Weekend Reading: Byatt and Brennan

There could hardly be two more different books than the ones I am reading this weekend. The first is A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I have been puttering away at for a while. I chose it sort of perversely because, though I am very busy at work, I wanted my ‘light’ reading to feel rewarding, and I trust Byatt to write with scope and intelligence. Indeed, I sometimes find her novels too intellectual, but better that, I mostly think, than its opposite. I’m just over half way through now and my reaction is ambivalent. I like the sweeping family saga aspect of it: I’m rather helplessly caught up, now, in worrying about what this large and diverse and painstakingly realized array of characters will do, what will happen to them–during WWI, for instance, which I can feel bearing down on the plot as well as on the novel’s metaphors and images (trenches! tunnels! unseen poisons! clay!). I am finding Byatt’s style strangely monotonous, long strings of regularly structured declarative sentences. It’s a novel built (or so it seems to me so far) on exposition, on a commitment to telling instead of showing. Frankly, it’s kind of a relief to feel I’m in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what she wants me to know and who is going to do the work of laying it out, rather than resorting to artfully elliptical minimalism. Also, her exposition is usually interesting, full of descriptive specificity:

Philip had not been included in the party, and had not expected to be. He had taken some bread and cheese and set out in the strangely unseasonal weather on a long ramble. He walked to his favourite Marsh church, the diminutive, brick-built church of St. Thomas à Becket, near Fairfield. Philip thought of this church as his own particular church; he knew little about Thomas à Becket, and did not know that the church was built on Becket lands. He had never seen a church so isolated. It stood amongst water-meadows, stretching flat and far, on which for miles the fat sheep busily cropped the salty grass. There was no road leading to it, and from it no village, no high road could be seen, only the marshes and the weather. The marshes often flooded in the winter, and then the church appeared to float mysteriously on sheets of flood-water, reflected in the dark-bright surface on calm days, blustered and beaten by howling winds and spray on stormy ones. Philip made his way from tuft to tuft of the marsh grass, for it was sodden underfoot and water welled up between tussocks. When he got to the church, he looked around at the endless sky, the flat horizon, the apparently endless sheep-studded meadows, and felt peaceful. He didn’t think exactly in language. He noticed things. The dabbing movement of a duck. The awkwardly beautiful, almost crippled look of the trailing legs of a flapping heron. Fish squirming in mud. Patterns made by the wind.

You see what I mean about the prose? Not until the paragraph arrives in Philip’s mind, away from language to noticing things, do we get the rhythmic variation of the sentence fragments. The book’s details are supported by an extensive foundation of research. Sometimes this is perhaps too apparent, or maybe it’s just that reading, say, the account of the ‘Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris’ in 1899, you have to be aware that she looked all this up before she took her people there. Still, I think she gives it the feeling of something her people experienced: she individualizes their mental and emotional journeys there. I’m loving the pots: I would much rather have illustrations, pictures of the pots (and the tiles, too) that her characters make, as well as the ones they admire in the Victoria and Albert and everywhere else, than the interspersed excerpts from Olive’s children’s books–even though I know those stories provide key elements of the novel, building character, foreshadowing actions, anticipating themes. Mind you, I didn’t care about the poetry in Possession either.

I’m also reading Maeve Brennan’s The Long-Winded Lady: notes from the New Yorker, which arrived recently in the mail (thanks again, SD!). Brennan is also an expert at noticing things, but she puts her notices into language with great deftness. A lot of these ‘notes’ are about nothing in particular, but they take on their own interest either because of her voice (“Washington Square Park was being very satisfactory the other morning at six o’clock,” begins one vignette; “There is something on Broadway that is not to be found at home,” she observes in another, “and everyone who walks along the great street begins to look for it”) or because it turns out there was something worth attending to there after all. I love her intimate but somehow, also, estranged looks at New York. I get the feeling that though she made her home there, she never entirely felt of the city, and that sudden starts of surprise at it fed that habit of noticing. I loved “The Solitude of Their Expression,” much of which is simply a record of what she sees watching from her window in the “two big rooms in a Forty-ninth Street hotel” where she’s living:

It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed color suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction. [I love that!] Nothing was really certain anymore, except the row of pigeons standing motionless, and beneath, the old lady calmly reading her letter.

As I read it, I keep thinking that “The Long-Winded Lady” would have been a wonderful blogger.

3 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Byatt and Brennan

  1. Mel u November 13, 2010 / 10:56 pm

    I related well to this line in your excellent post on The Children’s Book ” Frankly, it’s kind of a relief to feel I’m in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what she wants me to know and who is going to do the work of laying it out, rather than resorting to artfully elliptical minimalism”-having just finished Ivy Compton-Burnett’s very minimalist Manservant and Maidservant I can appreciate this-I hope to read The Children’s book by the end of 1st quarter 2011


  2. Gayla November 14, 2010 / 8:38 am

    I was really excited about The Children’s Book when it came out, but I found it pretty dull and difficult to get through when I actually sat down to read it. I think I preferred Olive’s children’s stories to some of the poetry in Possession, though.


  3. Rohan Maitzen November 15, 2010 / 12:12 am

    @mel u: Sometimes I suspect (though I can’t comment specifically on Manservant and Maidservant, never having read it) that some authors write minimally not because they are artfully leaving things out but because they don’t really have much idea what goes in the spaces. But then, I’m a Victorianist; I like fulsome detail and I’m fine with omniscient narration as a strategy.

    @gayla: I felt validated in my indifference to most of the poetry in Possession when one of my graduate instructors (a noted expert in Victorian poetry) dismissed it by saying she didn’t see the point–why not just read “the originals’? I’m not finding The Children’s Room dull, though it does take a certain persistence for me to keep at it. It reminds me a bit of A Suitable Boy, not just in that both books are prolix, but because the longer I live with their people, the more I get used to the pace and problems of their lives.


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