In fact I can't quite believe how this year's reading has launched itself. The chance arrival of Still Life and the the ' aaaaah....I get it' moment as I read the book, which was all enough to make me pick up The Virgin in the Garden, immediately I had finished. This the first in the quartet of books about life from the 1950s to the 1970s, and a book I had failed with miserably in the past. So I have now read over 1000 1300 1500 pages of A.S. Byatt in the last month despite planning a break, I mean surely this could get monotonous. I picked up number three, Babel Tower and thought I'd just read a few pages to see and quickly realised that I did need a break, but only from the quartet and some time to let two layers bed in before I added a third, so I picked up Possession instead ... 50 pages to go and savouring every word.
Reading out of sequence as I have said before has been fine in this instance, even perhaps to my advantage, and though it might be completely contrary to the orderly linear progress that my brain usually insists on. Knowing the future somehow made reading the past increasingly poignant, and of course I have to be careful not to give anything away here, but 'somehow' a young and naive Frederica has grief beyond her wildest nightmares coming her way, and as she lives the life of a clever, ebullient, superficially confident teenager in The Virgin in the Garden I couldn't help but wonder how 'what happens next' in Still Life is going to affect her in Babel Tower.
I've encountered a loss akin to Frederica's at that age too, and almost thirty-seven years on I can look back and know that I could never have anticipated when and how that loss might surface in my life, or ambush me unexpectedly, or identify the life course it may have unwittingly set me on, all of which I can see with greater clarity now, so I am always intrigued to see what a writer does with such a situation.
So The Virgin in the Garden is set in the 1950s. Post-war England is about to crown a new monarch, and with much celebration after the austerity of the 1940s, all eagerly embraced by a nation 'starved of colour'.
Young Frederica Potter, in her final year at school and awaiting exam results that may or may not take her to Cambridge, is busy vying for a leading role in Alexander Wedderburn's Elizabethan play Astraea to be performed as part of the shenanigans. Whilst Frederica's intellect suggests learning and knowledge beyond her years, her emotional maturity is age-appropriate making life confusing when you think you know it all, but actually you know very little. ASB explores every avenue as Frederica works hard to make sense of her world.
Meanwhile older sister Stephanie is considering marriage to the curate Daniel Orton, offering a perfect opportunity for some literary exploration of faith. Daniel, lumbering, clumsy in both action and word, a blunt Yorkshireman... 'a heavy shepherd in a surplice' who has developed for himself a variety of a workable faith that does not quite sit comfortably with the church that employs him... but it helps him survive and fulfill the role as he sees it of a 'glorified social worker.' It also makes his marriage to a non-believing Stephanie entirely feasible, the Bishop gives his permission and they plight their trothes. With the confirmation of a pregancy in the fullness of time and propriety there comes plenty of scope for Madonna and Annunciation analogies which ASB again explores to the full.
And troubled Potter brother Marcus, shadowy and mentally fragile in Still Life, well all is explained here along with some vivid descriptions of his mental aberrations and their possible causes. Talking of 'causes' there have to be culpable parents in the blame frame, and the bloody-minded Bill Potter and his timid wife Winifred carry the load.
Naturally a great deal more than that happens in the 566 pages and once again I surfed along, and frequently precariously balanced on a wave of unknowing. Mythology and Elizabethan allegory abound here along with a fine juxtaposition of the two Elizabethan eras, and I can't go on blaming my education for the gaping lacuna in my knowledge. I'm sure some poor teacher somewhere tried very hard and doubtless I just wasn't paying attention, and I have had enough time since to fill it after all.
I wonder sometimes whether it is too late for me to start with mythology , and if not with which book? Do you have any suggestions??
But I also wonder whether mythology is still best discovered as a child when a readily triggered sense of wonder, along with a vivid imagination and suspended belief are unwittingly on your team. A.S.Byatt, prefers to be seen as a writer who happens to have been an academic (rather than the other way around) and has an authorial imagination that takes her off on all manner of connections and tangents, gathered and gleaned I sense from a lifetime of reading for pleasure as much as from that acadaemia, and I skipped along in her wake making the most of them and occasionally creating my own, which I think is definitely allowed and encouraged in a book like this.
With her happy knack of taking the reader into a room, locating them within the surroundings with some lush description, lashings of colour and touchable textiles, the reader can expect ASB to settle them unobtrusively on the sofa (because it really does feel as if you are there) and then to sit and observe for themselves whilst attention is paid to her characters and their lives. For room, also read shop, church, school laboratory, bedsit, stately pile, just about anywhere becomes familiar.
Take the the butcher's shop for example. Three pages of the most vivid description that had me smelling the shop and remembering being six years old, my shoes messing about and making swirly patterns with the sawdust on the floor while the butcher wrapped things like liver and hearts in that white paper which we could have for drawing on later if it wasn't too messy, and my mum paid over at the till window (because the butcher never touched the money)..
'...the display counter was lined and fringed with emerald green artificial grass. On this miniature meadow capered various folklorique figures and mythical creatures. A grinning cardboard pig, poised on one trotter, bore on its forelegs a platter of steaming sausages. It was covered, possibly for decency's sake with a blue and white striped apron, and wore a tall, white three-dimensional chef's cap, at a rakish angle...'
Bookhound on the other hand, when asked, can only remember going into the butcher's shop and asking for the eyes which they would then throw against the tiled walls to make them stick and slide down... what is it they say little boys are made of ??
But this is the writer who observes on the reader's behalf allowing the reader to become alive to the detail... at minimum it's like being an invisible house guest or a shopping companion, at full tilt it's nothing short of incredible and I am emerging from each book with my head awash with ideas and connections and things I want to know much more about.
Then there are the words, plenty of them that yet again, as in Still Life, I don't quite know the meaning of and have to look up immediately...pusillanimous (lacking courage) and eidetic...
'of, pertaining to, or constituting visual imagery vividly experienced and readily reproducible with great accuracy and in great detail.'
Perfect word to describe this book as an experience.
And what about grutching ... seldom used word derived from grudging, to look upon with desire to possess, and how about steatopygus ... an extreme accumulation of fat on the buttocks, see you learn things here.
But now I have been devouring Possession and wondering quite how and why I had failed with it before, yet I know it was because I baulked at the italics and the poetry, took the book on a long-haul flight at p127 when all that begins and just couldn't make it work at altitude or floating around in the heat of the Caribbean sun. Sitting in front of my fire on a cold, grey winter's afternoon and it is almost perfection, so much so that I can't bear it to end and have made the last hundred pages last for days... do you know that feeling with a book??
I think I'm just going to tag these posts The Byattitudes and be done with it, supreme blessedness indeed these books are.