Still Life, by A.S. Byatt

Back when I started this blog, I wrote about The Diamond in the Window that it had permeated my thoughts so thoroughly that its ideas and images had become part of my personal mythology. So too with Still Life.

This is the book that I said woke me from my long intellectual slumber. And no wonder! Not only is it challenging, with its allusions and complex counterpoint of themes, but it starts out with just that situation: pregnant Stephanie trying (and failing) to read Wordsworth while waiting in a queue at the ante-natal clinic. Baby-brain, we used to call it, when your head is stuffed with nursery rhymes and to-do lists, not to mention fuzzed from lack of sleep, so that you look at a book and can remember only that you used to be able to read and understand it.

I say that this is a challenging book, but it doesn't have to be. The story itself is absorbing and plenty to be going on with. You can read the book simply as the lives of two sisters who make different choices for their lives and how those choices play out. You may delight in the continuation from The Virgin in the Garden of their seemingly incompatible choices—scholar and wife, mind and body—and the echoes of that conflict in the juxtaposition of activity and stillness, chaos and order, experience and ritual, madness and sanity.

You may look at the other themes here, related to how we perceive the world and how we represent it. Van Gogh's voice comes and goes throughout the story, talking about shapes and colors, about domesticity and chaos. Alexander, whom we met in the previous book, is writing a play about Van Gogh and Gauguin. As motifs, he uses pairs of paintings: one yellow chair and one a brownish red, The Sower coming towards you and The Reaper going away. On my first reading, this book sent me off to read Vincent's letters to Theo, excerpts of which are quoted here, thus introducing me to another side of Van Gogh.

Many of the characters muse in their different ways about shapes and colors. Byatt explores her themes through the symphony of storylines. I think it is a perfect balance. The scientific, philosophic, and analytic bits are always presented in relation to the melody of the story, their lines playing off each other, resonating here, clashing there. I'm having to invoke a different set of metaphors, those of music, because Byatt has so thoroughly explored the metaphors of writing, painting, colors, biology, religion, even domesticity, that I cannot begin to use them in talking about the book.

The only aspect that seemed even slightly jarring to me on my first read is the occasional intrusion of the author. Rarely, but significantly, the author speaks up in the first person, telling us what image sparked the idea of this book, how she planned (and failed) to write it without any figurative language, even—hilariously—breaking into first person right after a character criticises Van Gogh for being unable to keep himself out of his work. Now I appreciate how her intrusions wake me up and make me consider not just the books the characters are discussing but this book itself, this thing I hold in my hands.

The book is about how to live in this world, with its things. Not just what lifestyle or work we choose, but how we experience the things of this world and recreate them in pictures and words. And how that experience and those re-creations have changed over the centuries.

It's also about how to die, how to live with the prospect of death, of loved ones, of ourselves. I said last week that in some ways this book is a response to the biological imperatives described by Richard Dawkins. Byatt writes about grief, so powerfully that it is hard for me to read those chapters. What do these little lives mean, the sparrow flying in at one window and out the other? That is the question. Not the adolescent search for an abstract meaning of life, but the purely practical question of what we are to do if, as Byatt echoes, the dead rise not. It is the question for those of us who have reached what Jane Smiley calls the Age of Grief, as everyone does eventually, losing someone too dear, a loss from which we never recover.

No wonder Byatt gives us Wordsworth and his Ode on immortality. Dawkins talks about the immortal gene, but also the way that memes, units of culture, may live on and on. So Byatt’s book is also about cultural artifacts: Van Gogh's paintings, Milton's poems, Shakespeare's, Mallarme's. And about how we may use words and images not only to distance ourselves from life (as I have done with this paragraph), but also to recreate the direct sensual experience of the world. And about those moments when words fall silent and we have only our senses.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that when I first read A.S. Byatt’s Still Life, there seemed to be levels to the story that I wasn’t getting. I wonder now, as I reread it, if it doesn’t presume background knowledge that I didn’t have then. Coincidentally, as I was alternating between reading it and Dawkins’s book last week, I stumbled across a long passage referencing Dawkin’s concepts as presented in The Selfish Gene and I realised that much of Byatt’s book was a response to those concepts.

