Sunday, 31 May 2009

Afternoon sun and A.S. Byatt


This afternoon, courtesy of the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, I sat in the shade in her lovely garden, overlooked by the Sheldonian and the Museum of the History of Science, with a group of other Exonians, listening to A.S. Byatt answering our questions.

A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite novelists. I devour her books, with a passion. But there are two things which have always niggled at me. Well, to be accurate one thing which has always niggled and one thing which niggled when I read her new book, which has been out all of a month. They are the same niggle, essentially. In The Shadow of The Sun the main character is a girl, the daughter of a famous novelist, in the D.H. Lawrence mode, who cannot really decide what to do with her life. In trying to free herself from his shadow, she goes to study at Cambridge, tries to write, starts an affair with the man who tutored her, who is also her father's greatest admirer and explicator. As is the way of things, she becomes pregnant, and the book ends with her decision, which is to have the baby and enter into domestic un-bliss with this rather unsympathetic older man. Her decision was the bit that niggled.

In her most recent book, The Children's Book, one of the main characters - of whom there are many - commits suicide. It's a character to whom I had become somewhat attached - of them all, that character had appeared to be the 'mainest' at the beginning, and the most sympathetic. I was cross about this too.

But when I asked about The Shadow of the Sun earlier today, A.S. Byatt's reply made me think. She talked of historical imagination, and said that it was a novel very much of the 1950s and 60s: one that in effect could have had no other end. The character, as she pointed out, was not as strong as she was herself, a rather battered girl, who took the only way open to her. I think that this is what makes A.S. Byatt a great novelist, rather than merely good: she takes hard decisions on behalf of her characters, that are true to who they are, rather than bowing to sentiment or desire for the world to be other than as it is. It rather fits The Children's Book niggle too - even before the suicide, when reading I had wondered how on earth this character could escape the corner into which their (used as an impersonal pronoun to avoid revealing the gender) personality had driven them.

So, hang it all, I think she's done for both those niggles. Byatt is a brilliant and intelligent writer. I cannot recommend her work highly enough.

1 comment:

Jenzarina said...

Hurrah for AS Byatt! You are a jolly lucky lady.