The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Lamia in the Cévennes – A.S. Byatt

Posted on: December 7, 2006

Let us pretend it is *Wednesday, shall we?

The visual plays a heightened role in the stories of Elementals. The descriptions of the settings are intentionally vivid, detailed, with particular attention paid to colour. Bernard Lycett-Kean, the main character in Lamia, is a painter and is more engaged with the palette of his surroundings. The author’s effort of creating of this visual work made me work a bit harder than I usually would to create the physical settings in my mind, which was pleasurable.

The strength of the visual impact of the settings is aided by Bernard’s intense relationship with them. He left “Thatcher’s Britain…a land of dog-eat-dog, lung-coroding ozone and floating money” of the mid-1980’s for a “small stone-house, on the Cévenol hillside”, in solitude. He found that his reactions to the varying extreme weathers, and the general atmosphere, the “air and” light” of his locale made him less reliant on alcohol than he had first presumed. He battled with the weather elements on his terrace.

He battled with the colour blue. There is a combative element to his growing obsession with the blue that he observed in that particular French countryside, but the concentrated focus had an element of enchantment. He hired two men to build a swimming-pool by his house and took his fascination with blue to another level.

The pool was blue, a swimming-pool blue, lined with a glittering tile mosaic, and with a mosaic dolphin cavorting amiably in its depths, a dark blue dolphin with a pale blue eye. It was not a boring rectangular pool, but an irregular oval triangle, hugging the contour of the terrace on which it lay. It had a white stone rim, moulded to the hand, delightful to touch when it was hot in the sun.

He studied how colours were reflected in it, below and on the surface, how it changed according to depth, and how figures were affected it. He was desperate to know and capture its essence, to understand it to own it.

He swam more and more, trying to understand the blue, which was different when it was under the nose, ahead of the eyes, over and around the sweeping hands and the flickering toes and the groin and the armpits and the hairs of his chest, which held bubbles of air for a time. His shadow in the blue moved over a pale eggshell mosaic, a darker blue, with huge paddle-shaped hands. The light changed, and with it, everything.

By extension he was sensitive to the medium for the colour, the water. It in itself beguiled and entranced, becoming the object of his keen observation.

The wind changed the surface, frilled and furred it, flecked it with diamond drops, shirred it and made a witless patchwork of its place…the more he swam, the more the glassy hills and valleys chopped and changed and ran back on each other.

All this was the perfect set up for the Lamia’s appearance. Besides that, most of Byatt’s (and her fiction in general) feature unfailingly intense characters, involved in their work. For Patricia Nimmo, “Crocodile Tears” (a story on which I must post some more) she was absorbed in, encased in her own grief. She took on the project of reading Proust but with barrier of the language and more importantly her misery she did not experience or form and relationship with it.

Despite its help to the story structure, I became mildly irritated because I could not understand where it was coming from. How long was he going to dwell on this and what was the point? Amusingly at that exact moment Bernard himself questioned the reasons and the source of his endeavour. He figured he could be making a better, more productive and worthwhile use of his time, and he could surely stop this nonsense whenever he wanted to. His own answer to himself was that he could not. He could not. The implacability behind his words convinced me.

Ironically the water purifiers placed in his pool by the builders caused a foul stench to rise from the pool. It became bubbly and a weird scum formed on the surface. As he swam he left a white, dirty trail behind him. This immediately brought the Lamia back to mind. For some reason I even thought that some snakes left an icky trail of some kind, but after fervent googling I only learnt that some snakes in Kenya leave a trail of teeth. Not really what I was thinking of; I probably got the idea from some bad horror movie. Further foreshadowing of the being increase from here on, from the manner in which the pool water is emptied into the nearby river to the “boa constrictor of the heavy, black plastic pipe”.

I’ll end here for now, and do the second part either later today or tomorrow. I need to read Lamia by Keats to place the story in a better mental frame. I leave you with two paintings by David Hockney, an artist mentioned in the story for obvious reasons as you shall glean from a couple of his works: Portrait of Nick Wilder and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures) respectively.

hockney.jpg pool-2-figures.jpg

* My roommate coerced me into watching Spanglish with him last night. Both of our heads hurt after the ordeal.

3 Responses to "Lamia in the Cévennes – A.S. Byatt"

Have you read Byatt’s collection The Matisse Stories? Lots of color influence and, of course, props to Matisse.

I haven’t. I didn’t even know that they existed, which is shocking. I am not a fan of Matisse but I can appreciate all that modern art filtered through the stories of Byatt. Thanks for mentioning it.🙂

[…] reminded me of a couple of her stories in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, specifically her Lamia in the Cevennes. Again we have the prominence of a pool with an unfamiliar sea creature, and a siren, this time the […]

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