Dawkins looks at evolution from the point of view of the gene, proposing that organisms (such as humans) are “survival machines” for the genes, containers that carry them in our chromosomes, protecting and replicating the genes. Therefore, natural selection favors organisms that most successfully replicate their genes. Characteristics that promote replication (e.g., fertility, attractiveness, ability to protect oneself) are preferred and so spread more widely through the population.

The title is a metaphor, since genes themselves do not have feelings. It is meant to indicate that in their drive to replicate (since that is their function), genes may even act against the best interests of the organism containing them or against the best interests of the community of organisms. From the gene’s viewpoint, what matters is the number of copies of the genes, not of the organism. Hence, organisms have evolved to protect those who have copies of some of the same genes (kin).

Dawkins first defines his terms. I always appreciate starting this way, since words are so often misused, and in this case I needed his comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of the difference between genes, alleles, chromosomes, nucleotides, etc. He presents the idea of “replicator molecules” in the “primordial soup” succeeding over other molecules to became cells and, eventually, organisms. He describes how DNA replicates, both in the normal growth of the organism and in the formation of units of reproduction (sperm and egg, for humans).

I particularly enjoyed his concept of an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) and the examples of such strategies that he and others have studied and/or modeled. In an encounter, the two participants have the choice to protect or defect. I was reminded of all those police dramas where they’ve separated two criminals and are telling each to rat on your partner before he rats on you; the one who defects first gets the best deal. Dawkins discusses many strategy models, while cautioning that the environment must also be a factor in their success.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t heard of this book until now, when it turned up as a selection for one of my book clubs. Perhaps because when it came out in 1976, I was enmeshed (as one of Byatt’s characters is) in caring for babies and certainly out of touch with popular culture. Over the years, I have absorbed many of the concepts of the book without knowing the primary source, thus perhaps unwittingly proving his thesis about memes, units of human culture that replicate and evolve in ways similar to those of genes, even at the expense of their vehicles (Dawkins’s book in this case).

The Selfish Gene is aimed at the layperson and is quite readable. I sometimes found his tone a bit petulant, as he rebutted objections to his work by reviewers and other scientists, but others in my book club found these rebuttals humorous. And certainly Dawkins is quick to admit when he is wrong and to give credit to others for their work—always a charming quality.

The book does raise moral questions, although Dawkins cautions that he is just describing how things work biologically, not how they ought to work. And he reminds us that, as thinking organisms, we sometimes have the power to override our genetic blueprint. For example, we can choose not to reproduce. We can choose altruism. We can choose peace.

Fire in the Blood, by Irene Nemirovsky

Nemirovsky is the author of Suite Francaise which everyone was reading a few years ago, an insider’s account of the German invasion and the flight from Paris in June 1940 and life in a rural village under German occupation. What made it so special was not just that Nemirovsky herself was swept up in those events but also that she so memorably depicted the places and people and the way life was lived in Paris and in the village where they took refuge (Issy-l'Eveque in Burgundy). She captured nuances of behavior and inflection, unraveling webs of motivation and psychology, giving us fully realised characters.

Nemirovsky brings those same writerly gifts to bear in this brief novel about Sylvestre, called Silvio, who lives alone in a run-down farmhouse. He is old, he says, wanting only to sit by his fire in “blessed solitude” with his pipe and a bottle of red wine, shaking his head over the follies of his youth, when his lust for adventure took him to foreign lands and caused him to run through his inheritance. Now he sits in the village’s cafe on Sundays, nursing a glass of wine, surrounded by the neighbors who bought his lands and childhood home, listening to them make gentle fun of him. Nemirovsky captures the fine gradations of these relationships and uses marvelous details to describe these provincial characters, such as noting precisely how a young man turns his wineglass before lifting it, making clear what that action says about his place in that company. She also portrays the charm of rural France prior to World War II, with its agricultural rhythms and long memories.

