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.

We encounter extremes, all right, and not only of suffering. The novels are rich in less spectacular kinds of thinking and feeling that have been pushed towards some absolute. Because Daniel hides his force beneath a fat exterior and an uncontentious attitude to theology, we are told that no one notices that he is a fanatic. For a priest to have a vocation is unremarkable, though probably only Byatt would have credited him with quite this kind of extreme commitment: it is rather stranger that a young merchant banker should manifest the signs of a vocation, a complete ‘directedness’ to his imagination. In language appropriate to his class and period (1957 or so), he eulogises the Thames as the emblem of trade. What the banker has so obviously, other characters have in quieter ways: an animating idea. But we are a long way from the grounds of Lewes’s complaint that Mr Micawber was no more alive than a galvanised frog’s leg. Byatt’s people are not mechanical, or predictable, though they are rather more coherent than most fictional characters. In that, they resemble the novels as a whole, in which extremity sometimes seems as much to enable coherence as coherence is used as a device to indicate extremity. We are on paradoxical ground. While both the novels put forward experience as contingent and fissile, both exploit the full powers of omnipotent authorship to give authority to contingency.

The power of what results is undeniable. Extremes exist, but in life we rely on the inarticulacy of the extreme to keep it muted and bearable. With monumental clarity Byatt takes her readers to places in the soul they had not imagined could be so well-lit for their observation. If at times one cannot believe, quite, in the normality of her characters, their disease is that useful ailment, a disease of lucidity. Other writers may give us a madness, or a wedding-night, or the reading of a poem, but only Byatt consistently delivers intellectual madnesses, love-making as reflective as it is tumultuous, poems considered with painful experience and the whole resources of a mind. It is extraordinary to read. When, in Still Life, Daniel and Stephanie, who have been married for some time, go to bed certain of each other yet conscious of passions blunted by circumstance and possibilities dissipated, the critical words of Stephanie’s abandoned profession ‘wandered loose and unused. Peripateia. Anguish. Morphology ... Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love nor yet for constriction of vocabulary.’ Byatt gains for her reader something analogous to the astonishment an adolescent feels at the scale and complexity of newly-glimpsed grown-up feelings, without the shallowness. Can it all be so big? Sometimes it can.

And sometimes it surely cannot. Ms Byatt, for example, believes in appropriating the more brutally reductive parts of the male vocabulary for talking about sex, partly from a conviction, I think, that an action involving power should register its language, and presumably, also, to borrow the confident potency of such words for her own ends. They do, after all, make for instant focus of a sort. A female character being capably, ruthlessly and benevolently brought to her first orgasm is described as being ‘searched’: the association of the wound is intended. You could call the effect penetrating, though you might well rather not. You are more likely to object, not on grounds of taste, but because of the clarity the technique so violently claims. In this instance, and in others, it can seem that potency or coherence are being taken as proofs of truth without its being acknowledged that truth does not necessarily reside in what can, no matter how impressively, be clearly seen. Fervent lucidity is a dangerous technique: once belief is called into question, the stylisation of the characters begins to seem dubious. Agitation and worry follow. One begins to wonder whether, despite the unequivocally realistic premises of the writing, Byatt has not moved surreptitiously into fantasy – a willed fantasy about psychology, a shadow-play rather than a drama. How far can one second her use of authorial omnipotence? Surely no other writer since Hardy has so comprehensively donned the mantle of Jehovah smiting the Egyptians with plagues, so thoroughly used the prerogative of blighting, distorting and crushing lives.

A naked madman stands in a school pond decked in flowers, cutting gashes in himself with a knife; he has been thinking a little too much about ley-lines. A major and sympathetic character is killed suddenly, all too believably, by a badly-wired fridge. Damaged people damage others without intending to, or intending to, while the undamaged walk away. Malign chance works overtime. More pressing than discomfort at individual horrors is the sense that experience is being ordered inhumanely. When the man I have mentioned goes Lear-crazy, one of the characters actually thinks how shaking it is for madness to take such a literary, utterly revealing form, so far beyond ordinary incoherence. On that occasion one’s nervousness has been recognised, pre-empted, and itself patterned into the book, but the reader is likely to feel it as a much more abiding reservation – as a reason, ultimately, to withhold the assent which the novels demand while granting them great respect.

