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Alexa Alfer and Amy J. Edward de Campos, A.S. Byatt; Critical Storytelling, ‘Contemporary British Novelists’

Eileen Williams-Wanquet
p. 149-154
Référence(s) :

Alfer, Alexa and Edward de Campos, Amy J., A.S. Byatt; Critical Storytelling, ‘Contemporary British Novelists’, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010, xiii + 194 p., 57 €.

Texte intégral

1If this monograph on A.S. Byatt’s work (that comes just after Susana Onega’s monograph on Jeanette Winterson in the ‘Contemporary British Novelists’ series) can be added to a long list of critical work on Byatt’s fiction (including unpublished doctoral theses), it clearly integrates, re-works, and adds to previous criticism. Indeed, the eight pages of selected reviews and, especially, the fifteen pages of selected criticism of Byatt’s fiction offer an almost exhaustive list of all that has been published on the author—be it in the form of monographs, of articles in scholarly journals (for example, Critique, Connotations, Q/W/E/R/T/Y, or Études britanniques contemporaines) of collections of essays, of chapters in books, etc.—both in Europe and in the USA. The biographical timeline and the almost exhaustive bibliography of Byatt’s work—which includes both her (collected and uncollected) fictional and non-fictional works, the books she has edited, and the interviews she has given—make this monograph a precious reference work.

2The monograph covers all Byatt’s career as a writer to date, including her journalism and critical writings—notably, Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (1991), and, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (2000)—to show how her literary and critical productions are inextricably linked. In what is an overview of all Byatt’s œuvre, shying away from biographical criticism, Alexa Alfer and Amy Edwards de Campos offer close readings of her major works, which are not treated in strictly chronological order, but are rather analysed according to the central theme and aesthetic concern of ‘critical storytelling’, seen as ‘constant’ this sets her work in cultural, literary and critical contexts, both past and present. The focus is, throughout, on Byatt’s engagement with realism, on her attempt to reconcile the competing forces of the ‘two poles of the representational spectrum’, which are variously referred to as: mimetic fiction/autotelic metaphor, mimeticism/formalism, life/art, reality/imagination, truth/fantasy, objectivity/subjectivity, science/art, old traditional realistic allegiance/new modernist literary experimentation, experience/thought, things/words, socially committed realism/holistically inspired symbolism, plain referential language/figurative language, or Victorianism/Romanticism, as embodied, respectively, by F.R. Leavis and T.S Eliot. The authors argue that Byatt’s œuvre can be generally read as a defence of realist prose in the face of critical post-structuralist caveats, coupled, however, with an acute consciousness of the philosophical and formal difficulties of the realist project, making her the ‘self-conscious’ realist she claims to be.

3The second chapter (the introduction makes up the first chapter) compares the themes of Byatt’s early critical writing on storytelling with the characters’ discourse in the first two novels, The Shadow of the Sun (1964) and The Game (1967), which both place writers at the centre of their plots. The first novel, thematically a coming-of-age story, is read as a ‘fictional diagnosis of a specific historical state of affairs’, namely the historical split between Romanticism and realism. The second is presented as self-consciously staging the tension between the need to tell the truth and the inevitability of fantasy, symbolised by the two entwined metaphors of glass and serpent, dramatised through the story of two sisters, and summarised by an entry in a character’s journal: ‘I live in two worlds. One is . . . the tyranny of objects . . . One dreams of a release into that world of pure vision’.

4The third chapter, which continues to examine Byatt’s ‘deliberate commingling’ of abstract thought and fiction and of reading and writing, focuses chronologically on the first two of the tetralogy of condition-of-England novels known as the Quartet (which trace the lives and times of a cast of characters from 1953 to the early 1970s): The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985). The authors examine the narrative techniques used—narratorial comment on the genesis of the narrative, multiple temporal perspectives, symbolism, and intertextual references to Wordsworth and to T.S. Eliot, are shown to merge with realistic dilemmas—to write what Byatt herself has termed ‘a historical novel’, with time as its subject, the realistic plot reflexively offering a meditation upon the history of modernity. Still Life is read as proof of Byatt’s continued preoccupation with the problems of the ‘real’ in fiction, as the characters’ words and thoughts echo meta-fictional self-appraisal, to debate on the possibility of writing representational prose with no figurative language. Metaphor finally emerges as an integral part of representational language, the only way of describing human existence that is nevertheless essentially a matter of flesh and blood.

5Chapter Four breaks this chronological study, as the authors now choose to leap over eleven years—which had marked a ‘shift in style and thematic emphasis from Byatt’s pre-1990 work to Possession and its satellite fictions’—to continue with the third and fourth volumes of the Quartet: Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002). The authors convincingly argue that, contrary to what most critics have ascertained, Byatt neither eschewed her initial concern with the problems of realism, nor simply returned to more traditional narrative forms with these two novels, which are interpreted as offering new postmodern perspectives on the old subject of the ‘real’. Babel Tower’s experimental techniques—pastiche, quotation, embedded narratives, mixing of genres, collage, historical references, broken threads, ruptured textures—mirror the contemporary breakdown of language in a world beset by moral doubt and fragmented identity. Byatt’s engagement with the Twentieth-Century crises of language is paralleled by her growing interest in the relationship between the constructivist notion of a textually ordered reality and the contrasting scientific perspective of an inherent ordered reality, linguistic chaos being ‘countered by the recurrent image of a universal language of the genes’ and contained by the novel as form. A Whistling Woman is seen as building on this preoccupation with the construction of identity by fictionally exploring the different narrative forms (Byatt sees neo-Darwinian scientific narrative as replacing religious or humanistic paradigms in the contemporary world), which genetically-determined human beings use to shape their lives.

