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Little Black Book of Stories
A.S. Byatt
London: Chatto & Windus, 2003.
£12.00, 292 pages, ISBN 0701173246.
New York: Knopf, 2004.
$21.00, 292 pages, ISBN 1400041775.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

Five glittering tales make up this black book. Their plots and themes may be dark—murder, abortion, monsters, revenants and mortality in general—but there is a lightness of touch, almost a glee, that is sometimes lacking in Byatt’s longer fiction.

These are modern fairy tales, akin to those in Byatt’s earlier collections, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and the brightly coloured The Matisse Stories. They display an affection for magic, for metamorphoses, for blood and ghostly doings.

A fascination with the supernatural is there in her novels but it is often subsumed, refigured into a peculiarly English Platonism. In Byatt’s major fictions there is evidence of that same visionary tradition that links her to writers as diverse as William Blake, Emily Bronte, D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. In The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, and even earlier works like The Shadow of the Sun, there is a mystical comprehension that both intrigues and provokes her as a creative artist, but from which she often retreats, such as when she apparently withdraws from characters like Marcus Potter in Babel Tower and Josh Lamb in The Whistling Woman, characters with dangerous and transcendent energies, characters she either normalizes or, finally, avoids.

In these shorter fictions, however, her responsibilities are less heavy and she, as writer, seems more buoyant. The supernatural is less hazardous, if not to her characters then to her larger ambitions.

In her Introduction to The Annotated Brothers Grimm (edited by Maria Tatar), Byatt writes that she acquired a hunger for fairy tales during the “dark days of the blackout and blitz in the second world war,” and the first of these five stories, “The Thing in the Forest,” begins at such a time. Two girls, wartime evacuees, play truant in the woods and come across:

a form […] between the trees. Its face—which was triangular—appeared like a rubbery or fleshly mask over a shapeless sprouting bulb of a head, like a monstrous turnip. Its colour was the colour of flayed flesh, pitted with wormholes, and its expression was neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery. Its most defined feature was a vast mouth, pulled down and down at the corners, tight with a kind of pain. Its lips were thin, and raised, like welts from whipstrokes. It had blind, opaque white eyes, fringed with fleshly lashes and brows like the feelers of sea-anemones. [p. 16]

Whatever it is the young girls see—phantom or dragon or mere hallucination—remembering it, naming it, coming to terms with what it might mean, will dominate and determine their lives, and will shape the stories they tell others.

Stories matter to Byatt because they are made of words. While intellectually aware that words are signs, she is even more deeply certain that words are also things, and she handles them in sentences that, sensuously and with due consideration, acknowledge their heft, their colour, their sound, their history.

This deep enjoyment—love, even—is one of the reasons she is such a rewarding writer for the patient reader (she seems interested in no other kind), but it can also lead to indulgent and mannered prose, almost to self-parody.

In the third story a woman turns slowly to stone. It is a sensuous piece of writing in the main, and it recalls the gothic tales of Isak Dinesen and, strange to realize it, Byatt’s former contemporary, Angela Carter. I think Byatt is the equal of either writer, but in Carter and Dinesen, the prose is seldom so high and fine that it condescends to the reader or disrupts the story solely to admire itself. At times, here, rather than absorbing for ourselves the impact it makes on us, we are thrown out of a story so as to ponder its minute making. We become not seduced by the craft, but suspicious of it, even resentful.

Ines, the slowly petrifying heroine of “The Stone Woman,” is a compiler of dictionaries, and is so, one suspects, not because the story demands it, but because it enables its author to write thus:

Reniform, mammilated, botryoidal, dendrite, haematite. Carnelian is from carnal, from flesh. Serpentine and lizardite are stone reptiles; phylllite is leafy green. The earth itself is made of bones, shells and diatoms. Ines was returning to it in a form quite different from her mother’s fiery ash and bonemeal. She preferred the parts of her body that were now volcanic gases, not bony chalk. Chabazite, from the Greek for hailstones, obsidian, which, like analcine and garnet, has the perfect icositetarahedral shape. [pp. 147-148]

What are we to do with this as readers, but admire the research that has provoked it into being? Without doubt, the paragraph is lovely. These are lovely words, lovingly understood, lovingly arranged, but they interrupt, as footnotes might; they inform, but they also distance us. The ideas they present lie on the surface of the text and, as the writing tutor in the last and best of these stories might observe, they tell rather than show what the writer intends, and telling is the lower art, the less generous to the reader, the less trusting.

Language is the only net with which we can hold the world, and Byatt patiently traces as many of its strands as she can. Few British novelists would have the boldness, the confidence or cause to use “icositetarahedral,” but is it there to reveal character, propel the narrative, involve the reader, or is it there to showcase the author, to insist on the theme, and so push the reader out of a created world to gawk at an unfamiliar word? We no longer experience the story but witness its author at work. Our attention slows to a standstill. This happens too often.

Yet I would recommend these tales to anyone. They are seductive, finely and nobly intelligent, beautifully worked: what is it about great writers writing at less than their best that makes us so grudging even when their lesser efforts far surpass the generality? These stories occasion delight. The description of the monster in “The Thing in the Woods,” the extraordinary metamorphosis of “The Stone Woman,” the work at the centre of “Body Art;” each of these is a tiny miracle, a fabulous set-piece.

From Possession onwards, Byatt’s novels can often seem a series of similar set-pieces, compelled into a whole by the author’s will, and her intimidating intelligence. The most recent of her novels, The Biographer’s Tale, seems almost wilfully piecemeal; only its binding seems to keep it together as a novel. A set-piece can displace the novel that contains it. These short stories are more buoyant, less weighed down by the responsibilities of answering to a larger narrative. Here the set-pieces glitter, surprise and entertain.

That said, the last story in this collection, “The Pink Ribbon,” is the most domestic, the least fabulous, and the most effective. A wry and satirical piece about the members of a writing class, it builds to a sudden and shocking conclusion that makes one ponder the purpose and manner of story-telling in ways none of the others do, because, alone among the stories, Byatt, as Writer, is least in evidence and, by withdrawing, she allows us to meditate on the story rather than merely witness it.



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