A. S. Byatt

I stated yesterday that I was in a pensive mood all day. Well, a part of that mood was inspired by the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another part was inspired by the author A. S. Byatt, and a third was inspired by J. Kaye’s post on her 365 Days of Novel Writing. My entry today will focus on what I have learned from A. S. Byatt.

As many of you know, I read her most recent novel, The Children’s Book, a few weeks ago and was so enamored with the storyline and writing style that I found it difficult to write a review. This was my first Byatt book and I immediately felt the need to read another. Possession has not only received many accolades from the book blogger community, but it also won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 1990. I decided that this should my next Byatt read.
To be honest, I have not made it past the prologue, and I am already deeply affected by her writing. In the edition that I received from my local library, Byatt actually writes a detailed introduction to her own work. I quickly learned to admire this amazing woman – not only for her literary talent, but for her ability to juggle all aspects of life. She is a mother, and professor, and a writer. To that end, she must set aside time each day to spend quality time with her children, quality time to research and organize lesson plans, quality time to grade papers, quality time to read (for all authors must read!) and quality time to write her own works of fiction. When I assimilated this information, I quickly realized that I have no excuse! My children are nearly grown, my grading is nowhere near her course load, my course research is at a much younger level, and my lack of personal time is nothing but a bunch of whining! If A. S. Byatt can accomplish all she has done in her lifetime (and she is still going strong), then there is no reason why I cannot begin to follow my own dreams.
Here are a few quotes from that introduction that so greatly inspired me. Perhaps they will also inspire you:
Perhaps the most important thing to say about my books,” remarked Byatt, “is that they try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people. I admire – am excited by – intellectual curiosity of any kind (scientific, linguistic, psychological) and also by literature as a complicated, huge, interrelating pattern. I also like recording small observed facts and feelings. I see writing and thinking as a passionate activity, like any other.” (pages ix – x)
Later in the introduction she continually compares the writing of a novel to the plan for a painting.
“The urGestalt of Possession was a grey cloudy web, ghostly and spidery, to do with the ghostliness and connectedness of the original idea….I imagined my text as a web of scholarly quotations and parodies through which the poems and writings of the dead should loom at the reader, to be surmised and guessed at.” (page xii)

“….there is a Gothic plot, I thought, of violence and skulduggery. The Gestalt got more lurid, purple, black, vermilion, with flying white forms.” (page xii – xiii)

“….I had been thinking a lot about the pleasure principle in art. Art does not exist for politics, or for instruction – it exists primarily for pleasure, or it is nothing. It can do the other things if it gives pleasure, as Coleridge knew, and said. And the pleasure of fiction is narrative discovery, as it was easy to say about television serials and detective stories, but not, in those days, about serial novels.” (page xiii)

“….The Gestalt in my mind changed colour and form and became delicious – all green and gold, the colours of Tennyson illustrations in my mind as a child, of dream landscapes, of childhood imaginings of a world brighter and more jewel-like than this one.” (page xiv)
I am sure that reading this introduction, while at the same time completing The Swan Thieves, which also focuses on the painting as a predominant art form in the novel, has heightened my senses and awareness to this line of thinking. While it is so easy for me to fall back into the “poor pitiful me” scenario — realizing that I have no chance to truly master any intellectual pursuit given my age (I have so much that I want to read, so much that I want to learn about art appreciation, so much that I wish to experiment in creative writing) – I need to realize that I do have several years ahead of me (the good Lord willing) and I need to make the best use of that time. A. S. Byatt has truly made the best sense of the time she has had available, and I find her to be a true inspiration.


  • Caroline Starr Rose

    I have read no other Byatt works but have read POSSESSION twice. It is utterly amazing: the storyline, the paralleled romances, the literary creations of the fictitous characters, the light humorous moments thrown in the midst of gut-wrenching heartache, the comments on academia, and THE WRITING.

    I could crawl up inside this one and live happily ever after, language-wise.

  • Becky

    I read Possession some time ago. She is definitely an amazing author and the book is definitely a work of art, but I am going to have to be honest and say that I didn't really enjoy the book. I seem to be the odd man out. I just found that it was too hard work, too drawn out. The story didn't grab me at all. But the writing is amazing, and the author herself I agree is an inspiration in that sense.


    I just saw the movie adapted from this novel and I liked it a lot but I've never read the book. I'll give it a try as soon as I find a copy. Thanks Molly for sharing your impressions so thoroughfully.

  • Danielle

    She seems like a pretty amazing woman, doesn't she? I really must read The Children's Book this year. I read Possession ages ago and that's a book that could easily be reread!

  • Belle

    Thank you for such an inspiring post, Molly. I haven't put any time to my fiction writing since those deadlines of mine piled up on me. Your post is a great reminder to me to re-focus, and remember what it is that I want to accomplish.

  • kikiv68

    Thanks Molly for such a deep entry. I have never read anything by this author but I can't wait and get the book. You talk about how this makes you think about your dreams…My question to you is: What are those dreams that you talk about? Remember it's never too late!

  • ds

    I loved Possession and must get to The Children's Book. I'm glad you cited those passages from the introduction–they are indeed inspiring!
    Please don't be so hard on yourself; you have so much going on in your own life!

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