The Mantle of Jehovah

Francis Spufford

  • Sugar by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 224 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3169 1

To keep a single vision single, or perhaps to conserve their own energy, writers who deal in strong feelings and violent flavours most often choose narrow canvases. Not, however, A.S. Byatt. Her writing has been synoptically intense. It has been so, anomalously, in a genre (the English social novel) which makes comparisons with other violently-flavoured writers, outside the genre, seem silly. You could, of course, draw a contrast simply in terms of range of Bad Moments covered: Norman Mailer has preferred to steer clear of the peculiar pains of childbirth, and Andrea Dworkin has chosen not to dwell on the distinctive horror an uneasy Christmas dinner can become, while Byatt can and has handled both as elements in her continuing series of novels.

That series began with The Virgin in the Garden in 1981, and proceeded with Still Life in 1985; more is promised. In the meantime comes a book of short stories, Sugar, more distinct in method than in concerns. Several of the pieces in it can be seen as out-takes from the long movement of the series, where her subject is a biography of what was recently called this country’s ‘cultivated class’: from its post-war beginnings in a fusion of the lettered gentry and the old-style educationally-mobile working-class, through its maturity in the long warm years of the grammar schools, to (presumably – Ms Byatt’s fictions have not taken the story so far) its present state of bewilderment. Both novels have had framing themes: in the one case, Elizabethan drama, and in the other Van Gogh. She has had much to say about, respectively, virginity and the implications of nature morte, whether through her plot or at one discursive remove from it. But though the characters’ lives are cultured, and revealingly cultural, the strongest impression you are likely to take from the novels is of the desperate fragility of experience, the way it is likely to break down into biological or sexual or mental hurts that gain force from their close conjunction with the shapes of the culture. The catastrophes of the mind and flesh meet the flesh and mind’s most deliberate creations. For Byatt, and so for the reader, verse-drama joins to the rupture of virginity, Suez joins to sexual terror, Leavis to tainted love.

The end of the Prologue to The Virgin in the Garden declares the double – or complicatedly single – intention. Daniel, a priest, leaves an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which has gathered, retrospectively and iconically, many of the concerns of the main action of the book, set 16 years earlier, to which we are about to be introduced. Daniel has to see someone:

Someone was a woman whose son had been damaged in a smash. He had been a beautiful boy and still was, a walking unreal figure of a beautiful boy, a wax doll inhabited alternately by a screaming daemon and a primitive organism that ate and bulged and slept, amoeba-like. His father had been unable to bear it and had left. The woman had been a good teacher, and now was not, had had friends, and now did not, had had a pleasant body, and now did not.

Much of what is going on at this moment of particular intensity can be taken as more widely typical. The use of biological terminology, the brutally physical clinching words like ‘bulged’, and especially the ruthless parallelism, all enforce the truth of the view we are being given of a life. Elsewhere the truth of pain is enforced in other ways, but enforcement remains a constant factor. She is consistently willing to risk excess in language and metaphor so long as the effect achieved is, in her terms, appropriately strong. It is as if a sort of honesty acts on her as the most potent and compelling of principles, with the making of this sort of fiction as its necessary praxis. C.S. Lewis observed with partisan savagery that the prospect of near-universal damnation worried the bright young Calvinists of the 1590s no more than the imminent liquidation of the bourgeoisie worried the bright young Marxists of the 1930s: and something of the same disregarding fire burns in A.S. Byatt so far as her readers’ more evasive sensibilities are concerned. A propos of pastoral calls on the sick, the character Stephanie remarks to the curate Daniel, ‘Conventions ... can make a slow, bearable way of getting into – bits of life. You can’t always rush people to extremes. In case people can’t stand them.’ ‘Extremes exist,’ replies Daniel, firmly enough to win this fictional argument, and for us to take this as the sufficient answer to our own bruised query, as the final Byatt word.

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