Sunday, April 26, 2009

Byatt, face to face: a report

A.S. Byatt and Eleanor Wachtel take their seats on stage. Wachtel explains that she was asked to chat before they begin proper, to ask something inconsequential so that the sound engineers can test their settings. So, what did A.S. Byatt have for lunch? A turkey sandwich and some "possibly indigestible onion soup."

Although I've spent days thinking, thinking really hard, what I should ask A.S. Byatt — Is there something I really wanted to know, or would it be merely for the sake of asking a question? What of it? What an opportunity! Of course I should ask her a question! But what? — and then, closer to the event, mustering up my courage, fine tuning the wording, rehearsing in my head, and then reworking the question as the interview progressed to account for what she'd just told us and so as not to seem redundant, ultimately I was spared the embarrassment: There was no question period.

My question, finally, would've been this: You touch on the issue throughout, but there a couple points in The Children's Book at which you address directly the writer–reader relationship. Frank on meeting Herbert Methley decides that readers are meant not to meet writers. Olive similarly reflects that, while writers and readers need each other, it is understood that the relationship be mediated through the page. Without meaning to put you on the spot and asking whether you yourself believe that, I wonder if you might comment generally on this human urge to meet the maker of things, to discover the man behind the curtain (why should people want to meet potter Benjamin Fludd, reputedly (and proven to be) a nasty person? why does Dorothy seek out her biological father?). Why do we feel compelled to? And in what circumstances do you think it might be better left alone?

I didn't ask the question, but in mulling it over for myself for days, and from A.S Byatt's remarks yesterday afternoon. I think I have some answers.

Her childhood reading consisted of the usual fairy tales and stories, but she went through their personal store of them so quickly, she early on turned to the likes of Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. She has a particular fondness for Kipling.

It's when she saw a stage production of Peter Pan, as a child during wartime, that she found herself identifying with the writer, and thinking, "I've got to make something."

What she learned from her mother, observing a brief happy (working) time amid her general unhappiness: if you want to work, you must work.

Immersing herself in books was not to escape or replace; it was to complete the real world. "The real world was intensely boring."

Everything she liked — Dickens, Austen, Eliot — had nothing to do with the author, had nothing to do with self-expression. Writing was a matter of looking out, outside of oneself. Art shouldn't be to critique the world, but to understand the world. You cannot change the world by writing, but you can help someone understand the world so that they may go change it. Writing must give pleasure.

The novel has excerpts from the books written by Olive, the children's author. Byatt plays with the idea of self and the notion of having a shadow self.

"Tales are tales." She's worked as a literary critic, but she's very quick to qualify the statement: not a biographical critic. She acknowledges the irony: that she sits here telling us about her childhood and little things about her mother. But not big things. "There's a border between fact and fiction that you shouldn't step over."

Byatt didn't know much about the Edwardians when she set out writing about this time period, chosen because it was a golden age of children's literature. She liked the high Victorians and the gloomy modernists, having skipped over what came in between. (She's done an incredible amount of research to make the period so vivid.)

There's much about growing up in this novel, and the "success" of the authors of that golden age relied heavily on not wanting to grow up. Wachtel asks Byatt if there's ever a point when we are completely adult, with no child left in us. Byatt says, in a sense, when you have a child of your own. It is your duty to be an adult.

She sets Kipling apart from other writers of the era: in his writing it's clear he understood the adult world as much as that of the child.

The talk moves through Ibsen, suffragists, Evelyn Sharp, "porcelain socialists" (a term coined by Dostoevsky), and British–German relations.

(Byatt sits sedately, speaks engagingly matter-of-factly, but comes more to life when talking about bloody matters. She tells of the murder committed by the revolutionary Stepniak; she holds an imaginary knife, driving and twisting into the victim's heart. Twice, later, her arm comes down like an executioner's blade to punctuate her point.)

The Children's Book is in part about the art of pottery. Why pottery? Byatt has a fascination with glass: it's something you can look at and look through, and in this way it is a kind of metaphor for writing. But it formed the focus of a previous novel; she "can't do glass again," so pottery was a next best thing, combined with the affinity she feels for it, being descended from potters.

Byatt "can't remember how the puppets got in." The talks about her research and the esteem with which puppetry was regarded as an artform.

