The Books: “The Shadow of the Sun” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

71BJPKH1BEL._AA240_.gif.jpegThe Shadow of the Sun – by A.S. Byatt. She’s one of my all-time favorite writers. For Possession alone. But then there are the other books that I love … Angels and Insects, Virgin in the Garden – her short stories … she’s so … God, she’s a true writer of ideas. Some people don’t like that about her. My opinion is is that the ideas she tackles don’t at all lesen the heart of the books. The first time I read Possession – a sweepingly brilliant book – full of all kinds of themes and ideas (postmodernism – a critique of it and also a validation of it – fascinating – Victoriana, sex, gender, the MEANING of reading … like, the book is dense) – but anyway, the ‘coda’ to Possession – with the poet meeting the little girl in the field – knocked my socks off the first time I read it. I clutched at my heart when I read the last sentence, my soul cried out, “NO! NOOOOOO!” Perfect. A perfect and emotional ending to a perfect book. It packed a huge punch – and still does to this day. I’ve read it countless times and it is ALWAYS good. Shadow of the Sun is her first novel. It was published in the early 60s – she was an undergraduate when she wrote it. It did not make a splash – but was re-published after her huge breakthrough hit of Possession. And naturally I went and bought it and read it, since that one book alone made me a fan of all of AS Byatt’s stuff forever. I actually can’t remember much about Shadow of the Sun – I do know it’s a book about a writer. A young woman whose father is a famous novelist. Byatt herself has commented on this book, saying – “It’s a book by a young woman who doesn’t quite know WHY she has to write … but knows she MUST.” She also has said (and I have noticed this, on my own reading of her work) that much of her writing is “heliotropic”. This is definitely clear in Still Life – which intersperses the narrative with letters between Theo and Vincent Van Gogh. Her books are about color – green and gold are the background of so much – Possession, definitely. Think about Maud – her “golden hair” and the green headscarf she wears – the poems in Possession, full of gold and green. The whole “heliotropic” thing is a huge part of Shadow of the Sun (even the title!) The book opens with a long description of an English garden – and Byatt, the young writer, goes overboard on the descriptors – but you can see there the seeds of the writer she would eventually be. The “descriptive terms” in Possession are by someone who has become a master. She knows when to put them in, when to leave them out … Shadow of the Sun is overwritten, as many books by young first novelists are … and because I’m a huge fan of her – it’s fun to watch her development. It’s fun to read the three-page description of what the hay bales look like, gleaming in the sun … even though it’s “too much”, even though a better writer knows to leave stuff out, that one paragraph will suffice. It’s fun to read because you can feel AS Byatt finding, through the act of writing, what is important to her. What she SEES. The “heliotropic” focus … she is not sure what to do with it yet, she is only 22 years old … but she knows that this is what she sees, this is important to her. So she writes from there. I’ve picked one of those long sections as an excerpt. The details of the plot are lost to me – I know there’s a love affair between the novelist’s young teenage daughter and a married man … Anna (the daughter) feels distant from her famous father, wants her independence … and Henry (the novelist) is a difficult person, an artist, a fanatical gardener, a solitary man. He disappears for hours at a time when he is thinking out a book, to stride through the golden fields and woods. But more than that, I don’t remember.

Here’s an excerpt. Notice the use of color – it is purely symbolic. He “shines” – he is an analogy – he is a bull, a mythical bull – his shirt takes on symbolic significance … In her later books, Byatt has become more graceful – things are not as obviously symbolic, she learned how to layer – meaning upon meaning. But here … it’s all out in the open. A young writer, spreading her wings. Awkwardly. But beautifully. Here she is.

Excerpt from The Shadow of the Sun – by A.S. Byatt.

Henry came over the hill into the sun. The descent was steeper than the ascent had been; the valley was rounded, on the upper slopes bracken and some stones, in the bowl trees, mostly beech, a quick leaping river, divided again and again by large boulders, crossed in one place by a wooden bridge with a handrail, and, on the other side of the trees, slopes of thick gorse bushes, butter yellow, and more bracken. There was a boy on the bridge watching the water. He was camping with a friend, in the next valley, and had quarrelled with him, as two people alone on holiday together are apt to do, so he was watching the water rather sulkily, wishing he had something better to do, or that he had not come at all. The first edge of the bowl was almost vertical, ten feet or so of rock, tufted with wiry grass. Henry appeared on the top so rapidly and so suddenly that the boy had hardly time to take him in, a huge figure with flailing arms against the sky, before he was over. The boy made an involuntary movement to warn him – which at that distance was useless – of the drop. But unlike the philosopher, Henry was not swallowed for presumption; he came down, on a difficult stone, on one foot, balanced all his huge weight on it for a moment, swinging his arms wildly with all the power in them to keep a balance which it suddenly seemed impossible he should lose, took off in a huge leap, and was down the hill again like some enormous animal, an ancient white bull, in full charge.

