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Time, Space, Ethics

Material and Geographical Intertextualities in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

Barbara Franchi
Traduction de Irene Reginato
p. 121-141

Résumés

Dans Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998), Byatt mélange éléments naturels et couleurs complémentaires, géographie, textes, œuvres d’art et expériences humaines que celles-ci ont générées. Les trois premiers récits se penchent sur la rencontre interculturelle ; Elementals définit les identités spécifiques se trouvant au carrefour entre cet enchevêtrement et les conséquences matérielles qu’il produit sur les personnages qui agissent sur lui. À partir d’une perspective combinant approche intertextuelle et néo-matérialiste, cet article montre que les personnages de Byatt doivent voyager vers le Sud et s’immerger dans une culture étrangère pour pouvoir définir leur sentiment d’appartenance (ou de non-appartenance) à leur pays natal. En ce sens, les échos à des ouvrages du canon européen, tels qu’Anthony and Cleopatra de Shakespeare (dans “Crocodile Tears”), les poèmes de Baudelaire et de Keats (dans “A Lamia in the Cévennes”) et les contes de fées d’Andersen (dans “Cold”) entrent en dialogue avec les éléments naturels – eau, pierres, feu, glace – afin de définir les trajectoires Nord-Sud des récits. Pour les protagonistes, toujours très intelligents et brillants (une collectionneuse d’art, un peintre, une princesse scientifique), les liens qui se tissent entre textes, arts et matériaux ne se traduisent jamais dans des expériences passives, mais constituent, en revanche, des rencontres formatives et définitives avec la matière elle-même. L’intertextualité s’étend donc vers la « transposition » (Braidotti) et la « transcorporalité » (“transcorporeality” ; Alaimo), injectant des aspects spatiaux et corporels dans le dialogue interculturel engagé par l’interaction avec les textes. Un aspect fondamental de cette intertextualité matérielle est constitué par les topoï de la femme-serpent, de la femme de pierre, ou de celle de glace. Incarnant l’héritage mythologique des expériences féminines de l’amour, de l’accouchement, du vieillissement et du deuil, Patricia Nimmo (“Crocodile Tears”) et Fiammarosa (“Cold”) éprouvent un sentiment d’aliénation vis-à-vis du Sud, tout en l’ayant d’abord choisi pour fuir leur quotidien domestique. C’est seulement le retour à la maison (dans “Crocodile Tears”), ou le compromis élémentaire entre le froid de la glace et la chaleur du désert (“Cold”), qui leur offrent le soulagement nécessaire pour fuir la cyclicité du corps féminin. En revanche, dans “Lamia”, Bernard Lycett-Kean rencontre le paradigme du chimérique féminin : non pas dans son propre corps, mais dans celui de l’éponyme Lamia, qui devient sa muse et l’objet de son amour platonique. En refusant l’union sexuelle avec elle, Bernard garde la liberté niée aux femmes et parvient à accepter pleinement la France en tant que patrie d’adoption, justement parce qu’il l’envisage à travers l’art matériel. En conclusion, le mouvement du Nord familier au Sud, tour à tour aliénant ou confortable, ouvre des carrefours intertextuels aux éléments naturels et à leurs incarnations ; ces potentialités restent pourtant limitées par les normes rigides des différences de genre.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
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1In the wake of the critical acclaim and global success of Possession: A Romance (1990), the 1990s were the most prolific period of A. S. Byatt’s career. This decade established her reputation as an acute writer of long and short fiction alike, to the point where three of her six collections date back to that period. Following her colossal novel Babel Tower (1996), the third instalment of her Frederica Potter Quartet, and the critical dialogues/essays Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers (1995; with Ignes Sôdrè), Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) was Byatt’s last book to appear before the start of the new millennium. With its combined approach of realism and fantastic elements, it revitalises threads recurring throughout Byatt’s oeuvre such as the fairy tale, previously explored in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), and in her translation of Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy’s “Le Serpentin Vert” (“The Great Green Worm”) for Wonder Tales: Six Stories of Enchantment (1994), the project of rediscovery of France’s seventeenth-century female fairy tale writers spearheaded by Marina Warner.

