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.

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