The Matisse Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The short story, like all art forms, is a battleground of competing tendencies. Generally, the story stands in splendid isolation, autonomous. Authors sometimes describe such stories as “chips from the workbench”—ideas too small for full-length treatment, or left over from a longer work, or expressive of an idea, theme, or technique the author cannot work out in any other way. Yet pulling against these centrifugal forces of isolation are the centripetal ones of connection and sequence. The short-story sequence is almost a subgenre, and clever unifying devices linking otherwise disparate stories date back to The Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales.

A. S. Byatt has given readers a triptych of stories, and for once the visual comparison is truly apt. The art of Henri Matisse permeates the individual stories and gives them a kind of unity, even though each can stand on its own. Moreover, each painting has a different relationship to the story in which it figures, and each story in turn is about different characters and is told in a different way. The forces of isolation and connectedness are thus particularly evident, and this tension is also at the heart of the stories themselves.

Matisse plays a relatively minor role in “Medusa’s Ankles.” A print of his painting Le Nu Rose (1935) attracts Susannah to Lucian’s hairdressing salon. To Susannah, the molded pink form, the monumental limbs, suggest “reflections on the flesh and its fall.” It is precisely the fall of flesh in the physical, not the theological sense that most concerns Susannah, even though she is a successful classical scholar, for after a trial appointment with Lucian, “she came to trust him with her disintegration.” A sketch by Matisse, “La Chevelure” (1931-1932), serves as frontispiece to the story and reminds the reader that the classical Gorgon, Medusa, had snakes for hair and could turn any man who looked at her to stone.

Susannah’s relations with Lucian are the inverse of what one expects: He talks and she listens. The subject is Lucian’s dissolving marriage and his affair with a beautiful young woman. The climax comes when three events collide: Lucian takes a month’s vacation with his mistress and meanwhile has his shop redecorated, removing the Matisse. Susannah is given an award and must appear on television, prompting even more than usual anxiety about her age and looks. In the midst of her hair appointment, Lucian announces that he is leaving his wife because she has let herself become overweight; her ankles have become fat. When Susannah’s hair turns out unsatisfactorily, the pressures of her anxieties overwhelm her self-control, and she throws bottles and jars at everyone and everything, smashing mirrors and cutting her hands. At the end of this surreal scene, Lucian is strangely calm and solicitous, assuring her that she has done him a favor. At home, her husband praises her new hairdo, saying that it makes her look years younger, and kisses the nape of her neck for the first time in years.

The ironies do not stop with the unexpected compliment. Susannah’s hitherto invisible husband and the mention of his kissing her neck for the first time in years probably explain many of her anxieties about her appearance as well as her fury at Lucian’s adultery. Underlying these is the most telling irony of all—that a classics professor and winner of a prize for translation should be more worried about her appearance than about the quality of her scholarship or the content of her speech. Susannah sees herself not as her namesake, the beautiful, chaste heroine of the Apocrypha, but as an aging Medusa with fat ankles. Underscoring this theme is visual imagery—the Matisse that first attracts Susannah’s attention suggests an appreciation for female beauty and sensuality that transcends modern stereotypes. Lucian’s replacement of the Matisse with photographs and the soft music with hard rock signals his decision to leave his wife for the younger woman.

What remains elusively at issue is whether Susannah has any reason to feel threatened by Lucian’s duplicity. Readers learn nothing of her marriage beyond what is hinted at in the closing lines. It seems too easy to say that in spite of her intelligence and achievements, she cannot escape the conventional ideas of youth and beauty that a hairdresser’s shop typically suggests, but perhaps that is exactly what readers are intended to do.

“Art Work” begins with an extended description of Le Silence habité des maisons (1947), a work that provides a haunting parallel to the story. Eerily, a crudely rendered “round on a stalk” in the upper left-hand corner of this Matisse painting broods incongruously over two figures who sit at a table perusing a book. Through most of the story, there is no counterpart to this...

(The entire section is 2005 words.)