Like The Virgin in the Garden (1978) to which it is a deeper and darker-toned successor, A.S. Byatt’s Still Life has the classical English narrative setting of a generation ago. Apart from the prologue, which evokes the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980, the events here take place in 1954-7. Further sequels are promised, though it seems likely that this chronicle of middle-class English life has reached the half-way stage. Already its scale and substance begin to rival the sequences of C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell. Byatt’s view of the middle class centres on the Potter family: Northern, Nonconformist, and professionally preoccupied with teaching, writing, and caring for others. The poor, in this view of England, are unthinkable except as marginal presences, the objects of teaching and pastoral care. The rich come on stage from time to time to make casual, scarcely articulate raids on the Potter girls’ friendship and sexual favours. Both the narrator and the main characters testify to the centrality of what remains, in our society, of the old Puritan conscience: a continuing activity of mental exploration, a commitment to active relationship with others, the positive and forceful employment of one’s gift for words.
At first sight, Still Life is less anchored in verbal articulacy than its predecessor. The Virgin in the Garden, with its 17-year-old heroine and its ‘New Elizabethan’ theme linking the 1953 Coronation to the ceremonial junketings and sacred drama of the English Renaissance, was a lushly literary performance – a concentrated essence, so to speak, of A-Level literature and history stewed in the brain of a precocious adolescent. In Still Life ‘the awful Frederica’ (the family pressure-cooker) goes on to read English at Cambridge, leaving her young brother Marcus and older sister Stephanie at home in Yorkshire. Mean-while, the ‘art’ to which the novel ostensibly addresses itself is no longer literature but painting. Alexander Wedderburn, the white hope of the new Verse Drama movement, is now writing a play about Van Gogh, The Yellow Chair. Van Gogh’s life, letters, theories and paintings provide the narrative’s principal leitmotifs, while his Still-Life with Books is illustrated on the dust-jacket.
But painting, though a source of ideas and descriptive techniques for A.S. Byatt, remains to some extent an alien art; it does not determine her sense of narrative form. Still Life is in no sense a contemporary equivalent of To the Lighthouse, even though Virginia Woolf is one of the novelists whose cadences Byatt (I would judge unconsciously) sometimes echoes. This is, rather, a novel in which certain aspects of painting (notably the theory and practice of colour) are subjected to discursive analysis. The analysis leads back to considerations more central to the novelist’s art – considerations of language and naming. The kind of analytical intelligence displayed here is epistemological and moral rather than narrowly or strictly aesthetic.
What words and still-life paintings have in common is their habit of reference to (usually ordinary) things. Still Life is discursive and analytical but it is also full of arresting observations, and sudden phrases of memorable beauty, arising from a meticulous denotation of people and things. The furnishings of a Yorkshire kitchen and the smells of London bachelor bathrooms, the taste of Cambridge cake and sherry, the sensations of childbirth, the varieties of the male organ as exhibited by Frederica’s mounting tally of undergraduate lovers – all these are noticed so faithfully that, the further we read in Still Life, the less does Van Gogh, or any other Post-Impressionist artist, seem its presiding genius. Pride of place goes instead to the unfashionable writers of the English realist school, to Wordsworth and (above all) to the George Eliot of The Mill on the Floss, ‘that cruel social history of English religion, locating its true centre in the Lares and Penates, a dense structure of things which defined who you were and what your relation to others was’. Substitute ‘the literary intelligentsia’ for ‘English religion’ and that could be said of Still Life also.
Byatt has read her Mallarmé and Foucault and is not unaware of the supposed irrelevance and supersession of the traditional English novel – the novel of property, the novel of things. In Still Life these objections to English fiction are voiced by Raphael Faber, supposedly a leading young Cambridge don. Faber, who teaches the French Symbolists and abominates George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, is a poet whose art is one of ‘material reference’ deprived of (apparent) spiritual meaning. He is also a Jew, whose male relatives were all killed in the Holocaust, and a recognisable donnish ‘type’, cold, monastic and sexually ambivalent. This means that, as the novel’s principal devil’s advocate, he is neither a wholly successful character nor an achieved focus of moral and intellectual authority.
Byatt’s comparative failure with Raphael extends, to my mind, to the majority of the Cambridge sections of Still Life, even though these are as packed with ideas and argumentative passages as the ‘prig novels’ of Samuel Butler and H.G. Wells. Although Byatt herself attended Cambridge, there is a feeling of thesis-illustration and slightly strained invention in Frederica’s adventures there. One sees it in the names of the luminaries who gather around her, names such as Raphael Faber (compare Hardy’s Angel Clare), Hugh Pink, Harvey Organ, Ralph Tempest and Harold Manchester. Such names would belong in satire or pastoral but sit oddly in a fictional world which is so close to the fringes of the ‘real’ historical world that it offers walk-on parts to actual persons, including Kingsley Amis, E.M. Forster, and the organiser of the 1980 Post-Impressionist exhibition.