(Unfortunately, the interview was disrupted on several occasions because of cellphones and the feedback caused by someone's hearing aid. A.S. Byatt very kindly made light of the situation. The high-pitched squeals were "like a fairy kind of piping." During the book-signing that followed she expressed sympathy for the poor woman, who, once she'd turned down her hearing aid, couldn't hear what was being said on stage.)

The first world war changed children's stories. Many stories of that period were boys' war-related adventure stories. I understand that there is a dearth of children's literature during the interwar period, and perhaps this is why we hold onto those stories of the period before even more tightly.

Oddly, she notes, while the children of today are very different from those of a century ago, the stories now are essentially the same. The thread was picked up by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling. They share qualities with their predecessors that appeal to children, that suit childhood, even while childhoods now open on much vaster (and grimmer) knowledge of life and the world.

Byatt's novel is not a children's book, but it does have many of the traditional themes. It is the children who are in the best position to save the other children. They are often forced to grow up because of the predatory actions of the adults around them. But her children, on the whole, want to grow up.

The war hits her characters like a knife, indeed, hits the world like a knife.

Children want happy endings. "An adolescent thinks a story isn't grown up if it doesn't have a bad ending." Byatt has moved beyond that stage.

"Readers and human beings have a right to a happy ending." (She hates books that offer two alternative endings.)

The Children's Book can't be said to have a fairy-tale ending, although it does end with a happy tableau. Because it has no central plot, no main character, there are as many endings as there are characters, some happy, some markedly less so. (Much like life, I say; it ends as it should.)

Note, this is a fairly superficial retelling of the event. The interview will be broadcast on CBC's Writers and Company in a few weeks' time.

I did have a couple copies of The Children's Book signed, one for a dear friend as well as my own already well-worn copy. I was tongue-tied, and I commented on the awkwardness, referencing what she'd written about readers meeting writers. It's true. It's weird. After all, with a glint and a smile, she says, "It's really only the book that matters."

My review of The Children's Book.
My early impressions.

Some recent coverage: Byatt, civilized.

A fantastic fable of utopian folly (The Globe and Mail):

Byatt is very good at depicting the subtleties of how hypocrisy can co-exist with a genuine desire to do good, hinting that the Fabians' obsession with fantasy childhood and an English utopia is more for themselves than anyone else, their children included.

Writing in terms of pleasure (The Guardian)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jonathan Goldstein!

Tonight, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! author Jonathan Goldstein (WireTap) is interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi at the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

See the profile in the Montreal Gazette: Blue Met: Goldstein's turn on the wiretap.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Byatt, civilized

AS Byatt interview: Nothing like the Dame.

A.S. Byatt: On the nature of writing.

"I love Montreal and I love the French language, so the thought of the Grand Prix is peculiarly pleasing. I am looking forward to speaking both languages in a civilized way."

For Griselda, in The Children's Book, "civilized" was a high form of praise.

Childproof myths.

The more I mull it over, the more The Children's Book, of the more than half-dozen Byatt books I've read, is by far my favourite (overtaking Babel Tower, because it's more accessible, easier, I totally get it!, or maybe I'm just smarter now).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Children, blessed children

Baby steps.

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt, starts off at a luxuriously leisurely pace. Time, to start, is measured in parties, social gatherings, lasting interminable hours, days. Byatt comments directly on the passing of time, midway through the novel — how time passes at different speeds for different people, how its passing is measured, how for the two-year-old a year is half a lifetime.

Well, this novel moves like that, like life. It doesn't pick up speed exactly, it just goes more quickly; the summers of childhood are languorous and eternal, but the years begin to flit by, you wonder what happened to youth, and suddenly there is war and it's a blur, and you find yourself middle-aged wondering how you got here so soon.

Particularly in the latter half (and this is a hefty book: more than 600 pages), there are bits that read like pages out of almanac: the death of so-and-so, some landmark publication, news items, political happenings. I came to be grateful for this context of a very particular time and place, and it took on increasing significance for how Byatt's characters evolve.

When I first picked up this novel, I thought it was about a woman, a children's author, who kept private notebooks for each of her children, in which she told their stories. I anticipated being led through these stories, being enchanted. But it's not like that at all. I mean, it is, but it's much, much grimmer (read: Grimm-er) and so very vast and clever.

