Monday, January 26, 2009

Re-Reading Still Life

After I finished reading The Virgin in the Garden I did move on to Still Life, the sequel. I had forgotten that Virgin ends so abruptly, with all the characters left hanging:

That is not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, is as good a place to stop as any.

I had also forgotten how strong an author's voice there was in these books. Or maybe that's not the right phrase. At certain points the narrator of the story (who may very well not be intended to be the author) talks to the reader, as above. This is even more pronounced in Still Life.

Many people I know don't really like Byatt, or don't really like any Byatt except Possession. They think her other works are too "wordy" and they want more narrative. I'm always reminded of the film Amadeus in which the Emperor tells Mozart that there are too many notes and he should just cut a few. It isn't that Mozart isn't melodic, but melody isn't the key to Mozart. Mozart is about notes. Mozart is about how notes create and envelop melody - so sometimes the melody is very strong and sometimes it is enveloped in ... lots of notes. For people who like music from a structural sense, Mozart is heaven. All those notes to listen to and marvel at how they relate to each other while still carrying the work forward. For those that like a brief simple melody, Mozart is boring.


Likewise, it isn't that Byatt doesn't have narrative, but that the narrative is enveloped in lots of words. Byatt is about words. Words, literally, are the key to Byatt; not only what the words represent but the mere fact that words are representational. She has said: I write novels because I am passionately interested in language.

In Still Life, she juxtaposes the representational nature of words with representational art, specifically the art of Vincent van Gogh of whom the character Alexander Wedderburn is writing a new play. Alexander becomes obsessed with how to use words to describe color.

How would one find the exact word for the color of the plum-skins? (There was a further question of why one might want to do so, why it was not enough to look at, or to eat and savor the plum, but Alexander did not wish to address himself to that, not just now. It was a fact that the lemons and the plums, together, made a pattern that he recognized with pleasure, and the pleasure was so fundamentally human it asked to be noted and understood.) There was a problem of accurate notation, which was partly a problem of sufficiency of adjectives. Do we have enough words, synonyms, near synonyms for purple? What is the greyish, or maybe white, or whitish, or silvery, or dusty mist or haze or smokiness over the purple shine? How do you describe the dark cleft from stalk pit to oval end, its inky shadow? Partly with adjectives; it is interesting that adjectives in a prose or verse style are felt to be signs of looseness or vagueness when in fact they are the opposite, at their best, an instrument for precision.

A writer aiming for unadorned immediacy might say a plum, a pear, an apple, and by naming these things evoke in every reader's mind a different plum, a dull tomato-and-green specked Victoria, a yellow-buff globular plum, a tight, black-purple damson. If he wishes to share a vision of a specific plum he must exclude and evoke: a matte, oval, purple-black plum, with a pronounced cleft.

You may use the word "bloom" for the haze on this plum, and it will call up in the mind of any competent reader the idea that the plum is glistening, overlaid with a matte softness. You may talk about the firm texture of the flesh, and these words will not be metaphors, bloom and flesh, as the earlier "cleft" was certainly not a metaphor but a description of a grown declivity. But you cannot exclude from the busy, automatically collecting mind possible metaphors, human flesh for fruit flesh, flower bloom, skin bloom, bloom of ripe youth for this powdery haze, human clefts, declivities, cleavages for that plain noun. The nearest color Alexander could find, in his search for accurate words for the purple of the plum, was in fact the dark center of some new and vigorously burgeoning human bruise. But the plum was neither bruised, nor a bruise nor human. So he eschewed, or tried to eschew, human words for it.

In the end, Alexander is

... troubled by the sense that it was possible for, say, Vincent van Gogh to get nearer to the life of the plums than he ever could. Both metaphor and naming in paint were different from these things in language.

In order to write a passage about Alexander's thought process over describing Vincent Van Gogh's plum in words, Byatt had to ... use words.

In many of her books Byatt is writing about people who do most of their living in their own minds - thinking. This fits in with her theory of novels. She says:

' Novels are works of art which are made out of language, and are made in solitude by one person and read in solitude by one person - by many different, single people, it is to be hoped. So I am also interested in what goes on in the minds of readers, and writers, and characters and narrators in books. I like to write about people who think, to whom thinking is as important and exciting (and painful) as sex or eating. This doesn't mean I want my books to be cerebral or simply battles of ideas.

In Still Life much of the "action" takes place in the minds of the characters as they think, and yet there is still a narrative. Byatt's principle characters in this Novel are people who naturally think about and create words - not necessarily as an exercise in creative writing, as Alexander's play is, but simply as a natural part of their being. Because they are people living daily lives their lives are not wholly in their minds, there is a narrative. But the life of the mind defines their character. This is a novel that is, in part, about people thinking in words about words.