  • 1 “Baglady” was published in the Daily Telegraph (15 January 1994); “A Lamia in the Cévennes” appeare (...)

2Containing six stories, five of which appeared in print in the previous four years, Elementals crystallizes Byatt’s writing style as one preoccupied with both the power and pleasure of storytelling and the impact of the arts on the life cycles of humans, and especially women.1 The collection therefore represents the culmination of the variety of interests, genres and intellectual directions that Byatt pursued throughout her prior writing career, by focusing on a “diametric opposition of red and white, dark and fair, south and north, fire and ice” (Wallhead 157). Indeed, every story in the collection centres on the relationship between one element and a colour: heat and yellow in the realist, introspective tale “Crocodile Tears”; water and blue in the playfully painterly “A Lamia in the Cévennes”; ice/fire and white/red in the fairy tale “Cold”; earth and bronze in the claustrophobic, nightmarish “Baglady”; stone and red in the uncanny “Jael”; food and black/white in the purely ekphrastic “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.”

3Such dualities, exemplified by the subtitle, Stories of Fire and Ice, mobilise “basic powers or forces” (Campbell 193) as the key narrative drive and as a poetic choice pervading the six narratives: indeed, although the stories centre on how physical sensations determine human experiences, they do so in a fundamentally materialist way. While not devoid of metaphors—on the contrary, the collection is rich in overlapping networks of signification—, Elementals explores turning points of human life such as grief, aesthetic drives, individual growth, and love, through the essential relationship between characters exposed in their unconscious fears and desires, and the material elements symbolising this very condition of being stripped bare. In this respect, the title refers not only to the natural elements (water, air, fire, earth) in various configurations that punctuate the six stories, but also to the chemical and alchemical reactions that they produce. Throughout the collection, Byatt combines her element(al)s into compounds such as limestone, labradorite, glass, food, graphite, and paint, which in turn shape her characters’ lives as action, introspection, and creative response. From the algae threatening to infest Bernard Lycett-Kean’s pool in “A Lamia” to the stuffed bulls killed in bullfighting and displayed in Nîmes’s Natural History Museum that disgust Patricia Nimmo in “Crocodile Tears” as well as the supernatural creatures such as the magical Lamia, or the ice woman in Fiammarosa’s ancestry in the second and third stories respectively, such compounds determine the characters’ engagement with language, art, and their own, embodied, sense of self.

4At the same time, the first three stories in Elementals, analysed in the present article, revolve around characters moving south from their northern place of origin. Patricia Nimmo, in “Crocodile Tears,” leaves her native England to find herself in the heat of the Nîmois summer; Bernard Lycett-Kean, in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” abandons his London life to embrace the artistic freedoms that the southern French mountains offer, while Princess Fiammarosa in “Cold” moves away from her “temperate kingdom” (Byatt, Elementals 115) to live in the Saharan realm ruled by her beloved husband Sasan. As I will argue, such journeys south interrogate human allegiances to nations and communities, as well as gender identities, through the entanglements between historical, literary and artistic traditions, and the material elements inhabiting, and encountered by, Byatt’s characters. While such exchanges involve literary, linguistic and material dimensions alike, they are not, however, unproblematic: in the first and third stories, the heroes are at times ambivalent towards their southern destination of choice, experiencing a form of cultural and identity rejection, which only a return north or a surrogate version thereof can appease.

5Intertextuality, as a concept dealing with the way stories and texts cocreate one another, makes it possible to address such cultural estrangement, experienced vis-à-vis an engagement with local stories, objects and materials: “[c]onceived as a crossed threshold between languages and cultures, intertextuality exposes the self . . . to an essential work . . . within an on-going process of signifying that goes all its way back to the semiotic plurality” (Kristeva 9). According to the inventor of the word, Julia Kristeva, intertextuality is not just a formal feature of style, or a post-structuralist strategy to empower readers with the ability to shape texts in the same way as writers do. Intertextuality, indeed, reaches both deeper into the psyche and wider, across linguistic registers, languages and cultures. Byatt’s intertextuality, more specifically, is expansive: defined by geography and physical circumstances such as the journeys south that the characters engage in, it also embraces more material than simply written texts. While the case for paintings and sculptures in Byatt as sources of intertextuality has long been made (see, among others, Bigliazzi, and Hicks), I would like to expand the potentialities of intertextuality towards human-material interactions as well. In this regard, the material elements that the characters encounter in the three stories not only symbolise these characters’ embodied experiences, but they also actively operate to enhance it, in the same way as texts and artworks do. Therefore, while on the one hand, texts constitute the liminal threshold that Kristeva describes, on the other, it is the expansion of texts towards stones, water, canvas, ice and sand that allows for that threshold to be crossed in the first place. “Life reads and rewrites itself,” to the extent where “corporeal realities and their productive iterations are material reinventions” (Kirby xi): the liminal potential of intertextuality is a crucial strategy through which the active rewriting of embodied realities and their creative output occurs.

