Monday, 2nd December 2002, 10:35pm
An opinion by: Rascal
 Still LifeA Virgin In The Garden

Still Life by A.S. Byatt

The Virgin In The Garden by A.S.Byatt and Still Life by A.S.Byatt

I absolutely enjoyed Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt, so I was happy to learn it is actually third in a series of books published over a space of 20 years. These first two books The Virgin In The Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985) aren't quite as expertly put together as Babel Tower (1998) but that should come as no surprise, if you check out all the intervening years Byatt had in which to practise her complicated craft.

I call her particular approach to writing complicated because of its frequent references to hard-core scholarly material and its intellectual joy in the precise expression of an idea. Also, in both books the author constructs parallels between artworks in progress and the characters' lives. So she presents what amounts to almost two tales in each one. Basically, in Byatt's work there is a whole lot of stuff happening on a many levels. Lucky for us, she's also tuned in to human character, sentiment, contradiction and general craziness. I'll bet this character description from Still Life fits the author herself quite nicely:

    "There were two hypothetical future Fredericas - one closed in the University Library writing something elegant and subtle on the use of metaphor in seventeenth-century religious narrative, and one in London, more nebulous, writing quite different things, witty critical journalism, maybe even a new urban novel like those of Iris Murdoch. The trouble was, she sometimes thought, that the two Fredericas were really indissolubly one. The Ph.D. writer would have died of aimlessness and spiritual vertigo without the drive of the worldly one: the worldly one would have felt like a creaking, varnished carapace without an abundant inner life."

Frederica is Frederica Potter, the middle child of an eccentric and difficult schoolmaster. Her "lower middle-class" family is from Yorkshire. Frederica is sharp, literary and highly talkative; awkward traits for a girl in1950s British society. In contrast, her younger brother Marcus is a withdrawn math genius with severe mystic tendencies that torment him. While the rest of his family sees the world through eyes of poetry, history and politics, Marcus visualizes a physical environment of geometry and numbers. Finally there is older sister Stephanie Potter, as gifted a scholar as Frederica. However, instead of a brilliant career at Cambridge U, she chooses the comfort of a good marriage and beloved children. As a result, Stephanie feels her own identity is muffled. For Stephanie's bits I had to keep reminding myself the story is set in the 1950s, lest I unfairly blame her for playing wife too perfectly. This on the oppression of women, from The Virgin In The Garden:

    "All human beings, Wilkie said, according to Winnicott, were possessed by an unconscious fear of Woman, which made it very difficult for individual women, naturally, to get or handle social or political power. Rulers were surrogate parents, and both men and women wouldn't accept women in this position because in their subconscious jungles lurked monsterous and overpowering Fantasy Women. According to Winnicott this explained the terrible cruelty to women found in most cultures. People were afraid of Woman because they had all, once, in the beginning, been totally dependent on Her, and had had to establish their individuality by denying this dependence. Dictators, according to this Winnicott, dealt with the terror of Woman by claiming to encompass her and act for her. This is why they demanded not only obedience, but Love. This may be why Frederica was so afraid of group emotion, love or hate.

    Everyone furtively searched his or her unconscious, in so far as it could be said to be accessible, for a fear of Woman, and, it must be related, duly found it. Bill Potter told Wilkie that the whole thing sounded like codswallop to him, ludicrously pat, and Frederica said well, then, what about the Queen and all this affection we're demonstrating?"

This is the kind of stuff for which I keep reading A.S.Byatt. All up, these two novels make for stimulating reading - even when I'd sometimes find myself thinking "Whaaaa? What IS she talking about?" On re-reading back, just to prove that her capable brain had finally taken her on a goose chase, I'd find that once again Byatt was actually making perfect sense. No sleep-reading allowed with these books.---RBR

Readers have left 1 comments

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I thought there was a lot of poibisilsty in The Children's Book, but YES, definitely too long and too many tangled plot threads waiting to be resolved. I never got to the war segment, and felt strongly that I MIGHT be able to manage this book if it were split into a trilogy of novels dealing with different time periods, and each time period could be from the point of view of a different character. Byatt is a great writer, & I would love to be able to finish this particular work at some point. Did you read the earlier novels leading up to Babel Tower? The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. I think Whistling Women had some good things going on, but resolved and EXPLAINED everything a bit too much.
Sevgi on Saturday, 2nd June 2012, 11:18am

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