The Books: “Still Life” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

519Z7C042GL._SS500_.jpgStill Life – by A.S. Byatt.

This is the second of the “Potter family” books and man, I love this book. Her big themes continue from Virgin in the Garden: intellect vs. body, marriage vs. independence, madness vs. creativity. Interspersed throughout the book are long fascinating excerpts from the letters of Theo and Vincent van Gogh – so the book has an intellectual rigor to it (as all her books do). It’s not straight narrative. We get into the nitty-gritty of the characters’ lives – and then switch back to treatises, by an omniscent narrator, on the van Goghs, and art, and trying to capture light and color. Frederica – the prickly “star” of this book – escapes Yorkshire and goes to Cambridge. She falls in with a rowdy group of men (who continue on as characters in the subsequent books). Frederica is the kind of woman who flourishes in platonic male friendship. It’s not that she doesn’t like women – but it’s one of her struggles – to remain a woman, while at the same time being a serious academic, and being taken seriously in her work. Stephanie has married Daniel, a vicar – and you can see how she begins to lose her fight in this regard almost immediately. But because it’s AS Byatt writing it – it’s not a simplistic struggle. It’s just that … at the time (and even now, to some extent) – marriage is seen as a structure that has a specific form, and you must adhere to that form – or it’s not a marriage. Wives should be a certain way. Stephanie is not rebellious, by nature – but she has a moment in this book, when she’s going into labor, and she knows she’s going to be in the hospital for some time – and she is desperate for someone to go home and bring her her books. This request is not understood. She is seen as being difficult, weird. Why does a new mother need her complete Wordsworth by her side? Again, this isn’t said explicitlly – but it’s there – and you really feel for Stephanie, trapped in a life that she thought maybe would free her up (it is the 50s, after all – you can’t be single for TOO long … marriage was seen as the truly freeing thing). But what really interests me about this book is the back and forth between the spectacular letters of Theo and Vincent – and the Potter family. It’s such a nice device. I found it to be hugely effective. Marcus, the brother, has had a nervous breakdown – and has been convalescing in a hospital for some time. His “madness” has to do with how he perceives light. Light comes across to him as a mathematical theorem – he can SEE it – breaking apart, coming together – lines, angles, parabolas – it is something he cannot control. There is a genius in Marcus, a mathematical genius – but he becomes overwhelmed by the very FACT of light’s existence, he can’t bear it. This, of course, is very similar to Vincent van Gogh’s madness … after all, Vincent never saw his famous painting “Starry Night” as impressionistic, or abstract in any way. This is actually how the stars appeared to him. Is that madness? Does it even matter?

Here’s an excerpt from the book. I love her writing. There’s a distance to it – as there is in all the Potter books. It’s almost like a treatise, a sociological examination – you’ll see what I mean. This is from Frederica’s time at Cambridge. There’s something about Byatt’s specific excavation of Frederica’s motives and actions during this time that reminds me of this time in my life. I was very very Frederica-esque then. Byatt could be describing me. It’s odd, and cool, isn’t it … when you see yourself in a book? It’s like: but … but … that’s so private … how could Byatt know that??

Excerpt from Still Life – by A.S. Byatt.

She had too tough and inflexible a sense of her identity to be as good a chameleon as Alan Melville. She did not intend, as she began to suspect he did, to make a career of it. She tried, in a small way. She said “darling” and “love” to the theater people. She tried to adjust her clothes to the preconceptions of sweet Freddie, though some things cannot be done without money. (He was shocked by a pair of elbow-length nylon gloves she had, which he had supposed might be old lace.) She talked about “value” to the poetry friends and slickly and cynically to Tony and Alan. But only in bed – or on sofas, or in punts, or hand in hand on the Backs – did she truly practice being a chameleon. She gave back as much – or more often as little – as was offered or expected. Her greed did not express itself in bed as it did in conversation. She copied and followed, she did not demand. She was unaware that this was all she did. She awoke once from a dream in which she was a grass meadow, held to the earth by myriad grass roots through her hair, fibrils painlessly incorporating her skin in turf, a Gulliver being absorbed by Lilliput, and over the meadow leaped, slowly, exhaustedly, rhythmically, similarly, a procession of pale yellow frogs, long legged, mostly flaccid, a spurt, a heavy-breathing rest, a floppy spurt, one after the other after the other …

This may seem to be a chill and cynical account of a time that was, was perceived as, rich, confusing, full of emotion. The language with which I mgiht try to order Frederica’s hectic and somewhat varied sexual life in 1954-55 was not available to Frederica then. She had the phsycial and intellectually classifying adjectives, but she did not believe herself to be primarily conducting research but looking for love, trust, “someone who would want her for what she was”. And she had thought very little about the feelings or expectations of clever boys or clever young men. There were many things, however many beds she hopped in and out of, however many cheeks she demurely brushed, that she was not fitted to understand. She came, after all, not in utter nakedness but cocooned by her culture in a web of amatory, social, and tribal expectations that was not even coherent and unitary.

She believed unquestioningly, with part of herself, for instance, that a woman was unfulfilled without marriage, that marriage was the end of every good story. She was looking for a husband, partly because she was afraid no one might want her, partly because she couldn’t decide what to do with herself until that problem was solved, partly because everyone else was looking for a husband. (It is curious, but true, that the offers she received in no way changed her fixed feeling that the sort of woman she was was essentially not wanted as a wife.)