Silvio often visits his cousin Helene who leads a charmed life with her beloved husband Francois, about-to-be-married daughter Colette, and three sons. The events following Colette’s marriage (which affect Helene, Francois and Silvio himself) move briskly, so that the narrative flows as smoothly as the river by Moulin Neuf where Colette and Jean live and run the mill that has been in his family for generations.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that one reason I enjoyed Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair was that it was such an adult book. How much more so this story! Silvio’s nostalgia over his bittersweet memories mixes with the deep satisfaction he takes in the details of daily life: filling his glass with wine, walking the paths he’s known all his life, watching—amused and bemused—the antics of his neighbors. As in the other book, one of the greatest joys of this story is how vividly Nemirovsky conjures daily life in this small village.

This is a story of contrasts: family versus solitude, travel versus home, the lusty greed of youth to take what you want versus the peace of age when you’ve “given up trying to make the world adjust to your desires”. But it is also a story of secrets. Helene says to Colette, now a young mother, that the best thing a parent can do is to keep her experiences a secret from her children. Similarly Silvio ponders a group of strangers passing through and imagines them driving through the night, past darkened farmhouses, never guessing at the secrets hidden within.

So it is with this simple tale. It hides great richness, depth of experience and emotion. I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately read it again and, on the second reading, found myself marveling at the way it was structured. The accelerating chain of events, the secrets revealed: all were foreshadowed in details that I had not consciously noted in my first reading, though even then they lodged somewhere in my memory making the ending thoroughly satisfying. The structure, the details, the immersion in a different way of life, and fascinating Silvio himself combine to make this a perfect read.

The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt

In this blog, I often give the circumstances under which I read the book, because they so influence my reactions. This book is a good example. When I first read Byatt’s Still Life almost twenty years ago, it shocked me out of my long stupor. For many years, working two and sometimes three jobs, my reading was confined to a half-hour or so before bed, when I gulped down undemanding novels. When I finished Byatt’s book, I realised that, although I’d enjoyed it on a superficial level, there were many other levels that I was ignoring. I read it again, more carefully, and then a third time. My poor old brain finally began to creak into action, and I could no longer be content with the “easy” novels that had been shepherding me into sleep.

I then picked up this prequel to Still Life which presents the Potter family during the summer of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Alexander Wedderburn, who teaches at the progressive public school where the domineering Bill Potter is also on staff, has written a verse play about Elizabeth I which a local patron of the arts has decided to stage on the grounds of his manor house as part of a huge festival. Bill’s wife, Winifred, is a housewife with a Yorkshire accent and a plastic cloth on her table; no one would suspect she had an English degree from Leeds University. Frederica Potter, a fierce and gawky schoolgirl, wants to be best at everything, which at the moment means getting a part in Alexander’s play, if not Alexander himself. Her quiet sister, Stephanie, who by coming home to teach in the local grammar school has ducked her father’s insistence that she use her double First at Cambridge to do great things, prefers to help with the costumes. Their younger brother, Marcus, a student at the public school where his father teaches, lives in a world of his own, besieged by mysterious forces that consume nearly all of his attention.

On my first read, I was thoroughly confused by the book. The prose is much denser and has far more allusions than the other novel. Also, the Potter’s family dynamic is not one that appeals to me: an overbearing father, a withdrawn mother, an equally withdrawn brother who is the mother’s favorite, one sister focused on others, the other focused only on herself.

On this second read, I not only enjoyed the book more, I appreciated it more. The structure of the book is simply amazing, not just the most obvious parallels between the two Elizabeths, but—oh, I can’t begin to do it justice! So many layers of stories, myths, allusions around the image of the virgin in the garden, enclosed, protected, but (perhaps) plucking what she wants all the same. How do you balance the life of the mind and the life of the body? The lure of solitude and the thrill of society? Scholar or wife? Queen or consort?

