Sunday, April 26, 2009

Byatt, face to face: a report

A.S. Byatt and Eleanor Wachtel take their seats on stage. Wachtel explains that she was asked to chat before they begin proper, to ask something inconsequential so that the sound engineers can test their settings. So, what did A.S. Byatt have for lunch? A turkey sandwich and some "possibly indigestible onion soup."

Although I've spent days thinking, thinking really hard, what I should ask A.S. Byatt — Is there something I really wanted to know, or would it be merely for the sake of asking a question? What of it? What an opportunity! Of course I should ask her a question! But what? — and then, closer to the event, mustering up my courage, fine tuning the wording, rehearsing in my head, and then reworking the question as the interview progressed to account for what she'd just told us and so as not to seem redundant, ultimately I was spared the embarrassment: There was no question period.

My question, finally, would've been this: You touch on the issue throughout, but there a couple points in The Children's Book at which you address directly the writer–reader relationship. Frank on meeting Herbert Methley decides that readers are meant not to meet writers. Olive similarly reflects that, while writers and readers need each other, it is understood that the relationship be mediated through the page. Without meaning to put you on the spot and asking whether you yourself believe that, I wonder if you might comment generally on this human urge to meet the maker of things, to discover the man behind the curtain (why should people want to meet potter Benjamin Fludd, reputedly (and proven to be) a nasty person? why does Dorothy seek out her biological father?). Why do we feel compelled to? And in what circumstances do you think it might be better left alone?

I didn't ask the question, but in mulling it over for myself for days, and from A.S Byatt's remarks yesterday afternoon. I think I have some answers.

Her childhood reading consisted of the usual fairy tales and stories, but she went through their personal store of them so quickly, she early on turned to the likes of Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. She has a particular fondness for Kipling.

It's when she saw a stage production of Peter Pan, as a child during wartime, that she found herself identifying with the writer, and thinking, "I've got to make something."

What she learned from her mother, observing a brief happy (working) time amid her general unhappiness: if you want to work, you must work.

Immersing herself in books was not to escape or replace; it was to complete the real world. "The real world was intensely boring."

Everything she liked — Dickens, Austen, Eliot — had nothing to do with the author, had nothing to do with self-expression. Writing was a matter of looking out, outside of oneself. Art shouldn't be to critique the world, but to understand the world. You cannot change the world by writing, but you can help someone understand the world so that they may go change it. Writing must give pleasure.

The novel has excerpts from the books written by Olive, the children's author. Byatt plays with the idea of self and the notion of having a shadow self.

"Tales are tales." She's worked as a literary critic, but she's very quick to qualify the statement: not a biographical critic. She acknowledges the irony: that she sits here telling us about her childhood and little things about her mother. But not big things. "There's a border between fact and fiction that you shouldn't step over."

Byatt didn't know much about the Edwardians when she set out writing about this time period, chosen because it was a golden age of children's literature. She liked the high Victorians and the gloomy modernists, having skipped over what came in between. (She's done an incredible amount of research to make the period so vivid.)

There's much about growing up in this novel, and the "success" of the authors of that golden age relied heavily on not wanting to grow up. Wachtel asks Byatt if there's ever a point when we are completely adult, with no child left in us. Byatt says, in a sense, when you have a child of your own. It is your duty to be an adult.

She sets Kipling apart from other writers of the era: in his writing it's clear he understood the adult world as much as that of the child.

The talk moves through Ibsen, suffragists, Evelyn Sharp, "porcelain socialists" (a term coined by Dostoevsky), and British–German relations.

(Byatt sits sedately, speaks engagingly matter-of-factly, but comes more to life when talking about bloody matters. She tells of the murder committed by the revolutionary Stepniak; she holds an imaginary knife, driving and twisting into the victim's heart. Twice, later, her arm comes down like an executioner's blade to punctuate her point.)

The Children's Book is in part about the art of pottery. Why pottery? Byatt has a fascination with glass: it's something you can look at and look through, and in this way it is a kind of metaphor for writing. But it formed the focus of a previous novel; she "can't do glass again," so pottery was a next best thing, combined with the affinity she feels for it, being descended from potters.

Byatt "can't remember how the puppets got in." The talks about her research and the esteem with which puppetry was regarded as an artform.

(Unfortunately, the interview was disrupted on several occasions because of cellphones and the feedback caused by someone's hearing aid. A.S. Byatt very kindly made light of the situation. The high-pitched squeals were "like a fairy kind of piping." During the book-signing that followed she expressed sympathy for the poor woman, who, once she'd turned down her hearing aid, couldn't hear what was being said on stage.)

The first world war changed children's stories. Many stories of that period were boys' war-related adventure stories. I understand that there is a dearth of children's literature during the interwar period, and perhaps this is why we hold onto those stories of the period before even more tightly.

Oddly, she notes, while the children of today are very different from those of a century ago, the stories now are essentially the same. The thread was picked up by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling. They share qualities with their predecessors that appeal to children, that suit childhood, even while childhoods now open on much vaster (and grimmer) knowledge of life and the world.

Byatt's novel is not a children's book, but it does have many of the traditional themes. It is the children who are in the best position to save the other children. They are often forced to grow up because of the predatory actions of the adults around them. But her children, on the whole, want to grow up.

The war hits her characters like a knife, indeed, hits the world like a knife.

Children want happy endings. "An adolescent thinks a story isn't grown up if it doesn't have a bad ending." Byatt has moved beyond that stage.

"Readers and human beings have a right to a happy ending." (She hates books that offer two alternative endings.)

The Children's Book can't be said to have a fairy-tale ending, although it does end with a happy tableau. Because it has no central plot, no main character, there are as many endings as there are characters, some happy, some markedly less so. (Much like life, I say; it ends as it should.)

Note, this is a fairly superficial retelling of the event. The interview will be broadcast on CBC's Writers and Company in a few weeks' time.

I did have a couple copies of The Children's Book signed, one for a dear friend as well as my own already well-worn copy. I was tongue-tied, and I commented on the awkwardness, referencing what she'd written about readers meeting writers. It's true. It's weird. After all, with a glint and a smile, she says, "It's really only the book that matters."

My review of The Children's Book.
My early impressions.

Some recent coverage: Byatt, civilized.

More
Review:
A fantastic fable of utopian folly (The Globe and Mail):

Byatt is very good at depicting the subtleties of how hypocrisy can co-exist with a genuine desire to do good, hinting that the Fabians' obsession with fantasy childhood and an English utopia is more for themselves than anyone else, their children included.


Interview:
Writing in terms of pleasure (The Guardian)
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