is introduced by the Matisse etching—of a siren from an illustrated volume of Ronsard’s poems. “In the mid-1980s,” the story begins, “Bernard Lycett-Kean decided that Thatcher’s Britain was uninhabitable, a land of dog-eat-dog, lung-corroding ozone and floating money, of which there was at once far too much and far too little.” Bernard abandons Britain and buys a small house in the Cévennes. He is a painter whose work is described by Byatt as so lusciously Matisse-like that it is no surprise when it sells well enough for Bernard to afford a large, beautiful swimming pool with a stone rim and a dolphin mosaic on its floor. The color and feel of the water in different weathers and Bernard’s delight in swimming in it are rendered with the same sensual virtuosity and pleasure as the winter scenes in “Cold.” “Volupté,” Bernard quotes to himself. “Luxe, calme et volupté.” Byatt is good at sensual pleasure: not sex so much as look and taste, and the feel of textures on the skin. The volupté passages, in both fairy tales, are stunning, if overlong.
One day Bernard sees a large snake in the bottom of the pool. He notices it has human eyelashes and teeth, and soon it snuggles up to him, lets him paint it, and tells him, in Cévegnol French, that it is a Lamia; if he kisses and promises to marry it, it will turn into a beautiful woman. He looks “Lamia” up in Keats and also remembers that the anthropologist Mary Douglas (Byatt never misses a chance at cultural name-dropping) “says that mixed things, neither flesh nor fowl, so to speak, always excite repulsion and prohibition.” So he refuses.
Not so a friend of his who comes to stay, uninvited and unwelcome. Raymond spends the night with the Lamia, and next day she appears at breakfast in the shape of a sexy lady with a lot of makeup. Bernard is delighted when his friend takes her away. He prefers science to myth, and “would rather have the optical mysteries of waves and particles in the water and light of the rainbow than any old gnome or fay.” He starts painting a butterfly poised on the breakfast table. The colors pose a demanding problem. “There is months of work in it. Bernard attacked it. He was happy, in one of the ways in which human beings are happy.” Another proclamation of the work ethic.
“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” is an undisguised morality tale, but Byatt’s moral isn’t the same as Christ’s; very nearly the opposite, in fact. The story is preceded by a detail from Velázquez’s painting of the same title in the London National Gallery.* The left foreground of this painting is occupied by a cross, dumpy young kitchen maid pounding garlic in a mortar, while a handsome older servant advises or admonishes her. In the background behind the two women, Christ can be seen with Mary at his feet and Martha standing indignantly behind her. This much smaller scene represents a well-known art-historical puzzle: Is it a mirror image of something taking place on the viewer’s side of the frame? Or is it set in a space beyond an opening in the kitchen wall? Or is it a painting hanging on the wall?
In any case, in Elementals you don’t get to see the whole painting, because the illustration for Byatt’s story shows only the still life in the right-hand foreground: fish, eggs, garlic, and an oil jar. Unfortunately, its tactile beauty quite fails to come across in the black- and-white reduction. For the two servants in the left foreground you have to rely on Byatt’s description. She calls the younger one Dolores and the elder Concepción. Dolores is angry because she is plain and a servant and has to wait on her spoiled and pretty young mistress. “You are all brawn, and you should thank God for your good health in the station to which he has called you,” says Concepción. “Envy is a deadly sin.” “It isn’t envy,” says Dolores. “I want to live. I want time to think. Not to be pushed around.”
Concepción has a young artist friend (the National Gallery painting is an early Velázquez) who often visits the kitchen, to paint and also to eat her delicious food. He too lectures Dolores: cooking is as creative as painting, he says, and “the divide is not between the servant and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning.”
When he has finished his painting of Christ with Martha, Mary, Concepción, and Dolores, the painter invites Concepción and Dolores to see it in his studio. Concepción thinks that Dolores will be offended by her portrait, but the girl sees the point and laughs with pleasure that someone should have “looked so intently” at her.
The momentary coincidence between woman and image vanished, as though the rage was still and eternal in the painting and the woman was released into time. The laughter was infectious, as laughter is; after a moment Concepción, and then the painter, joined in. He produced wine, and the women uncovered the offering they had brought, spicy tortilla and salad greens. They sat down and ate together.
This is the last paragraph of the book; the combination of complex art interpretation, sermon, biblical diction, with a touch of Julia Child (or more probably the English cookery expert Elizabeth David, who was a writer as much as a cook) sums up some of its more important ingredients. Still, I’m not certain that the combination of so many pungent flavors makes a good dish; and any-way the pulpit tone sounds sanctimonious coming from such a rationalist writer.
In her acknowledgments Byatt describes the Velázquez story as ekphrastic, or descriptive. She is not just ekphrastic, though, but also eclectic. She likes trying out different styles: the desert prince’s palace in “Cold” is richly described à la Wilde, the encounter with the Lamia sounds like Calvino, and “Baglady”—about a woman who loses her sense first of where and then of who she is in a foreign shopping mall—is a Kafkaesque nightmare of displacement.