North and South: Materialising Intertextualities

6The north-south trajectories traced by “Crocodile Tears,” “A Lamia in the Cévennes” and “Cold”—poetic stratagems deployed to symbolise key rites of passage (widowhood, political disgust, and marriage)—also frame competing geographical dimensions defined by the inter-cultural and intertextual overlaps they mobilise. In this respect, Patricia’s choice to follow Shakespearean echoes upon her arrival in Nîmes after her husband’s tragic death (in “Crocodile Tears”), Bernard’s reading of the perfect hue of blue through the language of Baudelaire, Keats and Coleridge (in “A Lamia in the Cévennes”), or Fiammarosa’s desire (in “Cold”) to rewrite her ice woman ancestor’s story through her happy marriage to a desert prince become more than intertextual layers attached to characters leaving London and northern Europe for Mediterranean climates. They acquire a dimension of what Rosi Braidotti defines as transposition, or “the connection between the text and its social and historical context, in the material and discursive sense of the term” (Transpositions 7). Embedded in a cartography of the subject, transposition moves beyond the strictly textual dimension of intertextuality and into the intersection between matter and discourse, amplifying the potential inhering in Kristeva’s concept. In this broad, Braidottian sense, intertextuality actively enhances the visceral experiences of grief, artistic inspiration, love and (self-) annihilation that these three stories explore precisely because of the opposite geographical allegiances in which the stories are rooted.

7The layering of Shakespearean intertexts over the geography, history and architecture of Nîmes in “Crocodile Tears” is a crucial example of such a transposition: entrepreneur and art collector Patricia Nimmo, upon her journey from London to southern France, embeds her experience of the strange city in a personal network of intertextuality. The city’s alleged myth of foundation, according to which “Nîmes had been peopled by Augustus’s legionaries, to whom he had given the land in gratitude for their victory over Anthony and Cleopatra” (Elementals 22), triggers memories about her relationship with her late husband Tony, in which Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy played a pivotal role. Indeed, the two fell in love while preparing a student performance of Anthony and Cleopatra at university and re-enacted the play’s romance throughout their own long relationship, to the extent where he called her Patra and routinely recited the play’s love lines with her.

8The fact that Tony’s name is a short form for Anthony, that he dies before Patricia and that she commits three clumsy unsuccessful suicide attempts in the French city symbolised by the Egyptian crocodile constitutes further intertextual hints at the connection between Shakespeare’s lovers and Byatt’s. The intertextual webs Byatt spins operate vertically as well as horizontally: expanding onto the urban landscape and its history, they add a Nîmois dimension to Shakespeare’s Anglo-Roman play. The short story thus becomes a haunting revenant of Patricia’s marriage and an exploration of grief, which an escape into the heat of the Mediterranean cannot soothe. At the end of the story, Patricia reaches her long-sought-for catharsis by using her eyeliner to inscribe on her husband’s tombstone the words spoken by Cleopatra upon Anthony’s death:

  • 2 Cited from Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, Act IV, scene 14 (296, l. 68-70).