One of the great pleasures of the novels is Byatt’s passion for describing, at length, people looking at things: at pictures, at architecture, at objects. They see so well one is grateful for one’s borrowed eyes. They make connections, they speculate, they observe extravagantly. There could be little better company in which to consider bakelite or a statue of Actaeon or Van Gogh’s Reapers, few more impressive guides than Byatt, for though the intensity of the looking does contribute to the books’ worrying stylisation, the set-pieces of looking – taken simply as pieces of prose – vindicate her largesse of language. Sugar is equally interested in seeing, but there are no set-pieces; the stories break up and diffuse the acts of regard. The title piece, narrated by a woman sojourning in Amsterdam while her father dies slowly in hospital there, interlaces passages of memory and regret with visits to the Rijksmuseum, taking from the pictures single private observations and pursuing, from moment to moment, wholly private associations. She traces out, with fine concentration, the various walls of her childhood on which a Vermeer and a Van Gogh print have hung. The contrasts drawn – between the then of the pictures and the now of the dying father, between the stillness of the gallery and a sudden whiff of tear gas on the street outside – come across as serious, satisfactory, unflip, unfacile because Byatt so obviously has no easy patterning to lay on them, no ‘theoretical’ impulsion to distinguish them, only hard thinking, which is the wrong word for the narrative compound of feeling, event, reflection. In Byatt’s case, that compound comes closer to resembling thinking than for most writers. She preserves the shapes of the pictures seen, and makes their description a shape in the story, without any forcing of the story’s concerns onto the pictures. Here, response modestly remains response. Which is appropriate, since this story, like most of the others in the volume, concerns the difficulties of extracting meaning from experience – a shift, as it were, from a biographical to an autobiographical view of lives, in terms of point d’appui.

Sugar is about losses: of possibilities, of parents, of children, of love, of ideas, of the ability to reach certain delicate and composed states of feeling, of equilibrium, of hope, even of one’s saving diseases. On a Victorian family holiday in Italy, a young woman outwardly reconciled to flattened, self-forgetting spinsterhood suddenly sees the new prospect of a new sort of life; the young painter she has fallen in love with climbs into the Appennines the next day, achieves a remarkable sketch, glimpses his calling for the first time, and falls to his death in a gust of wind. A novelist named Mrs Smith rejoices in the long uncluttered perspectives of her middle age and conceives a plan for a long novel rather like The Virgin in the Garden; in the street she meets precisely the person to take the bloom off her elation, and then contracts a cancer which ensures she’ll not have time enough for the novel. And so on. Yet the tone is never apocalyptic: it is, on the contrary, deeply sympathetic, close to the perceptions of the characters, elegantly and scrupulously attentive to their struggles. Only the title story is written in the first person, but many of the others deliver the workings of a mind to us with an intimacy that approaches that of the directly first-person view and shares, importantly, its formal restrictions. Intimate loss reduces people; loss viewed intimately places limits on stories. With the loss of present certainties comes a difficulty in retrieving the authentic shape of what has been lost. The narrator of ‘Sugar’ (the story) can handle her own scruples, folding them back again and again into the tissue of her memory until they become part of her impression of her father. His return home on leave during the war:

This event was a storied event, already lived over and over, in imagination and hope, in the invented future ... More things come back as I write; the gold-winged buttons on his jacket, forgotten between then and now. None of these words, none of these things recall him. The gold-winged, fire-haired figure in the doorway is and was myth, though he did come back, he was there ...

Elsewhere, Byatt herself makes frequent authorial interventions and interruptions, in propria persona, to weigh and consider, to sift the value of what is known in formal almost essay-like deliberations; and to remind us, as if that too were an aspect of difficulty, that these are stories, constructed things it is proper to halt with reservations and deconstructions. A suggestion of metafiction, of uncertainties found to be themselves fictionally productive? Not quite. Byatt’s interruptions may seem to have the ludic touch, but they lack the centrifugal ludic conviction. This ‘uncertain’ manner complements and to some extent continues her previous certainties; the change is less substantial than it appears. A certain amount of dovetailing is discernible.