The novel begins in a fairy tale setting; subterranean and exotic; surrounded by treasures enameled and encrusted with jewels. The secret passageways of a museum. From there we move by train to a sprawling, modernized farmhouse called Todefright. What better place to meet the cast than at a midsummer party.

Everything is under keen observation, but imbued with awe. It is a magical and enchanted veil through which reality seeps. It is gentle and natural, pastoral and reverent of nature. All are berobed as gods and goddesses, artists and witches.

Dorothy tires of the whimsy; her respect for nature is more scientific; yet she belongs here:

Dorothy was waiting for Cousin Griselda. Cousin Griselda came into her mind when she had to use the word "love" which she tended to be careful with. Griselda was the same age as Dorothy, and was closer to Dorothy than her sister Phyllis. Dorothy, a realist, rather thought she did not love Phyllis, though she knew she ought to. Perhaps because of this she loved Griselda — whom she did not see very often — a little more emphatically. Dorothy was sometimes afraid that she had started out with a smaller capability for love than most people. Phyllis loved everything — Mother, Father, Auntie Violet, Hedda, Florian and Robin, Ada and Cathy, the ponies, the fluffy kitten, dead Rosy in the orchard, the Todefright toads. Dorothy had varying feelings for most of these people, some of them loving. But she did love Griselda, she had fixed on Griselda to love.

For the most part, the novel's inhabitants are intellectuals, and as I remarked early and often, to anyone who would listen, they are very ineresting people. They are impassioned. They have esoteric knowledge. They have opinions. They have political and social agendas.

They are flesh and blood.

Olive is a writer and mother, but she is a woman too:

Olive Wellwood was thirty-eight. She came from a class where many, perhaps most, women did not live much beyond that age, where what was in women's minds was diminishing strength and the looming of real death. Yet here she was in the magical Garden of England, with a good body, and a face that was, she thought, more interesting, more defined, yes indeed, more beautiful, than when she had been a green girl. And spider-webs of sexual attraction floated everywhere, and touched their skins, like dandelion seeds on white spiralling parasols, like ozone wafting in from the sea. It was still her time, she thought, looking out at the Channel and the children — and Toby who was leaping with them, and Violet camped with nanny and pram — and Prosper who was striding towards them in a smart panama hat. The children were children, blessed children, not yet formed. Though she saw that Herbert Methley had detached his attention from her, and was staring with a pleased expression at the gaggle of girls, pale, fine Griselda, brisk dark Dorothy, dreamy Pomona and inhibited Imogen, pretty Phyllis and composed Florence, the only one in whom could be seen a shadow of the woman she would be. "Aren't they lovely?" she said to Methley, who gave her a sharp look, smiled conspiratorially, and agreed.

They are, for the most part, Fabians.

They mean to advance socialism and change the world incrementally. They mean for the tortoise to win the race.

The plot for a time follows Art and Crafts, specifically pottery. Byatt may be saying this is modernity: interesting oneself in the real-world application of something pure.

We see the meetings of minds. We follow a party to the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris (which I mentioned previously). We go to puppet theatres, in Germany.

Throughout, the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, and others, make cameo appearances.

In 1901, Queen Victoria dies:

There was a sense that fun was now permitted, was perhaps obligatory. The stiff black flounces, the jet necklaces, the pristine caps, the euphemisms and deference, the high seriousness also, the sense of duty and the questioning of the deep meanings of things were there to be mocked, to be turned into scarecrows and Hallowe'en masks. People talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.

So the modern age is marked by a refusal to grow up. No, that's too harsh. A disinclination to let go of childhood. Perhaps while recognizing a value in childhood that had long been neglected (or sent off to boarding school).

The children of this novel make decisions (or not), make their own way in their very different worlds, more often than not in spite of their parents.

One family disintegrates, but a new family center is forged. It's the Fabian family, the free thinkers dabbling in free love, freedom of all kinds, who fail to thrive.

I wonder if Byatt isn't commenting that the Fabian way was a perpetuation of childhood, that sometimes the best way to social progress isn't in gradual increments but in one fell swoop. The tortoise is losing.