Still Life is nothing if not a capacious book, and whatever one makes of the Cambridge episodes, Byatt’s touch is marvellously sure when she comes to the less glamorous members of the Potter family. The locale is North Yorkshire (and, given the cast of characters being assembled for the opening of the new university there, we can rely on its continuing to be so in subsequent books). Marcus Potter, traumatised by his involvement with a homosexual religious maniac in The Virgin in the Garden, is shown painfully recovering his balance and self-confidence, and learning to experience the natural world with a Van Goghian intensity and clarity. While he develops both an artist’s vision and a scientist’s capacity to name what he sees (he is studying for A-Level Botany), his elder sister Stephanie experiences the responsibilities of marriage, childbirth and the care of an extended family.
Other recent female novelists have entered these domains, but it is here that Byatt scores her most undoubted triumphs. The description of Stephanie giving birth to her first child is as fine as the best of Arnold Bennett. It achieves Bennett’s (and Proust’s) aim of celebrating ordinary things and everyday life, with nothing exaggerated or febrile about it. And yet the creative satisfactions and frustrations of Stephanie and her family are so much part of the standard pattern of bourgeois life that – were it not for their outcome – to lavish narration on them might seem trivial.
Still Life is inscribed to the memory of a dead friend and begins with three epigraphs, one from Cuvier and two from Proust, all of which are given in the original language. The French is there, I would suggest, so that we can be reminded that a ‘still-life’ (as it is called in our euphemistic tongue) is also a nature morte. (Nature morte differs from ‘still-life’ in its hint of a violent death, even if the death is only the picking of an apple.) The Yorkshire episodes of the novel end – just when our suspicions on this score have been finally lulled – with a sudden and hideous domestic tragedy. This has nothing to do with sexual politics, despite Stephanie’s growing awareness of wasted capacities, of the sheer quantity of ideas and words she has ceased to use in her progress from Newnham undergraduate to the housebound wife of a curate. By all ordinary standards Still Life closes with a ‘meaningless’ tragedy – and that is its power, and its ability to disturb.
Today it is obvious that the justification of a fictional realism such as A.S. Byatt’s must lie in its seriousness – a seriousness which, after all, is still the covert ideal of most of the literary theorists who solemnly denounce it. The realist is inevitably drawn to the grimmer aspects of life. Metafictionists and deconstructionists, who want to keep us hypnotised by the arbitrariness of language, are bound to deny the continuing possibility of a gravely humanistic vision such as is found in traditional tragedy. It remains to be seen whether Byatt can confound the theorists. What is clear is that she has deliberately (almost too deliberately) adopted the role of intellectual narrator – of the mistress of the metaphysical, social and psychological implications of what she surveys – which George Eliot marked out. And that few other present-day English novelists are capable of inspiring such a strong conviction that they are showing us living things, and morally significant characters.
Robert Walshe’s Wales’ Work is a novel about a practical joker which itself resembles an elaborate series of practical jokes, prodigally inventive, curiously inconsequential, and funny or not according to taste. Much of this first novel is set in a publishing-house (or ‘book organisation’, to use the contemporary accountants’ parlance), and at one point the narrator, Robert Racine, compares the world of books to the wildernesses traversed by the Children of Israel and by Bunyan’s Pilgrim. Racine’s own pilgrimage takes him along a zigzagging path, following a series of cryptic injunctions planted for him by an unseen deity. The deity is Wallace Marshall Wales, formerly Racine’s employer, and now officially dead. Racine, who saw him rise up from the coffin, believes his death was the first in a series of increasingly elaborate hoaxes.
Wales’s motives are impenetrable (Racine is also burdened by an ‘Abominable Secret’ which he plainly has no intention of revealing), but he systematically sets out to reshape the English language and its literature and, incidentally, to wreck the publishing house he had formerly headed. Racine, as chief editor, is instructed to denude Wales & Wales’s books (including their dictionaries, and the Bible, henceforth to be known as the Bedside Scroll) of all words of Greek derivation. The mock-up for the new Bible, its pages physically dismembered by Racine, stuck together to form a continuous scroll, and wrapped round a roller, inspires some of Walshe’s most comical passages. Wales’ Work is spiced with publisher’s knowhow, with hunt-the-thimble journeys to faraway places, and with an undercurrent of theological allegory. There is some sharp dialogue, and the novel displays an infectious narrative style which ranges from Old Testament pastiche to bits of sub-Joyce interior monologue. Beneath the Gothic fantasy and the reflections of a real world of office flirtations, boardroom battles and editorial vendettas, what holds this strange pot-pourri together is the author’s obsessive, pedantic wit. The narrative is festooned with footnotes, digressions, and unlikely facts. Did you know the name of the inventor of the question-mark? The original meaning of the word ‘semiology’? Information on both these matters is to be found somewhere in this zany, rambling and decadent work, though I would not vouch for its accuracy.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.