6Chapter Five turns to Possession (1990), generally interpreted by critics as representing a dramatic change of direction in the work of a novelist so far reputed to be traditionally minded, due to its self-reflexive playful postmodern style, full of intertexts and embedded stories, and foregrounding questions of (meta-) historical representation, so typical of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The authors point out that this novel also includes traditional narrative techniques, such as the use of a third-person narrator, a romance plot, a sense of place and character, and an emphasis on sensuous experience. Going against the grain of most critical interpretations, their view is that Byatt is neither abandoning her former concern with realist fiction by celebrating parody and pastiche, nor deliberately using avant-garde postmodern devices to criticise postmodernism in a sort of nostalgic traditionalism: setting Possession firmly within the context of Byatt’s long-term artistic concerns, they argue that the novel aims at establishing a continuity (the opposite of the ‘anxiety of influence’) between nineteenth- and late twentieth-century fiction, overtly realised through the interweaving of the two story-lines. The past is thus recuperated and given a new voice. The ‘satellite’ fairy tales, myths, fables and folk tales—Sugar (1987), Angels and Insects (1992), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1995), Elementals (1998), and the Little Black Book of Stories (2003)—are treated in the same chapter (fairytales forming an integral part of Possession), to suggest that ‘the novel’s emphasis on reading . . . suggests consideration of the fairytales as an invitation to the reader to ponder a facet of storytelling’, namely the surprising affinities between the realist tradition and the fantastical world of tales. Indeed, Byatt’s fairytales are injected with realism, just as her realistic stories contain fairytale touches, to offer a ‘heady mix of realism and fantasy’, recognising both a universal pattern in the mess of an individual lived life, and the possibility of revisionism through narrative.

7The sixth chapter groups The Children’s Book (2009), The Biographers’ Tale (2000), and Angels and Insects (1992), to further examine how Byatt intermingles the fairytale form and conventional realist narrative to comment on the world and to reflect on the role of literature and on human identity. For example, ‘Dragon’s Breath’ and ‘The Thing in the Woods’ blend elements of realism and fantasy to give a mythical form to the chaos of war. The Children’s Book intermingles real and imaginary worlds: despite being rooted in Edwardian reality and narrated in a didactic realist mode, it references and resembles the nightmarish aspect of the world of myth and fairytale. Generally speaking, the use of the fairytale form is taken to be a way of rebelling against the classical novel’s humanistic idea of selfhood and personal autonomy, as it shows striking similarities with the scientific discourses of neo-Darwinism and eco-criticism, which perceive human beings as genetically-determined species. Yet, it is suggested that Byatt’s species-consciousness is part of a complex exploration of how far humans can understand and change the various narratives that control them, literature being perceived as the voice of a collective culture.

8The last chapter offers an exploration of Byatt’s role as ‘public intellectual’, in order to illuminate the fundamental concept of ‘critical storytelling’ through the prism of her art and literary criticism, journalism and cultural studies. Be it in the form of essays, interviews, radio discussions, art and literary criticism, Byatt’s critical thought has gone hand in hand with her fiction from the start. The picture that emerges is that of a curious and eclectic intelligence that crosses disciplinary boundaries, and rejects academic debates in favour of more interactive dialogue. The authors defend Byatt against the accusation of being resistant to post-structuralist critical theory, arguing that her open-minded approach to theory rejects political correctness. They also refuse to see her as too donnish and cerebral, pointing out her openness towards public debate and her interest in art and in new British writers, in whom she perceives ‘an increasingly global outlook’ and a vision of a ‘post-humanist history’. Byatt is thus firmly set in history and shown to be acutely aware of and actively engaged in all the cultural and critical concepts of her time.

9This monograph convincingly offers a vision of Byatt’s whole œuvre, from 1964 to 2009, as being unified by a continued reflection on the complicated nature of representative art, the tradition of storytelling, and the nature of human identity, a reflection that both incorporates and defies all ‘politically-correct’ literary, cultural and theoretical trends—be it Leavisite enlightenment humanist values, twentieth-century anti-humanist crises of language history and identity, or the more recent post-humanist scientific discourses of neo-Darwinism and eco-criticism. In a work that itself attempts to break free from the strictures of the ‘either-or’ dichotomies that have dominated literary criticism throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, Alexa Alfer and Amy J. Edwards de Campos provide a reading of Byatt’s œuvre as informed by a thoughtful fusional ‘both-and’ attitude, rising above all traditional old realism/new experiment dichotomies, and stressing fiction’s capacity to function as a meeting-place of two opposing but connected ways of thinking. In Byatt’s ongoing reflection on (in the writer’s own terms) ‘the problems of the real in fiction, and the adequacy of words to describe it’, the complex idea of identity that emerges from her œuvre is neither simply existentialist, nor purely constructed, or irrevocably biologically-determined—narrative emerges as a source of freedom, as a force that can help to understand and thus affect both biological and discursive forces. The authors conclude that Byatt was in advance of her time, noting that she ‘sits ever more comfortably on the map of contemporary British fiction’ than she had done in the 1960s and 1970s, as writers ‘gravitate back towards storytelling’, revising historicism, representationalism and notions of identity in the light of avant-garde notions, working towards a ‘re-association of sensibility’. Indeed, this is perhaps the hallmark of the postmodern times of which this monograph is itself a product.

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Eileen Williams-Wanquet, « Alexa Alfer and Amy J. Edward de Campos, A.S. Byatt; Critical Storytelling, ‘Contemporary British Novelists’ », Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 149-154.

Référence électronique

Eileen Williams-Wanquet, « Alexa Alfer and Amy J. Edward de Campos, A.S. Byatt; Critical Storytelling, ‘Contemporary British Novelists’ », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2015, consulté le 21 novembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2355

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Eileen Williams-Wanquet

Université de La Réunion.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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