THE ODDS IS GONE
AND THERE IS NOTHING LEFT REMARKABLE
BENEATH THE VISITING MOON. (Elementals 76)2

9The finitude and loss that Shakespeare’s queen faces when confronted with her lover’s death reminds readers of the inconstancy of life: even the moon is only just passing, visiting, and, with its shape-shifting nature, not a fixed presence in her life. Just as Cleopatra’s romance with Anthony ends with their consecutive deaths, Patricia’s long and happy marriage with Tony was doomed to end eventually. However, unlike the sovereign in the tragedy, she can refuse to be controlled by emotions, and takes control of her grief instead. In this sense, her writing of Shakespeare’s lines on Tony’s tombstone with an eye pencil becomes an act of commemoration, an intimate memory that is made public, but also an ephemeral memento, bound to vanish after the first rain, just like the moon and the odds of the inscription, and “nothing” will be left. While Shakespeare’s words will not remain on the tombstone forever, they are Patricia’s personal and intertextual epitaph, albeit a momentary one, connecting her both to the memory of Tony, and to the English soil, language and culture in which they met and fell in love, and which now literally covers his bodily remains.

10The Shakespearean intertexts and their vertical overlap over the stones of Nîmes are crucial not only in representing Patricia’s journey of grief and acceptance, but also because they contrast with the estrangement she experiences in the city. The sun and increasing heat “dazzle . . . her” (37) during her flâneries, and her attempts at engaging with Proust’s Recherche in French demonstrate her lack of the necessary language skills. Most importantly, she is disgusted by the violent culture of bullfighting inscribed in the city’s history and celebrated in the same Roman Arènes originally built for gladiator fights. The blinding effect of the sun on the light outdoor stones is contrasted by the darkness associated with the two places marking this history of death and blood in Nîmes: the City Museum, where she sees taxidermically-preserved bulls, and the Arènes themselves. The museum space is described as “a long dim narrow room” (44), where the animals make “a dusty procession of beasts, a sample of rejects from the Ark” (45), and where more stuffed animals can be seen in cages hung on the walls. The parallel between the museum displays and the “cavernous” Arènes, with their “orderly structure of tunnels, colonnades, staircases” (65), and their past history of displaying combat between humans enslaved for entertainment, is evident. The material traces of history, embodied in long-dead animals, become the epitome of the disgust Patricia feels towards the southern culture and could not differ more from the traumatic, though ultimately compassionate reaction to her husband’s death.

11Patricia, who visits the museum and the Roman theatre unwillingly and under the guidance of a fellow northern traveller, Norwegian Nils Isaksen, nonetheless marks them as key spaces of her own cartography of Nîmes. While not devoid of the multi-layered and cross-cultural essence of transposition, a cartography is, according to Braidotti, “a theoretically-based and politically-informed account of the present that aims at tracking the production of knowledge and subjectivity and to expose power both as entrapment (potestas) and as empowerment (potentia)” (“Framework” 33). In this respect, mapping the city amounts to mapping Patricia herself, her embodied experience and the texts which have shaped her life and her relation with Tony. At the same time, such mappings reveal her struggles and suffering—related to both her grief and her estrangement in France—within the power structures of overlapping cultural and historical memories which cluster on such focal points as the monuments of the city. In light of these material encounters, her return home and her act of writing on her husband’s tombstone become a physical re-inscription of herself and her marriage within a private cartography of grief and death opposed to the obscene, commodified display of animal and human death in Nîmes.

12Where in “Crocodile Tears” the urban and textual echoes of the past haunting Patricia’s present produce a cathartic return north from a southern journey, “A Lamia in the Cévennes” expands on the creative potential of an escape south through its focus on material artmaking. In this story, the “seemingly asexual” (Mathews 213) London painter Bernard Lycett-Kean moves to the quiet of the eponymous French mountains in order to escape the polluted metropolis, and to pursue the perfect blue. In a clear reference to David Hockney’s blue swimming pools and to English colourists such as Patrick Heron, Bernard’s paintings focus on capturing the hues of blue, grey, green skies reflected in blue-looking water. Driven by a very sensual obsession with water, his work is “combative” (Elementals 83), physical and visceral because it is created by a combination of bodily experience, aesthetics and his sense of place:

Swimming was volupté—he used the French word, because of Matisse. Luxe, calme et volupté. Swimming was a strenuous battle with immense problems, of geometry, of chemistry, of apprehension, of style, of other colours. He put pots of petunias and geraniums near the pool. The bright hot pinks and purples were dangerous. They did something to that blue. (85)