“Crocodile Tears” strikes out in the opposite direction. It’s about a lonely English widow and a lonely Norwegian widower who happen to meet in a hotel in Nîmes and decide to stay together. Byatt upgrades this magazine romance by embedding it in a highbrow travelogue full of obscure and fascinating information about the history, prehistory, natural history, and especially art history of Nîmes. She describes works of art with love and understanding (she began her considerable academic career teaching literature to art students at the prestigious Central School of Art in London). In “Crocodile Tears” she ranges from Roman coins to Sigmar Polke, illuminating many other kinds of art in the centuries between. When the National Portrait Gallery invited her to be painted, she chose the English painter and critic Patrick Heron to do it: an adventurous choice compared to many of her neighbors’ on those walls.
Byatt is best known for her gigantic Booker Prize-winning novel Possession. When it appeared in 1990, the Sunday Times called it “a cerebral extravaganza of a story [which] zigzags across an imaginative terrain bristling with symbolism and symmetries, shimmering with myth and legend, and haunted everywhere by presences of the past.” The description fits Elementals pretty well. Some readers are inspired by Byatt’s scope, energy, virtuosity, verve, and nerve, and entranced by the cornucopia of recherché pleasures she pours out for them; others see this as overwhelming, an avalanche, showoff and hectoring. Both sides have a point. Whatever else, she lives up to her ideal that energy should overcome inhibition. Or perhaps she doesn’t have inhibition.
No writer could be less like an avalanche than Penelope Fitzgerald, and even if she doesn’t suffer from inhibition, her manner is reticent, and she uses hardly any adjectives. Her particular comic style depends very much on the contrast between her quiet voice and the monstrous things it can say. Like Byatt, she is a scholar (though not an academic). She has written biographies of Edward Burne-Jones, the poet Charlotte Mew, and of her father and uncles, the Knox brothers. The most famous of them (and Britain’s most famous Catholic convert since Cardinal Newman) was her uncle, the Oxford don and Catholic apologist Monsignor Ronald Knox. Fitzgerald published her superb last novel, The Blue Flower, in 1996; it is a fictionalized biography of the German Romantic poet Novalis. Her sense of everyday life among the country and small-town gentry of Saxony at the turn of the eighteenth century is a miraculous case of scholarly research turning into empathy. Novalis and his brothers all died of tuberculosis before they were thirty, and his fiancée died of the same disease at fifteen. It is a harrowing story, all the more so because Fitzgerald never veers from her tone of benign irony. She takes death in her stride.
And so do her characters in Human Voices, which has just been published in the US, twenty years after it first appeared in Britain. There is quite a lot of death toward the end of this novel, which is not surprising since it takes place in London during the Blitz. Byatt (quoted on the jacket) calls it “a wonderful combination of deadpan English comedy and surreal farce.” It is a very funny office novel, set in the London headquarters of the BBC. Alice in Wonderland would have loved it: it is all conversation. “There was always time for conversations…of every kind, at Broadcasting House,” Fitzgerald explains early on.
…All in turn could be seen forming close groups, in the canteen, on the seven floors of corridors, beside the basement ticker-tapes, in the washrooms, in the studios, talking, talking to each other, and usually about each other, until the very last moment when the notice SILENCE: ONTHEAIR forbade.
In 1940 Fitzgerald was part of this world; she did her war service in the BBC. But she did not publish Human Voices until forty years later, in 1980, when it might have been read as nostalgic. Now it is as much a historical war novel as the works of Sebastian Faulks or Pat Barker, and some of its references—especially the acronyms—need puzzling out. RPAs are always delivering messages from the DPP to the RPD.
The acronyms are a running joke, because they utterly fail to depersonalize the quirky, silly, obsessive, appealing characters that staff Fitzgerald’s Broadcasting House. They all bristle with personality, and all their personalities are engaging—from the tactless Central European refugee scientist (“In spite of his good will, he had caused as much distress as any other perfectionist”) to the teenage RPJTA (Recorded Programmes Junior Temporary Assistant) from Birmingham with her “tranquil Midlands pessimism.” At the end of the book she comforts the lonely middle-aged RPD (Recorded Programmes Director) and quenches his unquenchable thirst for love, which takes the form of finding “he could work better when surrounded by young women.”
This is the biggest of many small plots. There is no big one. Still, you also get a half-French RPA (Recorded Programmes Assistant) inconveniently giving birth in the building. An elderly “Old Servant” (someone who was on the staff well before the war) takes her home and comes to dote on the baby, thus brightening the prospect of her own impending retirement. And on the last page the laid-back DPP (Director of Program Planning) is blown up by an unexploded parachute bomb. “His voice in particular,” writes the house obituarist, “will be much missed.” Hidden under Fitzgerald’s comedy is a modest pride in the pluck shown by everyone as the bombs fell on Broadcasting House. That too is a period flavor, so it shouldn’t spoil the pleasure of the comedy.
June 10, 1999