I love how A.S. Byatt writes—and I haven’t read enough of her work, as a glance at her list of book titles reveals. I’ve read Possession and The Children’s Hour; both are excellent: dense, literary, historical, thoughtful, in love with language, filled with ideas, and yet strong on story and character, too. But there’s a whole quartet of novels to be explored—The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman—and more short stories as well.
In this collection, Byatt offers three well-developed short stories connected by references to works by Matisse. In the first, “Medusa’s Ankles,” a print of his Rosy Nude—”that lavish and complex creature”—hangs above the coat rack of a hair salon that will soon witness a surprising scene.
“Art Work” begins with a description of Le Silence habité des maisons, as reproduced in a book about Matisse:
Two people sit at the corner of a table. The mother, it may be, has a reflective chin propped on a hand propped on the table. The child, it may be, turns the page of a huge white book, whose arch of paper makes an integral curve with his/her lower arm. . . . The people’s faces are perfect blank ovals, featureless . . . It is a pity there are no colours but it is possible, tempting, to imagine them, sumptuous as they were . . .
The story is about a wife who is a designer, a husband who is a painter—and the housekeeper who changes how they imagine, or re-imagine, the colors of their own silent house.
The final story, “The Chinese Lobster,” concerns a troubled art student whose work consists of smearing and defacing prints of Matisse’s work, the art professor who is appalled by her behavior, and the dean of women students who must calm the waters. The professor, as a very young man, met Matisse, as a very old man—and so we learn something about Matisse, how he “paints silent bliss.” The phrase Matisse himself used, apparently, was Luxe, calme et volupté (Luxury, peace and pleasure). He also—to shock people, the professor claims—compared art to an armchair, “something to calm the brain.” And so we begin to see a method beneath the student’s apparent madness.
I love how Byatt combines her stunning erudition (reading her work, you learn about history, literature, art, psychology) with a specific clarity in sensing and describing the world. In “The Chinese Lobster,” orange segments are “bright, they are glistening with juice, they are packed with little teardrop sacs of sweetness.”
Then Byatt crowns the achievement with a deep and generous understanding of the human heart. Here, for example, she mines the subtext of the conversation between the professor and the dean about the student and her pattern of suicide attempts:
Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex, and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or a quiver.
That’s just marvelous.