13If water is alive, Bernard’s swimming is described as a physical “battle” against chemical and elemental pigmentations to fix the colour he desires on the canvas. This very material struggle is nonetheless inscribed within a genealogy of escapes to luring souths, as the intertextual and pictorial parallels to Henri Matisse and Charles Baudelaire suggest. “Luxe, calme et volupté,” translatable as “luxury, peace and voluptuousness,” is the refrain of Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage” (1857) and corresponds to the title of a 1904 painting by Matisse, indicating an existing line of French symbolist and avantgarde artists that Bernard is inspired by, and wishes to be a part of. In Baudelaire’s poem, the male speaker invites a lover to join him on a journey to an idealised, ordered, watery country such as The Netherlands. Matisse’s painting omits the voyage but shows a group of naked female bathers on a dream-like maritime shore, suggesting how the pleasure and voluptuousness of the title are both what the bathers feel in their moment of leisure, and what the viewers envision through the fantastic scenery and the beauty of the women on display.

14The parallels between Bernard’s pleasurable swimming, the reverberating Dutch canals in Baudelaire and Matisse’s watery refractions evoke the magic, supernatural dimension of the reverie and can be interpreted as escapes from the tedium of the modern metropolis to the sensuality and soothe offered by landscapes shaped by water. For an artist like Bernard, who has left London in search of pure artistic inspiration which the corrupt capital could not offer him anymore, it is quite natural that such intertexts demarcate his relation not only to working in a foreign, though inspiring home, but also to the geography of the place itself. His immersions in the swimming pool, which he has built on purpose to explore light refractions in water, in this respect, are not just preparatory studies for his paintings, but also an act of belonging and full integration within the southern French mountains, and especially their water basins. Unlike Patricia, Bernard’s French is good enough to understand the language in its local accent, and, while he returns to England once to sell his paintings, he never regrets his move south. On the contrary, even upon the sudden arrival of an intruder from England who will eventually disrupt his delicately balanced, platonic relationship with the half-woman, half-snake Lamia, he draws further back into the world of art and artmaking.

15Bernard, therefore, finds himself beyond the intercultural estrangement felt by Patricia and Fiammarosa in “Cold,” in that his allegiance is and remains to his art. Since the intercultural webs between French and English cultures permeate Bernard’s work just as much as they do the intertexts of the story he finds himself in, he is able to succeed where Patricia, in the previous story, failed. He can find a true synthesis between the Englishness of his origins and the French culture he has adopted as his own through his pure allegiance to art, beyond the conflicts between northern and southern identities that permeate both “Crocodile Tears” and “Cold.”

16Crucially, Bernard’s exception with regard to the north-south divide is also linked to his symbiotic relation with water. Water is the origin and inspiration of his vision, the subject of the paintings themselves and of his obsessed pursuit of the perfect blue, but it is also the chemical binder which melts the paint before it is brushed on the canvas. Water is vital, multifarious and active. Touching and being touched by water, moulding and being shaped, inspired and determined by water defines for Bernard a trans-corporeal, “literal contact zone between human corporeality and more-than-human nature” (Alaimo 2). While water in a human-built swimming pool may not necessarily be natural, it is nonetheless a hybrid space where Bernard confronts his artistic and epistemological potentialities, before the spectacle of “the element of his painterly vision” (Stewart 178; emphasis in the original).

17The pool is a space of non-human alterity as well, behaving like a living being and brimming with animal forms of life. Decorated with a “talismanic” (178) dolphin-shaped mosaic on its floor, the pool emits a “hissing sound” (Elementals 88) that anticipates the Lamia’s arrival, but also leads to the threat of algae and sulphuric stenches. In the ensuing process of sanitisation, the pool “soughed and sighed” (90) and is refilled with clean water from the mountain source by pipes resembling “an immense boa-constrictor of heavy black plastic” (91). The pumping of the clean water sounds “like the beat of a giant heart” (92) and Bernard, who moves “like an angry panther” (89) on the terrace, spots at least one frog who has made the pool its home. It is in such a space that the titular Lamia, a shape-shifting snake woman who will enable Bernard to achieve his artistic dream by letting him paint her, while trying to seduce him, materialises. While intertextually indebted to Romantic poetry (which I will discuss later on), Byatt’s Lamia is also a farcical rendition of Mélusine, the half-snake, half-woman being originating in medieval French romances and further expanded on in Possession, where (neo-)Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte inscribes her own tragic fate onto the hybrid creature’s story.

