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A S Byatt: Still Life

I had the idea, when I began this novel, that it would be a novel of naming and accuracy. I wanted to write a novel as Williams said a poem should be – no ideas but in things. I even thought of trying to write without figures of speech, but had to give up that plan, quite early. It may be possible to name without metaphor, to describe simply and clearly, to categorize and distinguish, one specimen from another, arrhenatherum, les jeunes gens en fleurs. There would be a heavy emphasis on nouns, on naming in such a hypothetical book, and also I suspect on adjectives, those unfashionable categorizers.

It is almost a truism than many good novelists set out with one intent when writing a novel and end up writing another one. This statement by Byatt, casually tossed in, not in a letter or diary or interview but in the middle of the novel itself (showing that she had read her Brecht) raises a number of interesting issues about this novel and Byatt’s writing in general. As she used Alexander Wedderburn’s Elizabethan play (and, by extension, all things Elizabethan, both I and II) as her objective correlative in Virgin in the Garden, so here she uses Van Gogh and Wedderburn’s play about him. Van Gogh, of course, as Byatt points out, had a lot of trouble with naming things. Clearly for Van Gogh a chair is not a chair is not a chair. However, it is only towards the end of this novel, when Daniel has to cope with the death of his wife, that naming per se becomes an issue, when Daniel is unable, despite (or maybe because of) his religious conviction to define death and what it means in any terms other than the commonplace ones of the comfort he has provided to his parishioners when they faced the death of a loved one and his responsibility to the survivors, in this case their two children. The idea of the traditional God and explaining to his son where his mother’s soul has gone are defined by the language at Daniel’s disposal. For naming is about language and, as novelists have been pointing out to us for many years, our language is totally inadequate to express our emotions and intellect.

Metaphor is, of course, vital to novelists. Byatt is not the first novelist to try and do without metaphor though she is fortunately intelligent enough and honest enough to realize that this is a hopeless task. Frederica, her heroine, is writing (or is to write) a thesis on metaphor and grapples with the issue throughout the book. Metaphor is also one of the bases of language and no-one can do without it however hard they try.

So what is this book about? It is a direct follow-on from Virgin in the Garden, taking the story one stage further. Virgin in the Garden owed at least part of its success to having a well-defined centre, namely the Wedderburn Elizabethan play, around which the action revolved. This novel does not have a well-defined centre, in part because Byatt does not seem to be sure what is the centre. Is it Wedderburn’s Van Gogh play and Van Gogh’s ideas? Important though these are – and the ideas (and Byatt, despite the above quote, could no more abandon ideas than she could language) are key to the novel – the play itself is only important to Wedderburn (of the main characters) and totally incidental or irrelevant to the other characters. Is it Frederica’s sexual and intellectual development? Quite possibly, as this seems to the main focus of the novel but a huge chunk of the novel has nothing to do with this theme. And that is part of the problem – namely that she is running two or three separate and only vaguely connected plots.

Dealing with Frederica’s sexual concerns, her Cambridge life, with Daniel and Stephanie and the domestic issues they face, with Marcus and his psychological problems, she is in great danger of having this novel reading like one of her sister’s domestic problem novels. These are all very well in their place but they are not great literature and Byatt has shown in her previous work (and will show in her later work) that she is capable of producing first-class novels of ideas. It is only to be regretted that, at least in this novel, she has not made up her mind where she wants to go and this makes this novel one of her less successful efforts.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Chatto and Windus