Frederica, caught up in the overheated passions and furtive couplings of the players, is desperate to lose her inconvenient virginity. Stephanie tries to ignore the attentions of the ruthless curate, Daniel Orton, who wants to marry her—men are always wanting to marry her, even chance-met waiters in hotels, which she finds humiliating, believing that it has nothing to do with her; she must just have “an archetypal wife-face”. Marcus is befriended by Lucas, another master at the school, who believes that Marcus’s mysterious forces are connected to the extra-sensory energies he himself has been investigating. Lucas’s experiments, intended to tap into these force-fields, take him and Marcus into dangerous territory.

This is one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read. Now I think I’ll have to read it again.

The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair is based on the 18th century case of Elizabeth Canning, an Englishwoman who claimed that she had been abducted and taken to a house where an old woman tried to persuade her to become a prostitute. When she refused, the woman locked her up, intending to hold her prisoner until she relented, giving her nothing but water and crusts of bread. After nearly a month, Canning said, she had escaped through a window. Many believed her story and a local Romany woman, a Miss Mary Squires, was convicted of the crime, despite three witnesses who swore she had been elsewhere. A later inquiry, after Squires had served her six-month term, was conducted amid a huge media frenzy similar to that around the Road House Murder, and resulted in Canning being convicted of perjury.

In Tey’s 1948 novel, solicitor Robert Blair’s quiet life in an English market town, where nothing much changes from generation to generation, is interrupted by a phone call from a stranger, Marion Sharpe, who asks for his help. Sharpe and her elderly mother had recently moved to the area, to an isolated house outside of town. Betty Kane, a servant whom they had dismissed, claimed that the two women had imprisoned her in an upstairs room where they starved and beat her.

I read first read this book as a teenager (eons ago) during my first infatuation with Tey. I didn't remember the story at all, nor do I recall what I thought about it. Wish I did, because this is such an adult book, I can't believe I appreciated it sufficiently back then. It's so smart, so witty. I love all the one-liners, which are not only entertaining but are marvels of compressed characterisation. When Marion is first talking to Robert, she says, “‘You know what I feel like? . . .I feel like someone drowning in a river because she can't drag herself up the bank, and instead of giving me a hand you point out that the other bank is better to crawl out on.'” And when old Mrs Sharpe is first confronted by Betty Kane, she says, “‘For two people on beating terms we are distressingly ill acquainted.'”

In fact, Mrs. Sharpe is the character I found most interesting, and most baffling. Robert and Marion I felt I had a handle on right away, but I wasn't sure what to think about Mrs. Sharpe. If there was a crime, I could believe she was behind it. I didn't feel that I knew her until the very end. For me, the mystery around her kept open the possibility that the two women were actually guilty.

The story starts rather slowly with Robert contemplating knocking off work early, but I was in no hurry for the action's catalyst to appear. I found myself savoring each sentence, completely hooked by the time I reached bottom of the first page, with Robert’s tea tray in a patch of sunlight, the tray he is brought every day, with a white cloth, and a digestive biscuit on Thursdays and a petit-beurre on Mondays. So precise. So perfect.

Besides Tey’s remarkable prose, a great joy of the book is that other characters develop in unexpected ways. I thought staid and sedentary Robert would be rather stupid “from the dumb-sidekick school” as a member of my book club remarked. I also was afraid Robert’s Aunt Lin would be the butt of silly-old-women digs; his nephew, Neville, who helps with the investigation, a caricature of wayward youth; and the mechanics, who come to the aid of the two women, typical village louts. What a pleasant surprise to find all of them turning out to be more complex than I imagined.

I loved this book! I loved the puzzle, the pacing, the characters, and the subtle way Tey brings in details of village life. I’m grateful to my book club for sending me back to it and highly recommend it.