He had his head down like the bull, and, with the curling mass of his beard and hair obscuring his face from this angle altogether, presented something of the same solid, blind, purposeful front. His speed, or some earlier gesture, had whipped up his hair into two great curved peaks, not unlike horns, which added to the illusion, and the whole of him, silver hair and white garment – his shirt was outside his trousers now, like a tabard – shone in some strange way, with a white glitter, as though he was giving off a concentrated light of his own and not merely the refracted light of the still sun over the hill.

What unnerved the boy was the directness of his progress. As he had come over the hill, so he continued, in a straight line, going over the hillocks, and through gorse bushes, clattering stones out of his way down the hillside. As he came down, in what seemed only a few moments, but must, even at Henry’s speed, have been much longer, towards the river, the boy moved aside altogether, pressing himself against a tree for protection. He felt sick with unreasonable fear; either the man would come near him, or he would break his neck in the river, which was here quite wide. It was not full – the summer had been too dry – so the channel between its banks was unusually deep, and the stones were sharp, and glossy with bright olive green moss. Henry came down, still even in the shadow, shining, ignored the bridge, stepped, wide and lightly, one stride into the river, and one, from the same foot on the slimy stone, apparently effortless stride up onto the far bank, shook himself and went on out into the sun again and up onto the further hill.

The boy looked involuntarily up the valley towards where Henry had come from, to see what had been driving him, but the valley was clear and empty under the sun, and nothing monstrous, nor even human, appeared on the skyline. So he turned back to Henry and watched him make his way, with no diminution of speed, towards the next ridge.

Henry was afraid of the thing towards which he was driving himself; it was partly that he was driving, not only that he was driven. In a sense, now, he knew enough about his present state of mind to be able to predict what would be the outcome of his walking. In a sense, too, he could control it, and knew why he must walk as he did, and how far he could go. But more powerfully, it was all new every time he set out, it was all to be learned, to be undergone again, and from his present, still fairly rational state, it seemed terrible. He would, quite consciously, have liked to be able to abandon the whole undertaking and go quietly home to his work, but what came first was to walk, it did not matter how far, to walk until he was exhausted, and at that time he felt himself inexhaustible.

What he called, liking the precise medical metaphor, his attacks of vision, had come upon him very gradually, only becoming really nasty when he was about Anna’s age. At first it had been only an inexplicable attentiveness, a tightening of sight, a thing seen suddenly and remembered as a visual touchstone, a tree like a branched and burning candlestick, with flame upon flame of leaping green light. But once, in the main street of the small country town where he had lived as a boy, the thing had shaken and changed him, and the pattern had been set. There had been first the visual insistence – hard outlines, the lines on the pavement suddenly slicing and dangerous, the salmon pinks and dull brick reds of the housefronts suddenly thickened and glaring to the point of suffocation. There had been no pleasure in seeing, then, largely he thought, now, because he did not know what was happening, and fought it, was most unhelpfully afraid. After the sight changed, there had been as now a sudden bewildering access of strength pumped up from inside him, so that, as now, he had lengthened his stride, and pushed things, which, in this case on the crowded marker street, happened to be people – out of his way, thinking in confusion that he could like Samson rip up the gas lamps by their roots to part them more effectively.

Over the years, he had learned to come to terms with these attacks. He recognized the symptoms earlier – noticed a quickening of sight he could not have been alive to when younger; light in his own green glass paperweight had warned him this time, weeks ago, it had been dangerously beautiful, disproportionately important. When it came to him, now, he had to stop writing in the end, he could not attend to anything as long drawn out and demanding as that; he went back to his study of the visionaries, finding all their sentences, all their descriptions of the indescribable, equally, in some curious way, in inspiration and an invitation. Later, when he was an artist again, he found parts of Blake banal and some of Coleridge’s notes meaningless, but at the time everything connected, all meanings were a network, and his coming experience the master-knot. He thought a great deal about this, having accepted it almost immediately as the most important area of his life. He knew already before the war that his visionary moments were a direct source of power and that his only way to make a statement as high and as demanding was to write a very violent, stylized action, remote on the whole from the way most people lived, most of the time, which should rarefy, or concentrate what he knew to the bright intensity witih which he knew it. But before the war he had not quite known how; the prison camp had taught him that.

He never, curiously, attempted to write anything other than novels – it may have been that his extreme shyness needed the distance of the dramatic form before he could speak at all. His thought formed itself around whole men, whole actions; it was epic; his own solitary experiences were not, and he always knew it, raw material.

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