Sunday, July 11, 2004

Sugar and Other Stories ~ A.S. Byatt

I know I should have spent my short time in France reading in French, and I did for a while. I hadn't brought any English-language books with me, but half-way through my stay I started having a rough time, culture shock maybe. I needed something in English, so when I saw Sugar and Other Stories in Decitre, I snatched it up, along with Joanna Harris' Holy Fools and Woolf's The Waves. I felt appropriately chagrined about buying English books instead of, say, George Sand or Zola, but I was feeling...I don't know, frazzled. A sudden, total immersion into a foreign language like that is tough, and I was starting to feel like I was slowly drowning. It's difficult to describe, but happily Byatt does it for me:

The exhaustion of the strange came upon her, the sudden refusal of mind and senses to take in new faces, new words, new foods, new courtesies, or old ones whose meanings had shifted and become dangerous or void. "Loss of Face," 123.

Like Nyarly said in her blog, Byatt has an uncanny ability to articulate the subtleties of emotion, and a magnificent eye for detail. I've never seen anyone describe colors the way she does. Her prose is just magnificent. I bought her for comfort food, which is odd, really, because Byatt is hardly a comforting writer, and certainly not a cozy one. There's a morbid streak running through this collection; death and mortalitly seem to be one of the unifying motifs. Nearly all the themes and ideas developed in Possession are present as well, to a greater or lesser degree. The relationship between the individual and art/literature shows up in "On the Day that E.M. Forster Died" and "Racine and the Tablecloth" (which has inspired me to read Phedre in French); Byatt's on-going love affair with Robert Browning forms the basis of "Precipice-Encurled"; and her taste for the gothic is present in "The July Ghost" and "The Changeling."
I don't know why I found Byatt so reassuring. Often it was enough just to know I had the book on me, even if I didn't get a chance to read it. The fact that it's in English certainly had alot to do with it, but it's something more than that, otherwise Harris would have served just as well, which she didn't. There's just no substitute for Byatt (her unfortunate views on Harry Potter notwithstanding). She's so erudite and intelligent, academic but not myopic or stuffy, a writer's writer. I finish her work and I simply want to start over and re-read it again. Maybe I sense something of a kindred spirit in her, in the characters she writes (She'd be horrified to hear that, I'm sure; it's terribly juvenile to identify with a writer's work, don't you know). At any rate, I can't wait to get her new collection.


At 3:44 PM, Blogger Nyarly said...

Definitely get her new book of short stories, but I also really recommend Elementals if you haven't already read it. It has my favorite stories so far. You're right about Byatt's description of color: I'm reading The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye right now, and she does it in there, too:

"...the fundamental colour of the sky was no longer what they still called sky-blue, but a new sky-green, a pale flat green... something very odd and dimming happened to lemons and oranges, and something more savage and hectic to poppies and pomegranates and ripe chillies."

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

Looks like I'll have to make another trip to the library. Djinn is a collection of fairy tales, right? That sounds fantastic. Sometimes Byatt annoys me (like with The Biographer's Tale), but her prose just knocks me out. I'm such a fangirl.

P.S. Love your blog :-)


Post a Comment

<< Home