Friday, November 17, 2023

A. S. Byatt--the Writer We All Hoped We'd Be When We Grew Up


A. S. Byatt (her nom de plum; her mundane name was Dame Antonia Susan Duffy) is dead. Now the scramble for the title of Best Living Writer in the English Language may begin.

I never met the lady and have only read a fraction of her work. But OMG was she a fine writer. Like many latecomers, I discovered her with Possession, a novel about a threadbare academic researcher who chances upon a once-in-a-lifetime discovery--a letter suggesting that two major Victorian poets (fictional ones; but think Christina Rosetti and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and you get the unlikelihood) had an affair. The book was magisterial. Then she wrote The Children's Book, a generational novel set in the Arts and Crafts Movement of nineteenth century England. I started reading it, fell into it, and found myself thinking, "How well she remembers her childhood!" before I slapped myself on the forehead  because it had all happened a century before she was born.

Which novel was better? I think it's blasphemous to ask.

I have a particular fondness for a novella-length book of hers called Ragnarok. In it a "thin child"--apparently Byatt herself in WWII--has a father in the RAF and does not expect him to return home alive. A bookish girl, she knows there are two gods. One is a nice one they talk about in church, and he doesn't seem to have a lot to do with the world as she knows it. The other are the Norse pantheon and they make sense of her situation. Byatt does a wonderful job of sub-creation here. Since there is a world-tree, she reasons, there must also be a world-kelp. Since Loki (who is unlike all other gods in being a shape-shifter) is father to the Midgard Serpent, obviously she must adore her father. I will say no more because why spoil something luminous? Oh, and the ending is great.

Our best and finest is now dead. I shall continue my voyage of discovery through her oeuvre. If you are familiar with Byatt's work, you will mourn with me. If not, I recommend you start with either (the one is short and the other is a world in itself) Ragnarok or Possession. When you've read both, you can move on to The Children's Book.

After which, you can tell me which book is her greatest. I have no idea.


1 comment:

Tim Walters said...

Coincidentally, The Children’s Book is one of the volumes I brought along on my current trip. I bumped it to the front of the queue, of course. So far, so good!