My 2012 resolution to occasionally glance backwards at the books radiating that quiet glow of longevity from the shelves, rather than being constantly distracted by the bright sparkly new things arriving every week was, in part, ordained by the arrival of a copy Still Life by A.S.Byatt a couple of weeks before Christmas. The Reader magazine's mystery book for me to read and offer a verdict on for the Reader's Connect feature in the next edition.
Well I looked and I'll admit to a little tiny inward groan at the 434 pages, but only a little one because I was actually quite pleased that someone was 'making' me read it at last. I am honoured to have been invited to take part in this series for The Reader, they have sent me some real challenges. and it will be wonderful piece by The Reader editor Phil Davies that will launch the dovegreyreader Dickens and I series next week.
I had an old yellowing unread copy of Still Life already. Bought back in the 1980s and those child-bearing days of brain mush, when I was probably thinking that to read A.S.Byatt might be good for my mind, at the time in need of some serious upgrading. I knew little about A.S.Byatt either, but the name alone sounded 'improving'. But there it sat, and slowly a quartet of books emerged. I had a go at The Virgin in The Garden in that first flush of ASB success after reading and loving The Children's Book followed by ASB's (we are moving to initials, hope that's OK with you all) sojourn in the dovegreyreader asks...armchair which after all had surely left us best friends. The failure was spectacular, twice I read to page sixty and twice I lapsed but now I discover that for me Still Life is the way in to this series.
I have spent too long thinking about the title too...Still Life...Still Life...Still Life..
The gifted and very intelligent Potter sisters. Stephanie nursing a hard-earned literature degree but all seemingly sacrificed in her marriage to the curate Daniel, the Parish, a faith which she doesn't share, a first pregnancy, the mother-in-law from hell and the mixed up younger brother, whilst younger sister Frederica is foot-loose and fancy free and just embarking on her own university life at Newnham in Cambridge.
This is the mid 1950s and here's the dilemma...
'Surely, surely it was possible, she said to herself in a kind of panic, to make something of one's life and be a woman.'
Frederica is having a fair old stab at it, Stephanie meanwhile is trapped and her family Christmas says it all..
'Sentence by meaningless sentence they held the occasion together.'
and here's a dinner to die for...
'In the kitchen, Stephanie struggled with the turkey, bloated and slithering in its fatty dish. Her face glistened with heat and effort...she felt every housewife's fury when the guests could not be got to the table and the food was ready. She felt irritable, tearful, contemned. She carried in sprouts and potatoes and smiled and smiled.'
It's not a typo, the word is contemn and it is indicative of something I love about A.S.Byatt's writing. Words like contemn and quiddity and declivity and plangent...words that I don't quite know the exact meaning of, but words which display something that ASB explores in much more depth throughout the book. The understanding and interpretation a reader will bring to bear on the writer's art of choosing exactly the right words needed to paint the picture the writer intends. Precision requires the writer to 'exclude and evoke' as they share the vision, and because parts of Still Life focus on Frederica's au pairing job in Provence, Gauguin and Van Gogh country, the Impressionist's paintings feature heavily. The perfect canvas for that permeation of colour that I loved so much in The Children's Book.
I suddenly yearned for a Paris Review Interview with ASB and when the published volumes 1- 4 yielded nothing I was delighted to find one from 1998 with Philip Hensher available online. Now don't read it if you don't want to read a great big spoiler for Still Life which I have avoided telling you, but this spoiler-free extract really resonated with me.
"I think the names of colors are at the edge between where language fails and where it’s at its most powerful. One of the things I noticed when I was working a lot on van Gogh in Still Life was how he doesn’t decline his color adjectives. It is as though all the colors remained things. So if you’re talking about quelque chose blanche he just leaves it as blanc.
Apparently you’re allowed to do this because it isn’t quite clear whether they are nouns or adjectives. That in itself is very beautiful. I also read and reread Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color in which he asks how do we know when we say red that we mean the same thing? There are no guarantees, in a way, that if you write something people will read what you wrote. I used to go round the department when I was teaching at UCL, when I was writing Still Life, and try out not the big color words but the little color words. There’s a particular very subtle English language expert and I would say to her, If I put in malachite, what do you see? She’d say, I haven’t the slightest idea, and she didn’t know what ocher was, or gamboge, or viridian. Those people who do will have a completely different experience of what I’ve written from those who don’t."
I have to concentrate hard when I read a book by ASB.
Speed is the enemy.
I have to be prepared to brake and re-read.
I have to think.
I expect to be challenged.
Still Life is interwoven with literary references, it felt intellectually rigourous and inquisitive but carried me along on a very inclusive wave... I felt as if my mind had been elevated to somewhere different and rather extraordinary by the end. A world beyond my ken but one which I had stepped into as if I knew it and belonged there
I have barely mentioned what happens because it would seem unnecessary to reduce a brilliant novel to its denominator of plot when there is so much more to focus on, but expect a rich and lusciously involving mix of the provincial and the rarified intellectual life as the two sisters tread their differing paths, and also be ready for that most devastating moment of which I will say no more. Except I will say that having read in that interview wherein ASB suggests her aim was for that event to "be one of the central consciousnesses, so that the reader will be upset"... as if it had really happened... well I thought it had and I was...very.
So I have dashed headlong into The Virgin in the Garden in a strange sort of deja vue time warp because now of course I know the characters and I know their futures, all of which I can now blend in with their pasts as they prepare to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Not how I would normally choose to read a series of books, but it is working like a dream so far. I am way beyond page sixty.
I know there are hordes of fellow A.S.Byatt-ians out there, but if you haven't been tempted in yet and fancy making a start, I don't think you could go wrong with Still Life.