A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

The Children’s Book has a tremendous solidity to it, a kind of fearless pedantry that I think a reader is bound to find either fascinating and reassuring or tedious, even burdensome–or both, I suppose, at different points in the novel. Mostly, I liked the novel a lot, though I can’t say I loved it because it is an oddly passionless book, resolutely unsentimental. I don’t hold that against Byatt: in fact, I  respect her for it. She doesn’t pander to readerly prejudices. Instead, she rewards the persistent reader with her own accumulated knowledge and insight, and with the emotional aftershocks that follow a cerebral, rather than visceral, commitment. One is surprised, or I guess I should just say that I was surprised, at how involved I was, by the end, with her people. The Children’s Book is a panoramic historical novel, a ‘sweeping’ family saga, that reads not at all like those blurb tags might lead us to expect. In this respect, I’m reminded of Wolf Hall, which is not at all what typically passes for historical fiction. But where Wolf Hall is magnificent in its intensely idiosyncratic, sideways approach to history–history as and through character–The Children’s Room insists on the chronicler’s detachment, as well as the cataloguer’s combination of breadth and specificity–it’s history as information management.

For me, then, a big part of the reading experience was the learning experience: all kinds of things I had never given any sustained thought to, from puppetry to pottery, as well as abstractions I had never thoroughly personified, including anarchism and Fabianism (thus revealing myself not much of a scholar of the fin-de-siècle, I realize) were both explained and dramatized. There are passages of deliberate exposition that make really no concession to the fiction they support:

Backwards and forwards, both. The Edwardians knw they came after something. The sempiternal Queen was gone, in all her manifestations, from the squat and tiny widow swathed in black crape and jet beads, to the gold-encrusted, bedizened, crowned idol who was brought out at durbars and jubilees. The little pursed mouth was silent for ever. Her long-dead mate, who had most seriously cared for the lives of working-men and for the wholesome and beautiful and proliferating arts and crafts, persisted beside her in the name of the unfinished Museum, full of gold, silver, ceramics, bricks and building dust. The new King was an elderly womaniser, genial and unhealthy, interested in oiling the wheels of diplomacy with personal good sense, in racehorses, in the daily shooting of thousands upon thousands of bright birds and panting, scrambling, running things, in the woodlands and moors of Britain, in the forests and mountains of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Russia. It was a new time, not a young time. Skittishly, it cast off the moral anguish and human responsibility of the Victorian sages Lytton Strachey was preparing to mock. The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously. The land, in places, was running with honey, cream, fruit fools, beer, champagne.

This particular section actually runs almost 10 pages, proliferating context, with no reference to the novel’s characters until we rejoin them–or more accurately, until the narrator picks up their threads again, tying them back in. Though I can imagine being bored or annoyed by Byatt’s strategies, for the most part I was simply too interested to be impatient.

I did get impatient, sometimes, at the attention lavished on the puppet shows. I understand–or at any rate I assume–that they are integral to the novel’s thematic development in various ways, and that they provide opportunities to deepen character development by adding associations (some literal, some suggestive or allegorical) to what we know about them. I didn’t always get it, though (for instance, I felt rather a dunce about the whole Tom Underground fiasco), and I turn out not to be as interested in special effects in theatrical productions as I am in pots (and thus I reiterate my earlier wish that the novel were illustrated–perhaps the V&A could put out a special edition? or, indeed, here’s a book that might be fabulously developed as a hypertext,  or as an etext, complete with animations of the puppetry and interactive maps of the trenches of WWI).

But I don’t want to undersell the power The Children’s Book had over me by its final chapters. It’s a testament to Byatt’s skill and creative depth that she can generate such a large cast of characters, divide her narrative attention among them so dispassionately, and yet make them all distinct enough that any loss is a blow. In my earlier post I mentioned that I felt the war bearing down on them all. It came later than I expected, but its effect was all the more devastating for concluding the novel (more or less) as well as so many of the stories we have followed for so long. The ruthless quality that’s always there in Byatt’s prose finds its moral purpose in this section; I found myself thinking of Yeats’s criticism of the war poets and their emphasis (as he saw it) on “passive suffering” as well as the more general problem that has come up a few times in my Brit Lit survey class about the aestheticization of violence. Here are a couple of excerpts from the trenches (I’ll blank out the names of the specific characters, out of deference to those who haven’t read the novel yet):

**** went into the shelter, to fetch cigarettes. There was a singing howl, and a shell exploded in the trench. A splinter of it took off most of ****’s head. **** took one look, and vomited. Men came running, stretcher-bearers, men with a blanket to cover up what they could, men with buckets and mops to cleanse the dugout. . . . Two days later **** stood up, in his newfangled tin hat, which like most of the men he wore at odd angles, on the back of his head, like a halo. He was not the first, or the last, to be killed by the very skilful German sniper behind the stump of the ruined tree.

—-

They were told to advance. The German shelling was precise. Hundreds of men died behind their own front line, or struggled back to the medical post. **** got out of the trench in one piece and so did Corporal Crowe. They started to walk forwards towards the black stumps of a wood on the skyline. There was noise. Not only shells and bullets, whistling and exploding, but men screaming. They stumbled over the dead and wounded, over men, and pieces of men, and were reduced to crawling, so mashed and messed was the earth and the flesh mashed into it. After a brief time **** felt a thump, and found his tunic damp, and then soaked, with his blood. He tried to crawl on, and could not, and other men crawled past him and sprawled in the mud. He bled. He lay still. He knew in the abstract that stomach wounds were nasty. His head churned. He wished he had not had the rum. He wished he would die quickly. He did not. Men crawled round and over him and he came in and out of consciousness. He noticed when there were no more men, and he noticed nightfall, unless the dark was death. It was not. But he was dead by the time he was found by the stretcher-bearers, so they took his identity-tag, and looked in his bloody pockets for letters of photos…

In the first example, there’s simply no time to recover from the first death before the second one, which is two days but not even two paragraphs later. I thought for a moment, reading about the German sniper, that Byatt was going to indulge in the melodramatic ironies available to a novelist with protagonists on both sides of the conflict. I should have known better. The tone of these passages, also, never changes from the bluntly descriptive, but notice how the perspective shifts in the second example, from “their” joint mission to the pair of walking men, then to our particular man, until his consciousness cannot sustain the story and he is overtaken by the stretcher-bearers. Byatt’s persistent prose can seem artless in its steady march from one statement to the next, but over and over I found that a little close attention showed the steady, experienced hand shaping the clay into a capacious yet subtle and detailed form.

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.