Byatt & Augustus
Posted November 28, 2006on:
I do not re-read novels, as a rule. There are exceptions like some romance novels, the ballads in Lord of the Rings, the Turin story in Unfinished Tales or a Purple Hibiscus. These re-reads, except the romance, occur very occasionally and are of particular passages. From what I have read on litblogs this places me out-of-step with book lovers who profess to be as familiar as old friends with their favourites from beginning to end.
I do re-read poetry and sometimes short stories. The latter coerces me to indulge in a different type of re-reading. It is the kind where I have read something so profound–and by this I do not necessarily mean intellectually but the actual weight, intensity and immense presence of the prose–mysterious, so entrancing and tantalizing that I have to re-read it immediately in order to grasp its essence before the moment is lost. I experienced that with Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, a stories collection that was radically different from any kind of *fiction I was used to. The strength of the stories’s setting was such that I literally felt cold as I was taken into that deep rural American town in the middle of winter; and the stories themselves were like patches of the town and its inhabitants that slowly came together as you read.
…so…she pieced together the world of the novel in slow motion, like a jigsaw seen through thick, uneven glass, the colours and shapes hopelessly distorted, the cutting lines of the pieces the only clear image. This difficulty encouraged her to persist.
That is an excerpt from “Crocodile Tears”, the first story in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt. “She” is Patricia Nimmo, a recently widowed entrepreneur who impulsively left England for Europe after her husband’s death and temporarily fixed herself in Nîmes. In that passage she is struggling through A la recherche du temps perdu in French. It better describes my experience reading “Crocodile Tears” than anything of Monson.
Byatt’s narrative is conventional with none of the trappings to properly indicate anything “experimental”, yet at the end of my first reading I immediately started over. Her stories are a puzzle to me in a very academically intellectual way. The jigsaw pieces are linked mythological allusions embedded in the name of a bathroom company and the name of a town; of central themes linked to novels and plays mentioned; of personal history being echoed and reflected in a setting. It’s all terribly conventional when you think about it and I almost sighed in regret during the re-read when my sharpened focus unearthed clue after clue. What lifts it all above the banal and trodden is Byatt’s style, her individual essence as a novelist that sears into the pages and carries you along even if you have missed a theme or recurring image.
Patricia slept deeply, at first. She woke suddenly, from a confused dream of long corridors, lined with high glass cases. She went to the window. The square pane framed the huge liquid ball of the moon’s light, a full moon. The sky was spangled with stars. The light poured from the moon on to garden walls, and the great stone ball of geraniums, fiery in daylight, now silver-rose. The air-conditioning cranked and hummed. She put her forehead on the glass. A rhythm struggled to be remembered. ‘This case of that huge spirit now is cold.’ She moved her lively golden toes in the soft carpet and rubbed her face on the almost cold glass. When she opened the window, the night air was warm on her skin, though the moonlight was cold.
I have not finished my re-read so there are other parts of the puzzle that I have not put together yet and may not (perhaps should not) attempt to do so until I have finished or at least reached further into the collection. Byatt is careful in noting the bright, pale, deep colours around Patricia, the indigos, the lapis, the butter yellow or the golden stones of the Roman ruins. Her language is also **spatially conscious taking note of a character sitting at an angle, at how buildings are positioned and its effect, even in works of art. Then there is the role of memory and time in the story (of course, there is Proust) and the dazzling burn of the sun on Patricia’s frozen indifference.
There is so much to discuss and I have only touched the surface. Byatt loves to get those neurons firing.
It turns out that my other choice of reading, Architect of the Roman Empire, is a happy coincidence. Land lots in Nîmes, the tourist town Patricia Nimmo visited, were given to soldiers who had served Augustus Caesar in Egypt. It was a Roman colony and Augustus built many of the ruins that still survive. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra also features prominently throughout “Crocodile Tears” and, of course, Antony in particular had a great many dealings with Augustus.
There’s not much I can say about the book that I haven’t all ready. I am still getting along with it. Octavian has formed the second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus. The Battle of Philippi has come and gone, Cassius prematurely committed suicide and Brutus died like a true Roman. I gave a mirthless chuckle at Cassius’ suicide considering how diligently he had been moving on before, demanding way too much money from humbled provinces and showing up Brutus with his military force and discipline. Then poof! Antony’s forces moves in, poof! Cassius’ bites it.
Octavian then had to deal with power hungry Fulvia and foolhardy Lucius in battle. I now patiently await Antony’s reaction to all this chicanery.
It makes me wonder at HBO’s Rome casting. The actor who plays Cassius very much befits the role of a pragmatic politician but a respected military leader, more forceful than Brutus? Meh. The most irritating casting and character development for me was Cicero. Fine you think he’s an egotistical, self-absorbed coward but he was a brilliant orator and politician, a new man for heaven’s sake. The Cicero in Rome comes off as lackey, at best, tugging at the toga hem of Brutus and always coming up short. I’m finding it hard to believe that such a man, as they portray him, could have ever been a consul much less have written those famous philippics against Antony. It seems more likely that he would have written and told Brutus to orate.
*As I wrote that I thought of William Blake and his marriage of visual art to his poetry so, perhaps, the basic idea is not unique both my reaction to each is so dissimilar.
**This perspective is taken to more abstract heights in The Virgin in The Garden (which I’ve yet to finish, not because it isn’t excellent, mind you) where a character thinks and interprets his environs geometrically. It is the most amazing thing.