One of the strongest images I retained from my previous reading of this novel, years ago, is of the pregnant Stephanie Potter at her ObGyn appointment, reading. She is reading, or trying to read, and think about William Wordsworth's words and meaning through all the indignities of the public health system, even including propping the book against her distended "baby bump" to read while she waits for the doctors. This image was so sharp in my mind that I was surprised to find, on re-reading, that it takes up only a few pages in this novel.

I had been struck in Virgin with how Byatt described the first phase of the Gift of creativity and even the offering of the Gift to the public. In Still Life she examines the second phase of the Gift - in which the will is worked upon the original gift, in order to create what may be eventually offered.

And Byatt makes clear that will, alone, is not enough. Frederica Potter, who has tremendous talent in thinking about and analyzing words, cannot write a novel. Frederica spends winter as an au pair in Provence. As she explores the French countryside, she decides, as many a traveler before her, to become a writer.

Frederica was also enough a child of her time to suppose that what she should write should be fiction. "The novel is the one bright book of life," Lawrence had didactically exclaimed and Bill Potter didactically reiterated. "The novel is the highest form of human expression yet attained." If anyone had challenged Frederica directly as to whether she believed that, she would have argued the toss. But -- however Wordsworthian the roots -- in the 1950's the recording compulsion took Lawrentian forms. And she had no plot. Or did not recognize those plots she had. And was not, primarily, in those days concerned with invention.

Frederica eventually gives up. "She was a good critic, despite her egocentricity, and decided briskly and miserably that writing was not her metier." Frederica has not received the first Gift and so she has nothing to work her will on.

Alexander is a contrast to this. He is staying in the south of France in order to write another big "historical" play set in World War I, perhaps using the poems of Rupert Brooke. But the work is going nowhere. It is a work that he feels he should write, not one that he necessarily wants to write. His host has also asked him to write a fun little piece about a local medieval troubadour named Cabestan, or Cabestainh, that could be performed by those staying at the villa. But Alexander has found himself obsessed with the letters of Vincent Van Gogh and keeps coming back to the idea of writing a play about him.

A writer is a man haunted by voices. Alexander, walking to and from the water tank in Crowe's kitchen garden, where balloon-like tadpoles, the size of half crowns, dived and plashed their lips, unable to emerge and metamorphose into frogs, was amused sometimes by the counterpoint that wailed in his mind: Cabestan's heart, Vincent's ear, gassed soldier's throats, Brooke's poppies, the troubadour's lady like rose and gillyflower, Vincent's irises, jealousy rage and fear, fear jealousy and rage, fear and indignation and pity. Sometimes, before he drank the fourth or fifth glass of Cote-du-Rhone that would incapacitate him, he thought with guilt of the Flanders fields, with impotence of the forests where wolves ranged, with the sense of temptation, secret delight, and energy welling up from unknown sources of Gauguin's cold bluster, of Vincent's two choices.

The choice is made after Alexander has a long conversation about it with Frederica who says that he of course must write about van Gogh. And Byatt writes: Paradoxically the release of tension enabled him, in the next week, to run up, turn out, patch together, a romantic melodrama about Cabestainh with which the house guests had some civilized fun.

So, in the end, although the narrative of this novel follows the chronological lives of the Potter siblings and their friends, the ideas of this novel follow thought processes. Alexander's creative process - the will he works to find the words to bring forth the creation. Stephanie's process of trying to find time in her life, despite husband and children, to think about words. Frederica's process through Cambridge and her ability to analyze and understand the words and creative process of others.

What I remember most from my first reading of this novel was the story of Stephanie. I remember the end of this novel, which is very much of the real world and not the world of the mind. (I originally wrote "grounded in the real world" but that seemed a horrible but unintentional pun, as those who know the ending would recognize.) As with Possession, and perhaps all of Byatt's novels, the title of this novel is the theme for all parts of the novel. Stephanie is a person who keeps still and calms everyone around her. Her mental life which has always been vibrant is now stilling. She is pregnant and there is always the fear of a still birth. The narrative of this novel is concerned with births and death. Death is, of course, the ultimate stillness. But after a death others still have life. I was aware of all those narrative themes the first time I read the novel.

It is nice, this time, to focus on the non-narrative parts of the novel. It's nice to focus on the ideas as ideas, not as an interruption in the narrative but as means of shaping character.