She believed, with a mixture of “realism” and resignation, that women were much more preoccupied with love than men were, more vulnerable, more in pain. There were imposing tags in her mind. “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart / ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.” “He for God only, she for God in him.” “I claim only this privilege for my sex – you need not covet it … this distinction of loving longest when life, when hope is gone.” She was conditioned to desire to be abject. This desire was reinforced by the behavior of Rosamond Lehmann’s heroines and of Ursula Brangwen (whom some other part of Frederica was ready to despise heartily.) And there was the knowledge gleaned from agony columns, where abject women asked for help with the indifferent, the unfaithful, the only-wanting-one-thing, the other women’s husbands.

The Frederica who had fled to Scarborough with Wilke rather than go to bed with Alexander might be described as instinctively in revolt against “whole” (overwhelming) love, though she would have said she was afraid of failure, embarrassment, bloodshed. The Frederica who conducted experiments in sex in Cambridge was looking for an ideal lover. At one level. At another, she was considering a battle with the whole male sex. She often said, “I like men,” as one might say, “I like strong cheese,” or “I like bitter chocolate,” or “I like red wine.” Sghe came to pronounce that each realationship was what it was – dancing, sex, talk, friendship – as many as there were men. This was true, and she believed it, but it was not the whole truth. Her behavior was more dictated by generalizations aout men, or Men, than she was at first aware.

Men had their group behavior. Together they talked about girls as they might about motorcars or beer, joking about breast measurements and legs, planning campaigns of seduction like army or teenage gang maneuvers. For these men women were better or worse, easier or more rarified sex. Simply. Frederica did the same, at first half-consciously, then with deliberation. She judged and categorized men. Quality of skin, size of backside, texture of hair, skill. Men discussed whether girls would or wouldn’t. Frederica furiously categorized those men who could and couldn’t. If men wanted “only” one thing, so could, and would, and did, Frederica Potter. She took some pride in the fact that there was no one who could feel able to refer to her as his girlfriend. She preempted the planned, staged, purchased 9with curry, with films, with wine) seductions by immediate acquiescence or unusually direct and candid rejection. These habits took some learning and there were moments when she lost her nerve, even wondered if she were cheap, or a tart. (Fast would have been a good word for her but came from another decade.)

There were men who wanted her, or seemed to, who sent letters quoting “the not-impossible She”, who asked delicately if she saw them as perhaps special. Here Frederica’s confusion was at its height. She believed that she wanted to solve the marriage problem. To find a true mind, with the rest of course added. But she also wanted not to be like her mother’s generation, free and powerful only during this brief artificial period before concession and possession. She felt contempt for the suitors, which protected her from taking them seriously, or allowed her to remain abject – in her own mind – before the not-impossible unknown. She prevaricated and cheated, shared them with other women and neither felt nor appeared to feel jealousy. (This was owing to egocentricity: she simply could not imagine men in the company of other women.)

It shouould by now be clear that Frederica was more than once both cruel and destructive. In extenuation it can be argued that she had not been led by custom or by cultural mythology to suppose that men had feelings. Men were deceivers ever, the bad ones, and masterful, the good ones. The world was their world and what she wanted was to live in that world, not to be sought out as a refuge from or adjunct to it.

She might have been instructed by literature. She had read endless descriptions of the shyness and desperation of male first love. But whereas she recognized the humiliation of Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, of Rosamond Lehmann’s brave, doomed girls, and the death of the heart, from some fund of ancient knowledge, she did not recognize, or believe in, the professional coquettes or pure young girls, or mysterious animal presences of the male novels. None of these were anything to do with Frederica Potter, who was brisk, businesslike, interested in but not obsessed by sex, and wanted to make friends of the creatures if they would have it. Women in male novels were unreal and it was beyond Frederica’s comprehension that young men might suppose she was any or all of these characters. So they battled, the men to be hopelessly devoted, Frederica to be abject and/or free, and were puzzled and hurt. Frederica was shocked and startled when one young man burst uninvited into a tea she was making for another and smashed a teacup with a poker. She categorized long and deeply considered love letters as parts of a campaign and ignored them. When one desperate man whom she found unexciting, apart from an encyclopedic knowledge of Thomas Mann, burst into tears and said she was mcking him, she could only stare, become wholly silent, and go home.

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5 Responses to The Books: “Still Life” (A.S. Byatt)

  1. Blu says:

    I loved the movie Possession and didn’t realize that it was based on a novel by this author. I’m certainly going to read something by her in the future.

    BTW, I’m a new reader. Annika (Annika’s Journal) turned me on to your site in her farewell post. I look forward to enjoying your site more in the future!

  2. red says:

    Annika’s closing up shop! sniff, sniff. I can’t STAND it when bloggers do that!! I mean, I know it’s her right and everything – hahaha – but I will miss her voice.

    And welcome, Blu – it’s nice to have you here!

  3. Blu says:

    Be sure to read her final post. It’s funny, touching, and….real. Very Annika.

    Plus, she mentions you!

    p.s. i have spent the last half hour reading your Rocky musings. Brilliant stuff. I’m running off to play some basketball now, but will definitely finish up later.

    p.p.s. i once put on Rocky for a woman i was dating. she hated it. turns out that i didn’t much like her…

  4. red says:

    You know, there are definite certain litmus tests for new relationship prospects. “Not liking Rocky” is a dealbreaker as far as I’m concerned.

    One of my boyfriends broke up with a girl because not only had she never heard of Zero Mostel – but when he forced her to watch The Producers – she didn’t laugh once.

    Chick was TOAST.

  5. red says:

    Oh, and I can talk about Rocky forever. I stopped the Rocky posts a while back … but seriously: I never EVER get tired of the topic! :)

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