By Dwight Garner
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A.S. Byatt’s fiction, in the years since her best-selling and Booker Prize-winning novel “Possession” (1990), has been increasingly ornate, humorless, freighted with fantasy and myth, and encrusted with heavy literary reference. All my least favorite things in fiction, helpfully confined to one area.
Byatt has a book out this month, “Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories.” I hadn’t read her in a long time, so I picked it up. Surely, it’s time to consider her anew. Clear eyes, full heart, let’s go.
These neo-Jamesian stories were written across three decades. The first appeared in 1982; the last in 2013. Nearly all found good homes. Three were published in The New Yorker. The longest, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” — at nearly 100 pages, it’s practically a novella — ran in The Paris Review.
Byatt has been an articulate advocate, alongside writers as varied as Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie and, most recently, Karen Russell, for tapping the depths of fairy tales, for sounding the most primitive of stories for resonance.
In a Paris Review interview, conducted in 2001, Byatt commented: “There was a wonderful moment of liberation when I realized I could write tales that came out of my childhood love of myth and fairy stories, rather than out of a dutiful sense of ‘I ought to describe the provincial young man coming up from Sheffield and how he can’t cope with the aristocracy in London.’ Anybody would rather write about a princess who had to live in the snow.”
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That’s a striking paragraph, even though a straw man (Sheffield?) walks beside the cold princess. The awkward thing is that Byatt’s fiction has become less convincing than her arguments.
She’s less fierce than Carter, who once began a story, “My father lost me to the Beast at cards.” She’s less playful than the minimalist Barthelme, and less liquidly philosophical than Iris Murdoch. She seems, most of the time, to be writing with a quill under a prism-fringed chandelier.
“All English stories get bogged down in whether or not the furniture is socially and aesthetically acceptable,” Byatt writes. Not hers.
The princess story — its title is “Cold” — is here. This delicate young woman marries a desert prince who, fearing she’ll melt in the staring sun, builds for her an underground palace made of spun glass. A story titled “Dragons’ Breath” is about enormous wormlike creatures, shades of “Dune,” that slide down a mountain, sucking down unlucky goats and duck ponds and flattening the houses in their path.
“Heavenly Bodies” is about a singer named Lucy Furnix and a tycoon named Brad Macmamman. Lucy, or her avatar, is turned into a glowing “skywoman” with “softly heaving breasts” and “harem pants” who fills the night sky. The world gawks. This kind of thing is bound to give Grimes and Elon Musk, and their couple’s counselor, ideas; at least until Lucy is ripped apart by more venerable heavenly bodies.
“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is about a middle-age woman, a “narratologist” named Gillian, who uncorks an antique-shop bottle and, shazam, finds a handsome genie in her hotel room. The genie does Helmut Kohl and Donald Duck imitations, makes fresh figs appear and grants her three wishes.
Their lovemaking — “Gillian seemed to swim across his body forever like a dolphin in an endless green sea, so that she became arching tunnels under mountains through which he pierced and rushed, or caverns in which he lay curled like dragons” — is for the ages, and sounds very good when read aloud to pan flute music.
Other stories fly a bit closer to earth, though rarely do you sense you’re reading about beings you might care about, or that anything at all is at stake. They’re top-heavy, forced in a hothouse.
There are many stories within stories. If such stories were good, they wouldn’t be inside a different one. While reading, I frequently glanced at my wife across the room and made that brilliant new international hand signal that means “help me.”
A human theme does emerge from this book. Byatt is a perceptive writer about aging, about what it’s like to feel like you’re disappearing, like Homer Simpson into that hedge, from the brighter world.
Men as well as women have this pang. Jim Harrison put it best: “Once you’re over 50 they” — women — “just look over your head as if you were a janitor.”
The reason to buy this book — well, to borrow it — is for the title story. It’s about Susannah, a translator in late middle age, who has won an award and needs to appear on television. She goes to her salon for a cut and a blow-dry.
Byatt is superb on the whole experience. The strangeness of the salon owner’s belt and haunches grazing Susannah’s face while he moves and she sits. Her memories of her hair, once “long and straight and heavy, a chestnut-glossy curtain.” It has become “a kind of frizzed fur.”
Best line: “She came to trust him with her disintegration.”
The story keeps getting better. The owner unwittingly begins to insult her. He doesn’t want, he complains, “to put the best years of my life into making suburban old dears presentable.” Byatt keeps ratcheting up the tension.
When the explosion comes, it is worth the wait. You no longer sense you’re reading treacle written in high diction, and that the only smoke is like that from the nostrils of a cartoon bull.
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