Monday, February 15, 2010

A Potter (Not Harry)

Usually I try to pair what I'm reading: like with unlike, a British drawing room novel with a gritty Southern novel, a book for children with a biography. This - or my half-hearted attempt - is supposed to broaden my palate, to evoke a world rich in contradictions, in divergent styles or visions, with a range of characters, landscapes, atmospheres, and language. This has its drawbacks, though, as I feel from time to time as though I have no context, no measurement, or steady gradient to work through. Writers become pointillist speckles, and their voices part of a larger babble.

It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I have embarked on reading several consecutive works by A.S. Byatt with not the least hint of boredom or book-adultery. Her Frederica Quartet, novels written between 1978 and 2002 and sharing the same and ever-growing cast of characters, is a song cycle which the composition is seamless (at least, it seems so from the vantage point of the third book) and brings back familiar themes as well as introducing new ones.

The four novels center around a family in Yorkshire - Byatt shines the spotlight on the inner workings of a large group of characters in much the same way as Tolstoy, or more particularly, George Eliot - and their friends, colleagues, lovers.

In the first novel, the Virgin in the Garden, we are introduced to the Potters: passionate, flaming Bill, who in another life would have been a Puritanical Preacher, but instead rants and lectures on culture, art, the life of the mind, and literature; Winifred, his ghostly wife; Stephanie, the eldest daughter, back from Cambridge to teaching at the local grammar school, soft and contained; Frederica, the furious, intelligent red-headed enfant terrible, filled with convictions of her future greatness; and Marcus, a pale silent boy, haunted by geometrical visions and spectres of light.

It is 1953, the year of Elizabeth II's coronation and Alexander Wedderburn, a colleague of Bill's, has written a metered play, Astraea, celebrating the life of Elizabeth I. Frederica is cast as the young Virgin Queen, and, in love with Alexander, desperate to lose that adjective. Stephanie is wooed by a large, bullish, angry and socially active clergyman, Daniel Orton (to secular Bill's disgust). Marcus is befriended by a science teacher at his school who sees in Marcus's mathematical visions the possibility of establishing connections to the infinite. This is a rich drama, an paneled interior, rich in allusion, literary tags, quotations, and thought.

Just as Elizabeth I forms the core image of the Virgin in the Garden, so the second novel, Still Life, revolves around the brashly bright and heliocentric imagery of Vincent Van Gogh. Marcus has escaped his tangled web and is living in the wedded home of Daniel and a pregnant Stephanie, and Frederica has gone up to Cambridge. The novel concludes with a shocking event which sets up the consequences that form the stage in the third novel, Babel Tower.

In Babel Tower, Frederica is in her thirties, struggling to liberate herself from a destructive marriage, while caring for her young son, Leo. It is London in the sixties. She is teaching part time, and trying to reignite the intellectual promise she had once exuded. Written post-Possession, perhaps the author was still trying to experiment with the text-within-a-text. The Frederica narrative is set against the text of an "obscene" novel of a group of people fleeing the French Revolution to make the world anew, in a tower far from civilization.

From what I can tell from reader comments on Goodreads (always an interesting litmus test), readers have found Byatt over-handed, obscure, artificial, overly intelligent, self-conscious, and her characters unlikeable.

I admit that the Potters are not a lovable family, and Frederica is a sharp, little prickly inflated hedgehog. Despite their unlikable-ness, as I pass through the novels, I find myself deeply moved by the Potter family and their society warms me. Bill's flamboyant anger affects his children, and we are able to roll our eyes, along with the author and the characters, as they reference his relentless ranting. We have witnessed those rants, too. We know how it goes. Byatt chronicles her characters' consciousness so that the readers and characters share ideas and emotions and reactions. Her rooms and settings are so elaborately named that we may feel dizzy in the surreal world of incredibly described and named things - a world where language calls into being, and words are the physical boundaries of things.

As for Byatt's obscurity and ornament - there is no doubt that she makes no concessions and writes for readers in the same way that she is a reader: with passion, hunger, obsession, and frightening intelligence. Her influences are clearly George Eliot and Iris Murdoch, incorporating a Murdochian emphasis on philosophical thought, with ideas, and passions of the body and the mind, as well as Eliot’s large social awareness. This is a web of characters which relate to each other – they are each other’s husband, lover, sister, child, teacher. These are novels that play with ideas, with concepts, with language.

Just discovered: In the author's note to Babel Tower, Byatt writes "Writers whose ideas changed me in the sixties and are still important to me are Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and George Steiner." I think it is telling that the author emphasizes "ideas" over plot, language, etc.

I am about to finish Babel Tower and run on to the last volume, A Whistling Woman. Also tempted by Byatt's criticism and short stories but perhaps that would be overkill...

Photo borrowed from here

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