Too, there is the women's question. While these Fabians support, of course, women's rights, for education, for lives, the vote is tangential to this. In and of itself the vote is not so important as establishing an intellectual or moral equality.

A hundred years on, women vote, but we still struggle for rooms of our own, and always (evidenced to an extreme in Olive) at a cost:

"The truth is," said Florence, "that the women we are — have become — are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don't, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters, like Viola in Twelfth Night, or Miss Harrison's harpies and gorgons. Do you not think it might be harmful to ignore the sex instinct? Don't you think that after twenty years of studying Cinderella you might be seized by the idea of the children you never had?"

"Quite probably," said Griselda, lifting a dripping oar and suspending is, so that the boat swung in the current. "But after twenty years of childbearing and fever and confinement and being shut in a house I might be seized by the idea of Cinderella."

Poor Olive, early on so sympathetic, breadwinner and of independent mind, but ultimately to the detriment of her children.

The tortoise has a long way to go.

Most everyone grows up in the end, or dies. The Great War did that, made the world grow up.


On readers and writers

Olive, the writer of children's books:

She thought about the relation between readers and writers. A writer made an incantation, calling the reader into the magic circle of the world of the book. With subtle words, a writer enticed a reader to feel his or her skin prickle, his of her lips open, his or her blood race. But a writer did this on condition that the reader was alone with printed paper and painted cover. What were you meant to feel — what was she meant to feel — when the originals of the evanescent paper persons were only too solidly present in flesh and bone and prosaic clothing? A gingery tweed jacket, a faded cotton skirt with lupins on it, and an elastic waist that clumped oddly?

Olive is not the only writer in this crowd. Herbert Methley writes many lives onto courses they themselves never imagined:

[...] Frank withdrew into his own mind for a moment, wondering whether to thank Methley for Marsh Lights, or at least to tell him how it had moved him. He decided against this. He found he was annoyed that this robed person, with his electric black hair, was more the owner, so to speak, of the imagined rocks and stones and elder bushes than he, the reader. Readers ought not to meet writers, he thought. They are meant not to.

Do you think she means it?

A.S. Byatt, writer, launches her new book, The Children's Book, April 22 at the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, and is scheduled to appear before readers at various other events throughout the festival.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The object of my lust

Since first I ever laid eyes on it, weeks ago, I can't get it out of my mind.

The Sony VAIO P Series Pocket-Style PC is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

I almost preordered one. I don't know what I'm waiting for. I want to see one in the flesh, so to speak. I want to touch it.

I've been dropping into the Sony store downstairs from the office, on break, or on my way home, to see if I could lay my hands on one.

They were to be available Friday. Imagine my dismay when I navigated to the website that morning (as I do most days lately, just to look at it) and saw they were out of stock.

I've spent far too much time examining the specs, trying to justify this indulgent expense. Compared to other available netbooks, the price tag is exorbitant. Technically, though, it's a subnotebook, so it's not a fair comparison. Most netbooks would satisfy my basic needs. The Pocket PC appeals to something altogether different — shallower maybe, but more deeply felt. It's most attractive asset, according to many reviews, is the comfort of its keyboard — not a minor factor when the point is to have a (highly!) portable writing device.

They're no longer out of stock, but still I hesitate to take the plunge. Can I trust the strength of this virtual attraction as the basis for a real-life relationship?

I'm still considering and rationalizing. And lusting.

(If anyone wants to buy me one, just to show me they care, leave me comment and I'll oblige with my mailing address.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Byatt's book

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt.

Isn't it beautiful?

The cover depicts a brooch by René Lalique, depicted in the novel at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris:

[...] a large ornament, in the form of a turquoise woman's bust rising out of the mouth of a long, long dragonfly, its narrowing gold body studded with shimmering blue and green jewels at regular intervals, diminishing to a tiny sharp gilt fork at the base. The woman's head was crowned with an ornament which was helm, or a split scarab, or the insect eyes of the metamorphosing being. From her shoulders hung what were at once stiff, spreading sleeves, and the realistic wings of the dragonfly, made in the new, transparent, unbacked enamel, veined in gold, studded with roundels of turquoise and crystals. The beast had huge dragon-like claws, stretching either side of the womanhead, on gold muscular arms.

