Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A.S. Byatt at Tulane

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

He attended A.S. Byatt's February 18, 2013 talk at Tulane University and filed this exclusive report:

Frederica came to town.

Frederica: the spirited young lady who went up to Cambridge in the 1950s to delight in the privileged life that, until then, mostly male students had been living; the distressed woman who was nearly electrocuted in a refrigerator-related accident in her Yorkshire home; and the resolute woman who in the late 1960s strikes out on a career in London television. The last volume of the Frederica Quartet is titled A Whistling Woman, a refrain her grandmother was fond of: “A whistling woman and a crowing hen is neither good for God nor men.”

A.S. Byatt, author of the Frederica Quartet, of Possession which is a magisterial “romance of the archives,” and of Ragnarok, a re-telling of the Norse myth of the self-destruction of the gods, was the Tulane English Department’s Great Writers Reading selection for 2013. On Monday she read from both her recent Ragnarok and earlier The Children’s Book. The reading included an evocative First World War-themed poem called “Trench Names” (reprinted in The New Yorker).

Standard for the Great Writers series is a disquisition on the art of the novel. Dame Antonia – the initials “A.S.” are a conscious androgynous choice to symbolize her unwillingness to be branded a woman writer, much less a feminist one - recalled how a Polish doctoral student at Leiden had once listed to her all the factual mistakes contained in the 1,700 lines of poetry in Possession. “You’ll now have to write World War I poetry for The Children’s Book,” the student told Byatt on learning of her new project. She took pleasure in the implied warning.

The Yorkshire-born author reflected on Still Life, a pivotal and perhaps the outstanding novel of the Frederica Quartet. “It should have gone on for another three or four chapters,” she now believes, admitting to having rushed her ending. Few of her novels do not engage in literary experimentation or playing with ideas, and not all of them succeed. In Still Life, for example, Byatt set out to write a book without metaphors. The effort ground to a halt midway through and she was forced to offer an interrogation on the form of the novel.

Possession, by contrast, is essentially a romance but, paradoxically, it was shaped by Byatt’s exhaustion with the conventions of the genre: “I got bored of ‘he said, she said.’” So she turned to the use of different shapes and forms: apart from the many lines of poetry, over 100 pages of fictional journal entries punctuate the novel.

“Self-conscious realism is what I try to do,” Byatt told us. Combined with her propensity for experimental forms, it is no surprise that she admits to being attracted by stories with bad endings. From her readings in Nordic mythology she was delighted to discover that “bad endings were possible.” Her Ragnarok deals ostensibly with the collective suicide of the Norse gods. But Byatt, an esteemed commentator in Britain on the ethics of scientific inquiry, raises the possibility that humankind today is on a self-destructive course no less dramatic than the gods.

I told Dame Antonia that I found Ragnarok bleak. “It has energy,” she rejoined. “There are so many resurrections in it,” I said, not willing to give up. “And so many renewed battles,” she countered. These are features Byatt prizes in a novel. “A book must be alive, not be just extraordinarily competent.” It should possess “controlled energy” that provides a “narrative pull” independent of the subject matter. A great novel should also have a “formal sense of itself” that may overcome any faults it may have, for example, a stuttering opening.

Byatt was asked who her favorite American writers are. With no hesitation she named Toni Morrison. But there was a long pause before she offered a second name – Jonathan Franzen – who happened to be Tulane’s 2012 Great Writer reader.

As a Booker Prize judge, Byatt described having to read close to 200 novels one summer. The explanation for keeping American authors out of the competition was banal, therefore, and not conspiratorial. Judges simply could not read all the books in contention if U.S. writers were eligible.

“I love the English language more than I do storytelling,” the writer concluded. Some authors “write a book in order to read it,” but her own writing entails a labor of love, filling in dozens of A4 notebooks before setting pen to paper. The result is that “I know where I am going with a book.” Not all readers feel the same way, but for a colorful chronicle of English social life and mores of the last half-century, there are few more reliable sources than Byatt’s fiction.--Ray Taras.

--Marshal Zeringue