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A.S. Byatt

October 18, 2009

Yesterday, I saw A.S. Byatt. At the National Humanities Center, here at North Carolina. I think the location may perchance be within the outter area of Durham, about 10 minutes away by car from the Duke Campus. She gave a reading the day before but I could not go then. I was glad I was able to attend her conversation with a professor from my department, Toril Moi. I was glad I did not miss too much, despite being more than 15 minutes late, due to a mishap with mapped directions.

She was there, resplendent on stage, looking solid and comely for a person who is 72 years old. She speaks with the accent one often hears among the inner circles of the Oxbridge crowd. She did after all come from a rather distinguished family, her sister being Margaret Drabble. But she did not say anything about her family in the dialogue she had with Toril. She just talked about the formative process of her literary and intellectual life that led her to becoming the writer she is today. And she talks quite a bit about her latest book, The Children’s Book, which I vow that I would make myself read.

When I first encountered Byatt as a young adult, studying in University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, it was at the now no-longer existing British Council Library (which has since moved to its spanking new building amidst bad traffic but better public transport access). I could not really remember the first book of hers that I read. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, I did not finish reading, even though I was in love with reading them from the moment I started reading them. It was due to the exigency of time, and also the shifting priorities that came from being a youth-child, a college student who wanted to feel life and see the world through multi-colored. Maybe that was why I was in love with Byatt’s work, especially her The Matisse Stories, a collection of short stories inspired by the Impressionist painter, Henri Matisse, that is highly psychological in the profilling particularly of the female protagonists. I realize now that I would have identified with the trials of her characters better as a matured woman, rather than as a girl-child.

Though she wrote also about the ordinary people, her most outstanding characters are formidable personalities. Formidable in their brilliance and wit, physical attraction and charisma. Especially the women. How i wanted to be like Frederica in her quartet novels, (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman , even though Frederica was certainly not without travails. She lived through the exciting times of the student and women’s revolutionary women in England, her life traced from the time when she was a young girl until she became almost a middle-aged woman who was also a celebrity. She and her circle constituted some of the most brilliant and talented figures, even if some of the marginal characters were shiftless and forgettable. The last book of the quartet, The Whistling woman, closes the curtain on the unfinished story traced by the trio of books before it, with lots of flashbacks, retrospectives, quiet rumination of theories embraced at the heat of the moment and the growing stability of the main characters as they come to terms with their past, their intellectual investments and the events that had weaved through their lives in momentous ways.

I would certainly love to be able to write a story, even if it’s a non-fiction piece of work, that is replete with memorable characters and personalities, even if the personalities are non-humans. Byatt herself said, during the dialogue, that to write huge stories, one that span through volumes, would require one that have a sort of ‘plot-line’ that can move and move along. Otherwise, one may lose the interest of one’s readers. She talked about how she came of age intellectually during the time of High Modernism, when writers were trying their level best to write stories without plotlines. She talked about how she used to read every book there is on a subject even if it is merely to write a short essay on a writer or poet. Incidentally, she said that she dedicated most of her academic career, from undergraduate studies through postgraduate studies, to poetry. Apparently, the only non-poet she ever wrote about was Smollett, as she detested the 18th century and he was the only one whom she found palatable. Not only that, she would attempt to remember everything that she has read by heart (not at the expense of understanding) for her to feel sufficiently grounded in the work of whoever was the poet that she’s studying. I remember my own mother telling me how she had to memories lines and stanzas when she studied English Literature for her Higher School Certificate. Shirley Lim, an Asian American writer (formerly Malaysian) noted the same thing in her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces. I am sure some of my literary friends reading this would be able to commiserate.

Byatt herself commanded a formidable presence. Despite the English reserve, one could note her passion as she describes herself as a “maker of things,” as someone who thinks through objects. She sees the novel as using the primary structures of language to describe the abundance and color in the world. She strongly believes that, in order to thoroughly understand one’s native tongue, one must, and should, learn other languages. For her, the mind is like a network of exhibitory language. She sees herself as a realist writer who uses reality to weave stories such as story-tellers of old, framed within the tour-de-force of the history of ideas in the Western world (particularly in the European/Anglo context).

Her latest work, the The Children’s Book is an outgrowth of her fascination with the lives of writers of children’s books and the lives of their children. A member of the audience had asked if she had picked the inspiration for her protagonist in the novel from E Nesbitt, to which she replies in the negative. But she is interested in the psychological instances in the lives of authors whose ouvres become the classics in children’s literature and the Peter Pan complex that accompanies most of them. Imagine that, and then imagine the schizophrenic and delusional condition that often accompanies the creative writer and creative process (though the cliche saying holds true here; just because you’re not understood does not make you an artist or author).
A.S. Byatt teaches taught Literature at the University College London but had since relinquished her position. However, she does not, and has never taught creative writing, even though she has no problems with writers who do teach creative writing. But most importantly, before one can become creative, it is vital that one learns to write well. As she dryly said, “one cannot break the rules before knowing them.”

I am glad I went yesterday. Last summer, prior to leaving Malaysia, I had began rereading Possession again. Then, I’d passed it to a friend for safe-keeping. However, I have since taken it back. Now, it is waiting for me, in my parents’ home, to be read lovingly when I return for the winter break. I have here with me, my old copy of The Biographer’s Tale which I’ve started but not finished. Perhaps it is time to do so now, and lay the old ghosts to rest.

She is one of those authors whom I can certainly say has defined me as a reader.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Petrel permalink
    October 19, 2009 9:25 am

    A S Byatt does not teach at all now – she gave up in 1982, resigning her post as Senior Lecturer at University College, London, ten years after taking it up. At UCL she specialised in American Literature.

  2. clarissal permalink*
    October 19, 2009 9:55 am

    thanks for the correction 🙂

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