I'm lucky enough both to have a review a copy and to be seeing A.S. Byatt next week at the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

I've passed the novel's halfway mark, and I can't tell you how badly I've wished this week that I didn't have a day job so as to have been able to make more progress. Sigh. The book, thus far, is amazing.

If anyone has any ideas regarding intelligent questions I might ask the author, assuming the opportunity presents itself at next week's event, please leave a comment to that effect. I anticipate being at a loss for (my own) words.

The Children's Book is available April 21, 2009. A reader's guide is available now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Enduring Ian

I want to note, before more time passes, how wonderful Ian McEwan is.

Quite by chance (meaning: spending my lunch hour browsing at the McGill University Bookstore), a few weeks back already, I came upon Enduring Love. I read the first page, then the second, right there in the store, and the third. A sure sign. The book must come home with me.

It reads so smoothly. It's all very mature and reasonable. There's nothing superfluous or false in McEwan's writing.

Plus it's a gripping story. I do have to track down the movie that's based on it (starring Daniel Craig no less).

There are some similarities with Saturday (the only other McEwan I'd previously read). A protagonist with a scientific bent. Actions, reactions, put under a microscope. Makes everything feel objective. Coolly analytical. Believable and true.

So I read it quick, then ran out to find another. I came home with Chesil Beach. I read that, and loved it too.

Her going-away dress was of a light summer cotton in cornflower blue, a perfect match for her shoes, and discovered only after many pavement hours between Regent Street and Marble Arch, thankfully without her mother. When Edward drew Florence into his embrace, it was not to kiss her, but first to press her body against his, and then to put a hand on her nape and feel for the zip of this dress. His other hand was flat and firm against the small of her back, and he was whispering in her ear, so loudly, so closely that she heard only a roar of warm moist air. But the zip could not be unfastened with one hand alone, at least, not for the first inch or two. You had to hold the top of the dress straight with one hand while pulling down, otherwise the fine material would bunch and snag. She would have reached over her shoulder to help, but her arms were trapped, and besides, it did not seem right, showing him what to do. Above all, she did not wish to hurt his feelings. With a sharp sigh, he tugged harder at the zip, trying to force it, but the point had already been reached when it would move neither down nor up. For the moment, she was trapped inside her dress.

"Oh God, Flo. Just keep still, will you."

Obediently, she froze, horrified by the agitation in his voice, automatically certain that it was her fault. It was, after all, her dress, her zip. It might have helped, she thought, to get free and turn her back, and move nearer the window for the light. But that could appear unaffectionate, and the interruption would admit to the scale of the problem. At home she relied on her sister, who was clever with her fingers. Despite her abysmal piano playing. Their mother had no patience for small things. Poor Edward — she felt on her shoulders tremors of effort along his arms as he brought both hands into play, and she imagined his thick fingers fumbling between the folds of pinched cloth and obstinate metal. She was sorry for him, and she was a little frightened of him too. To make even a timid suggestion might enrage him further. So she stood patiently, until at last he freed himself from her with a groan and stepped back.

So sad, this book. But beautiful.

[I'm reminded of Richard Powers, because of the science and the music. The feeling of reading them is similar. Like McEwan is Powers distilled to less than a couple hundred pages. Or Powers is McEwan given heavier flesh.]

I'd be reading more McEwan now if I hadn't received a certain book in particular that's demanding all my attention (I mean, apart from regular life).

I even bought a copy of Atonement, the movie, for my mom, on the assumption we'd settle in to watch it Easter weekend, and this would satisfy, a quick fix to hold me over till I got my hands on another McEwan novel. But alas, there was no time.

All this simply to say that Ian McEwan is wonderful.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Tonight, a little spring inside while winter rages on (well, gasps anyway) outside: Pasta with asparagus, bacon, and onion. (And a bottle of hearty red to combat the cold.)

Easy and delicious. Everyone had seconds.

The girl has decided that asparagus is pretty tasty after all, especially the tips.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Mon beau chat

Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d'agate.

— from "Le Chat," by Charles Baudelaire.

I'll miss you, Calvino cat (1995–2009). Like crazy.
And the girl will too.
(The girl and the cat.)