The Books: “The Game” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

0679742565.jpgThe Game – by A.S. Byatt.

This is AS Byatt’s second novel, published in 1967. She had quite a long writing life before she finally hit the jackpoet with Possession – she did a lot of critical writing, studies of Iris Murdoch, she taught, she wrote, but she didn’t have, for many many years, fame. I like that about her. I like that she didn’t make a splash with her first book, or her second, or her third. Or her fourth … etc etc. I like the long-percolating aspect of her career. I read these earlier books of Byatt’s and she, as a writer – the voice, the concerns, the themes – is clearly in evidence. I totally recognize the writer of Possession here. It’s just that the subject matter isn’t yet BIG enough for her particular gifts. She’s a very detailed writer – but she’s also a writer who truly THINKS about things – trends, generations, movements, etc. – She thinks about these things not in a dilettanteish way – she doesn’t use these things as plot points … these are truly her concerns. (Like the whole “lit crit theory” trend – which is the jumping off place for Possession)

The Game – I can’t remember much about it. I know it’s about two estranged sisters. They had a troubled upbringing and created a fantasy world together when they were little – a sort of Knights of the Round Table world – that reminds me a bit of the two girls in Heavenly Creatures and that claymation world they would escape to. Uhm … and that’s all I remember. I know that now, when the book starts, the two sisters are grown women, married – estranged … and somehow they are drawn back together again. There’s a sort of “evil” guy named Simon – has he had affairs with them both? How does he factor in? No memory. But he, predictably, is some sort of specialist on snakes (see – Byatt hasn’t quite figured out yet how to hide her themes more gracefully) – he has a television program about snakes, and the two sisters are kind of haunted by seeing him everywhere. They have known Simon since they were young girls – and … somehow … well. He’s the snake in the garden. The book is supposed to be really psychologically ominous – but as you can tell, none of it has remained in my memory.

I flipped thru it just now, and some of it came back to me – but only some.

There are long sections of Cassandra’s journal (Byatt is very into doing that – she likes that device, a very Jane Austen-y device – of printing letters, memos, journals – that’s the whole point of Possession – She likes giving you, the reader, the feeling that you are rifling through someone else’s papers.) So anyhoo – here’s an excerpt involving the teenage Cassandra’s journals.

Like I wrote elsewhere: I totally recognize AS Byatt here. It’s 1967, it’s years before she hit it with Possession – but the voice is already there. I love that.

Excerpt from The Game – by A.S. Byatt.

Cassandra’s Journal. Easter 1944.

Today he showed me the snakes. I hoped he might, as I imagine he would not show them to most people. He says he has ‘for some reason’ always kept them a secret. So I was very flattered, but could not comment as intelligently or enthusiastically as I would have liked to. I hoped to feel we were sharing something, but he was a bit schoolmasterish – more letting me be there than wanting me. I refine too much on what he says. I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ He said, ‘Just sit there and keep me company.’ I was absurdly pleased by this. (Must watch myself, no lies, no lies.) One must never ask for more than is offered – not out of virtue, but because if one does one loses what one has.

Snakes are strange things. Not evil-looking, as I had supposed, not anything much, just little heaps like coils of rope or something one might have dropped. He keeps them hidden in this cave. In glass tanks. He has earth on the bottom, and odd stones, and dishes of water for them to swim in. None were swimming. I would make it all look much better, but he clearly doesn’t care how it looks. There is water running down the back wall; the stone is stained, silver and gold and olive; there are minute ferns growing in crevices. One could perhaps grow ferns all round, put in a few shelves.

It is strange to me to think anyone could love those snakes – stranger than before I saw them – but in some way he clearly does. He has ten grass-snakes, three smooth-snakes and two adders he caught in the heather. He has a collection of skins, wrapped in oilskin, in a metal box, and a book full of observations. There are no thoughts, only notes on how they excrete, how and when they cast their skins, how they swallow, how long they go iwthout food, what they will and won’t eat. They have no names, although he knows them all apart. He told me they were beautiful, which I suppose is a kind of thought. I expected to find them beautiful myself – I am the sort of person you would think would – but I didn’t. There was a dryness and nothingness about them. I was somehow surprised they were alive. They were nothing, really, just accidental tubular shapes of things. He says spring is late so they are torpid; they are inert, as though the step from life to death was insignificant to them. Snakes have no lids to their eyes, and so look plainly out at you; this makes them seem not so much fascinating as stupid.

I like watching him watch them. One of the things about knowing him is the excitement of mapping out all the directions in which there are things to learn I shall never know more of than that they are there. (Prose!!) I really don’t want to know more than he voluntarily tells me, partly because I am shy. I stand around in a waiting silence much of the time but he doesn’t seem to mind too much. I hope my waiting doesn’t oppress him. God knows I don’t mean it to. He said last week I was censorious, but oh, Simon, not with you, ever.

We had for lunch spam, tomatoes from his greenhouse, half a hard-boiled egg each and an apple.

We had another argument about the Incarnation. I was trying to say I didn’t see it was necessary for Christ to have been God or to have died. It seems to have made, proportionately to what is claimed for it, so little difference – historically, that is – it hasn’t changed war or murder or cruelty, most people still know nothing about it. I said I didn’t want God to have been made flesh, as far as I was concerned if there was any point in the idea of God it was precisely that He was not flesh, he was something else, something other. He said might we not then feel God was inaccessible, and I said that individually, for myself, that was how I did feel. I see the flaw in my argument here.

He said, surely I saw something was wrong with the world – ‘something horribly twisted’ was how he put it. He said some twisting back on a really grand scale was needed, some ‘re-wrenching’, not done by us, to counteract this.

I said, something was certainly horribly wrong, but it seemed to me likely that it had always been wrong and had not at one point in time ‘gone wrong’. I said we have no right to think this re-wrenching actually took place just because we think it ought to have. He said the point about the Crucifixion was that it was the moment when the eternal was involved in history – thus its effects were eternal (we are now forever able to be saved) and historical (it has to be worked out). I said this was too metaphorical. I was angry because he didn’t see that if the ‘going wrong’ wasn’t historical, the atonement needn’t be. He was angry with me; he wants me to believe.

I told him that what I found saving was the order and structure one could see in things, smooth-running, meaningful. The growth of plants, the circulation of the blood, networks of working muscles, veins on leaves, movements of planets and shoals of fish. A harmony one could see. This is what we are for, to pay attention to this beautiful network of designed movement that we and our tragedies are held in. He said that suffering and sin were rents in this network, and that Christ was a guarantee that they could be mended, the fabric could be restored. I said I thought the need for Christ was a need to simplify, to reduce to terms of human suffering something that is neutral, not loving, inhuman, not human.

We were angry with each other. I wish I didn’t have to win arguments, especially with him. It doesn’t do me much good. Moreover, about concrete suffering at least, he knows more than I do. Mine is all in the head. But he knows. I feel he is always on edge and menaced. I don’t know why. I speculate about how he lives in that house; going into it is unthinkable. He must do normal things, brush his hair and teeth, sit by the fire … He doesn’t talk about his family. I don’t ask.

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