18The rich animal imagery of the pool enhances its being, in Stacy Alaimo’s terms, a contact zone between human and natural, making it a veritable cluster of “trans-corporeality,” or the “mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” (2). Trans-corporeality not only blurs the boundary between human and non-human elements, but it also allows to escape the very human contingencies such as national identity and belonging that Bernard manages to avoid through art. The presence of the animals, living or not, real or reproduced, among whom the Lamia is the only clearly sentient and talking entity, enhances the liberating potentials of Bernard’s embracing art for art’s sake. Once the Lamia has disappeared from his life and, with her, his hope to capture the colour of his dreams, it is to another animal, a “rather nondescript orange-brown butterfly” (Elementals 110), that his gaze and work are directed: blue will be replaced by purple and orange, but, the story suggests, it will be as totalising and rewarding as his paintwork always is.

19Similar crossovers between artistic ambition and elemental identities are key also to the third story of Elementals, the fairy tale “Cold.” Unpacking the diametral opposition between fire and water—and the role of glass as akin to ice but made of burning sand—“Cold” transposes the elemental affinities of the first two stories onto its main character’s essence. Where Bernard immerses himself in water to place himself in artistic and material intersections, Princess Fiammarosa in “Cold” is the partial reincarnation of a legendary ice woman. Born after twelve brothers, like the protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Wild Swans,” Fiammarosa leads a dull, pampered life until she discovers the thrilling touch of snow and ice over her skin. This icy awakening has strongly erotic connotations, surpassing the sensual elemental encounter that characterised Bernard’s relation to the colour refractions in the water in “A Lamia”:

All along her body, in her knees, her thighs, her small round belly, her pointed breasts, the soft inner skin of her arms, she felt an intense version of that paradoxical burn she had received from the touch of the frosted window . . . her whole body was encased in a transparent, crackling skin of ice, that broke into spiderweb-fine veined sheets as she danced, and then reformed. (126, 127)

20Through this rebirth, Fiammarosa seemingly achieves the ideal combination between her bodily and intellectual needs: while at night she discovers how the vital, sexual pleasure of ice makes her feel alive, in the daytime she becomes a natural sciences scholar who specialises in “snow-crystals and ice formations” (134), and a highly skilled tapestry weaver. In this respect, the fairy tale genre and, in particular, the rewriting of Andersen’s “Snow Queen” (1844), allows Byatt to expand on the relationship between chemical elements and the characters’ narrative arcs that the realist frames of the two previously discussed stories introduced. For Fiammarosa, ice is a vital element to the extent where it is an innate component of her bodily cells: where stones and water compenetrated Patricia’s memories and Bernard’s aesthetics through the senses, for Fiammarosa ice is inescapably genetic. She therefore becomes a transcorporeal subject, “caught up in and transformed by myriad, often unpredictable material agencies” (Alaimo 146): she represents an enlarged, human, elemental and supernatural material corporeality, to the point where the separation between her human and her icy ontologies collapses.

21As for Patricia and Bernard, the princess’s elemental nature is embedded within literary and affective legacies, but with a difference: instead of engaging in textual or artistic encounters, Fiammarosa carries the genes of a sentimentally cold ice woman, Fror, captured by one of her warrying ancestors and forced to marry him before making a glorious, though reprehensible, escape from the castle, back to her northern wilderness. The cruelties experienced by Fror, in a less enlightened and egalitarian time, are very distant from the acceptance and support that Fiammarosa finds in her family, but they establish the genetic, elemental and textual link between the two that the young princess feels. Upon discussing Fror’s story and her own icy nature with her tutor, Fiammarosa tells him:

“It may be that I have ice in my veins, like the icewoman, or something that boils and steams at normal temperatures, and flows busily in deep frost. But you did not tell me I had a cold nature. The icewoman did not look back at her husband and son. Perhaps she was cold in her soul, as well as in her veins?” (Elementals 132).

