Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490
A. S. Byatt’s career as a fiction writer has always been on the move. She admits the influence of the French writer Marcel Proust and the English writer Iris Murdoch, both inclined to extending realistic fiction into areas which transcend simple tales of real life. Her short stories, like her novels, have always been stylistically and thematically dense. Her most successful stories often include an element of imaginative improvisation edging on Magic Realism, that late twentieth century movement in fiction which suffuses realistic fiction with incredible elements that, in the past, have been confined to fantasy literature. She is not satisfied with that; in The Matisse Stories, she develops tales that depend in subtle ways upon ambiguous connections with specific paintings by the French artist Henri Matisse. The reader does not have to know the paintings to appreciate the stories, but they are enriched by such knowledge. She takes another and different step into reshaping the short story in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The tales are stylistically and thematically incredible but are not for children. Intellectually and thematically, they are suitable only for adults.
Byatt is, despite her somewhat conservative moral attitudes, a part of the twentieth century movement in art that breaks the rules, thematically, structurally, psychologically, and aesthetically. Her stories are often a challenge to the reader’s preconceptions about what is proper for certain kinds of literary art. However experimental Byatt’s stories are, there is always a sense that she sees the form as capable not only of expansion and imaginative leaps but also of being used to examine the nature of the human predicament, if in a more ambiguous and less certain way than that of the tales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Only the moral certainty of clever endings is missing.
This relatively early story is a good example of the way in which Byatt’s themes are often connected with the problem of literary composition itself. On its face it is a simple tale of a woman attending at her father’s deathbed in Amsterdam, where she chooses to tell the story of his life and that of her grandfather; this, in turn, leads her to think of her own life and her parents’, which are complicated by the fact that her mother was prone to lying. What looks to be a simple moment of poignant recollection becomes an investigation of what is true. The conversations with her father lead to memories of her own experience of her grandfather, and she remembers, or thinks she remembers, incidents that begin to lose credibility when compared to her memories of her mother’s tales of the family. Eventually she begins to realize that whether she likes it or not, the past is partly a fiction and she is not only a victim of it but also, like her mother, something of a perpetrator. There are, also, incidents in this story of a Yorkshire family which are similar to certain facts in Byatt’s own family history; she uses parts of her own experience with very little masking of their source. Byatt also has a strong affection for paintings by the great European artists, and she often brings them in to enrich her stories. In this tale, appropriately, she uses Vincent van Gogh and the museum in Amsterdam dedicated exclusively to his work.
Byatt will occasionally examine the world of middle-class, middle-aged, female angst which has been so successfully explored by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, but her use of this theme in “Medusa’s Ankles,” one of three stories in The Matisse Stories, shows how she can wed realistic material with a wider, aesthetic skein of associations. Sussanah, a successful academic with a bored husband, is regularly soothed by her visits to her hairdresser, Lucian, whose shop she chose originally because of a reproduction of Matisse’s Rosy Nude which hangs in the salon. Its languor and overblown, richly hued voluptuousness give her some comfort, bothered as she is by middle age eroding her bodily charms.
One day, Lucian complains about his wife becoming less attractive as she ages; he is thinking of leaving her for a younger woman. On a later visit, he is still complaining about his wife; even her ankles are fat. What is most disturbing, however, for Sussanah, is the fact that the Rosy Nude has been replaced by a gray-and-black decor with photographs of thrusting, young, skinny models. The hair dressing goes badly, and Lucian, preoccupied and abrupt, makes a mess of her hair. Suddenly and surprisingly, Sussanah goes berserk and wrecks the salon. Lucian is understanding, admitting that he has often felt like doing the same. Sussanah goes home, washes the setting out of her hair, and oddly enough, is met by her husband with a show of affection and a compliment on her hair, worn, as he says, as he used to like it years ago.
This tale is sufficiently wry in itself but is best understood if the idea of Medusa, the mythological female monster, ugly and offensive, is seen as the middle-aged woman, and her attacks as a reasonable response to unfair treatment, rather than as a malignant act.
“A Lamia in the Cévennes”
Byatt is often extravagant in description and lavish in eccentricity of style in many of her short stories. She is particularly so in her descriptions of colors and textures, sometimes beyond the textual relevance of the same. This story from Elementals provides her with the opportunity to revel in color and extend her imagination into the adult fairy tale.
Lycett-Kean, an English painter, disgusted with materialist London, goes to rural France, where he makes a living painting landscapes. He builds a swimming pool and is pleased, then artistically obsessed with the particularly blue color of the water, and he paints the color over and over. When he replenishes the pool from the local river, he discovers a serpent of wondrous colors in the pool. It speaks to him and tells him that it is a lamia, a beautiful woman trapped in a snake’s body, although it has a human head that the painter finds repulsive. Nevertheless he is fascinated by the colors of the huge body, and he avidly produces paintings of it. She begs him to kiss her; if he does, she will become a woman and be his lover. He is reluctant, but she makes it clear that it would be unwise to betray her. The creature becomes restless and unhappy waiting for him to make up his mind.
Luckily, an English friend of vulgar character visits him, and suddenly, a blowsy, cheaply pretty woman joins him. The serpent has disappeared, and his friend and the flashy woman leave together. The painter goes on happily with his life, turning his painterly skills to a local butterfly. As in many fairy tales, all ends happily, if not quite in the way one would expect.
“The Glass Coffin”
In The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a volume of adult fairy tales, Byatt affects the singsong style of the fairy tale. The stories have plots similar to those of a child’s tale, but they quickly involve adult problems and attitudes. Even the style, seemingly simplistic, is subtly changed by the use of an intellectually mature vocabulary and difficult ideas.
A tailor, wandering through a forest, comes upon a cottage and asks for shelter. A little gray man lets him in, in exchange for his labor. He so pleases the old man that he is offered his choice of one of three objects (a common motif in fairy tales). He chooses a glass key simply because he admires the workmanship. Following a series of complicated clues, he rescues a maiden from a golden coffin by using the key. She thinks that he is her Prince Charming and that they will live happily ever after. So they would in a child’s tale.
The tailor suggests that he is no young lover but just an artisan trying to survive. The maiden assures him that he will be set for life if he helps her to escape from an evil suitor who immured her and turned her twin brother into a dog. The tailor kills the villain; the brother is restored to his natural state; all live happily together.
Of the tales in the collection, this one is the closest to a child’s story. It might be readable by an older child. Its most obvious difference from an ordinary fairy tale lies in the extended conclusion and the refusal to bring on the happy ending with the rescue of the maiden. All ends in proper fairy-tale fashion, but as is often the case with the Byatt tales, the conclusion is a wry twist on the usual ending. Byatt takes the common fairy-tale motifs and pushes them slightly out of shape.
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