I wanted to like A.S. Byatt’s new book more than I did. Her Booker
Prize-winning 1991 novel Possession: A Romance–a semi-historical romance whose most passionate lovers are the author and the Victorian past she so convincingly conjures– is an impressive imaginative achievement. Not so Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, a collection of six short stories employing a wide variety of literary modes: domestic and psychological realism, fantasy, myth, fairy tale. With the exception of “Cold,” a compelling contemporary fairy tale, none of the stories collected here possess the magic of Possession.
Signs of trouble appear early–in the volume’s first, unfortunately titled story “Crocodile Tears.” Patricia, suddenly and unexpectedly widowed, flees her English life, seeking forgetfulness in the south of France. The title is asked to shoulder a heavy burden of symbolic significance, from Patricia’s inability to grieve for her dead husband to the fragments of Roman history that confront her as she wanders through Nîmes to the fellow mourner she encounters, a Norwegian fleeing his own burden of responsibility and guilt.
Well before this metaphoric weight accumulated, however, my own readerly reception defeated Byatt’s authorial intention, and I found myself laughing inappropriately at the description of Patricia’s body that appears in the story’s second paragraph: “She had good big breasts and a generous bottom, solid and lively.” The primly decorous noun “bottom” is bad enough, but when set in motion by the adverb “lively,” an unfortunate association formed in my mind. I recalled Nicolai Gogol’s satiric masterpiece “The Nose,” in which
a severed proboscis takes on a life of its own, and from that point on I could no longer take Patricia seriously. Byatt seldom meets an adjective or adverb she doesn’t like, and the result is often risible rather than revelatory.
Or stifling. “Lush” is a gross understatement when used to describe Byatt’s descriptive imagery. In “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” the main character (and authorial alter-ego) is an expatriate painter named Bernard, intoxicated by the shifting hues he observes while swimming in his pool:
…against the green hump the blue sky was one blue, and against the bald stone another, even when for a brief few hours it was uniformly blue overhead, that rich blue, that cobalt, deep-washed blue of the South, which fought all of the blues of the pool, all the green-tinged, duck-egg tinged blues of the shifting water. But the sky also had its greenish days, and its powdery-hazed days, and …
And so on.
Like the isolated individuals in all these stories, Byatt seems to be in retreat from the messy engagements of personal and social relations–and from the contemporary conditions that shape them. She finds her deepest satisfaction and solace in apprehensions and representations of sensuous beauty, and she favors works of art that transmute the temporal and the quotidian into the mythic and the strange. It is no wonder that the painter Bernard is inspired by a serpentine muse that takes up residence in his swimming pool (the “lamia” of the title), or that the union of the princess in “Cold” with a prince from a barren desert country is preserved by the creation of a magical “palace of art” that protects while utterly isolating its lovers.
Elementals is a pretty folio of a book. A painting by Edward Munch graces its front cover, and each of the six stories inside is framed by a reproduction of a precious art object or painting (Rembrandt, Valazquez, Matisse). Unfortunately its contents, like its packaging, teeter precariously over the abyss of the merely decorative.
Reviewed by James Diedrick
James Diedrick is Howard L. McGregor Professor of the Humanities at Albion College and author of Understanding Martin Amis (1995). He maintains the
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