The first story in Sugar, ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’, recounts the school life of a scholarship girl, Emily, who wants to be understood. By being understood she means something quite precise. For five years or so she is quietly persecuted by a genteel mistress in a feud that is the worse for being totally unacknowledged. At home in the Potteries Emily has an aunt whose life has been given over, at the expense of herself, to looking after other people and doing embroidery. Caught in a vice only she feels between the example of the aunt and the criticisms of the teacher, Emily does what she does best, which is academic work. She has an angular, precocious brilliance; the Racine set text excites her and bores the other girls. She comes remorselessly first in everything except maths and domestic science. But none of this is the occasion for praise, which she might not want anyway; the ethos of the school runs more to ladylike accomplishment, incarnated in the mistress. What Emily wants is for none of these circumstances to matter, for her best work to be taken dryly and dispassionately for what it is, for its care and its intentions and its insights to be comprehended. Having opted sensibly for atheism, she proceeds to invent with one corner of her mind a God called the Reader ‘whose nature was not to love but to understand’. Emily does not manage to keep the jaws of the vice apart: why, after all, should she have that kind of strength? Lectured at on the evils of the competitive spirit just before her A levels, she bursts into tears which last for three days. When the mistress comes to her bedside and makes a horribly blanketing protestation of concern, Emily is forced more or less to apologise: ‘it felt,’ in a nice phrase, ‘like a recantation without there having been an affirmation to recant.’ She does her papers all right, and excels, but can no longer believe in the possibility of that dry, fair academic Light in which it is possible to work unhurt.

The story is set very definitely in Emily’s past, and whether Emily can remember correctly what happened is a kind of issue in it. Could Miss Crichton-Walker really have called Emily depraved? Upon such unanswered questions hangs the larger question of whether Emily has grown to be able to understand what happened. To save urgency from being dissipated, to give importance to that understanding, Byatt attaches the live irony of a brief epilogue in which we see Emily failing – under the restraint of her own scarring – to prevent her daughter’s academic hopes from being blighted in the same way. Though for different reasons: in the present the snuffer-out of the Light takes the form of a deputy head castigating Emily for her middle-class academic prejudices. Already, in that neat ironic arrangement, you can see one of the real limits to the influence of uncertainty in the story. Meticulous measurements of memory aside, the narration follows the certainties of balanced images, revealing metaphors and, above all, convinced authorial judgments. However many hints of metatextuality there may be, you will find no flirtation here with theories that question the propriety of authorial knowledge. No writer could be farther than Ms Byatt from the dissociations of the Nouveau Roman. In ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ description and commentary are always united. Each incident is given a permeating and graceful significance that cannot be called imposed because it is not in the nature of the writing to recognise intrinsically inimical differences between characters and landscapes, objects and humans. There is a non-stop play of metaphor, like a thinking fountain. One notes, too, her distance from those writers who have seen the worst misery of boarding-school as the fearful lack of proportion it imposes on children – a promising direction for a fiction about uncertainty.

In his radio play Where are they now? Tom Stoppard gives a character the satisfying chance to complain, with hindsight, of ‘the momentous trivialities and tiny desolations’, the ‘hollow fear of inconsiderable matters’. But Byatt is not having any. While she concurs with, and captures beautifully, the desperate, vulnerable privacies of children, and their susceptibility to atmosphere, she insists on the immutability of the line of a life established by such hollow fears. Emily does not escape her school, and what it did to her. The fears, in fact, were not hollow, the losses not temporary. And Byatt, as ever, shows herself to be supremely good at establishing the absolute nature of some feelings, of which loss is one. Sugar has, in fact, the same confidence as the novels in what a writer can show, with a strategically diminished confidence in what a character can know: a less worrying version of extreme coherence.

‘Precipice Encurl’d’, the story containing the accident in the Appennines, also gives us (a passage of immaculate ventriloquism) Browning musing on the creation of characters for his dramatic monologues. What, he asks, lies behind the individual diversities of man? What lies at the back of him, Browning? ‘ “The best part of my life,” he told himself, “the life I have lived most intensely, has been the fitting, the infiltrating, the inserting the self of another man or woman, explored and sleekly filled out, as fingers swell a glove.” ’ Perhaps that is because at the back of the him that he puts at the back of his characters, he has, at ‘my best times’, something close to a generic (or divine) creative intelligence: ‘something simple, undifferentiated, indifferently intelligent, live’. This is, of course, meant as a homage – as well as possessing an organic importance in the story – but it is tempting to imagine that Byatt sees herself (at her best times) putting on those gloves and wriggling her fingers, because, looking at Sugar, it seems that whatever she does we come back to the multivalent power of the articulate voice, the commanding word. Long live (with reservations) Jehovah.