22The answer to Fiammarosa’s question is partly given by the etymologies of the two ice women’s names: Fiammarosa in Italian is the combination of the two words fiamma, flame, and rosa, which refers both to the flower, the rose, and the colour pink. Her name therefore unites the ice of her body and the hot fire of her future husband’s desert kingdom, but it also hints at the possibility of earthly beauty and love in her life. Fror, conversely, is the simple past of the German verb frieren, to frost, explicitly signalling that she was born with ice inside her veins and, according to popular belief, in her heart. The narrative goes at great lengths to question whether Fror’s cold heart was a consequence of her icy nature or of her being forced into marriage with the king, but it is also a direct reference to Andersen’s “Snow Queen”—Byatt’s most evident intertext in this story. The eponymous queen, in Andersen, is a symbol of heathen power; she attracts the boy Kai to follow her to her palace, where he will study the snowflakes and solve riddles, anticipating Fiammarosa’s scientific talents. Kai’s vision is distorted by a splinter of a diabolic mirror, but he will be promptly rescued by his devout and Christian friend Gerda with a kiss of love which will unfreeze his heart and restore him to the human world. If Fror was cold-hearted and “a witch who had enchanted the king” (Elementals 130), just as the Snow Queen charmed Kai, she was nonetheless deprived of her agency to do any harm by being prevented from exploring her true self.

23In “Ice, Snow, Glass,” Byatt reminds her readers how Andersen’s Gerda is “in touch with warmth, flowering roses, cherries, and the human heart” (155), and stands in opposition to the icy Snow Queen. If Andersen’s queen is much closer to her Fror than to her warm-hearted Fiammarosa, Byatt’s princess appears to condense some traits pertaining to both women, overcoming the moral opposition of Andersen’s tale so as to reach an embodied, material intertextuality. In this sense, her falling in love with the Saharan glass-blowing Prince Sasan and the journey south following their marriage place Byatt’s fairy tale in direct opposition to Andersen’s hypertext precisely because, through Fiammarosa, Byatt proposes to unite the creative potential of an icy, solitary existence with love. Just as actual ice cannot resist the desert heat, except via human ingenuity, Fiammarosa’s very survival is put at risk by her journeying south and by her satisfactory, though not painless, sexual life. Despite being in love with Sasan and loved in return, after lovemaking she feels “a little melted pool . . . where she had been solid and shining” (Elementals 157); upon landing in the desert kingdom, she almost faints under the scorching sun, in ways that recall Patricia Nimmo’s unease in the Mediterranean heat and, most importantly, she miscarries after briefly entering Sasan’s glass furnace.

24Such a union of opposites is saved by art and especially by the compromise between fire and ice that is glass: “[i]ce is the stuff of snowflakes and Fiammarosa’s geometric tapestries; glass enables Sasan to create marvelous images and the incredible glass caverns that eventually provide Fiammarosa with a home in which she can survive” (Tiffin 56). In this purpose-built glass palace under the desert mountains, Fiammarosa will develop a “study of the vegetation of the Sasanian snow-line, and a further study of which plants could thrive in mountain air under glass windows” (Elementals 182): glass, therefore, has a similar role here to water in “Lamia” in that it becomes the space and matter of vital intellectual pursuits. Unlike water, however, it is human-made and, in Fiammarosa’s case, it is made for her by someone else, due to her physical impossibility to survive in a glass furnace. In this respect, while Byatt’s ice woman—like the stone women and snake women I will discuss in the next section—questions geographical allegiances and the bodily constrictions associated to them, she is inescapably defined and limited by her elemental nature.

Bodies of Fire and Ice: Intertextuality Embodied

25If Fiammarosa can thrive in a palace of glass because it replicates some of the chemical, thermal and visual features of ice, her status as an ice woman is nonetheless one of conflict between her elemental essence and her gender identity. This conflict is primarily concerned with women’s bodies and is the main reason why a male character like Bernard can devote his life to aesthetic pursuit, foregoing sexual and sentimental relations. As a man and an artist within a tradition which has typically been ambivalent towards female creativity, positing, instead, a male gaze and celebrating male genius by default, he experiences fewer hindrances in pursuing his art than female protagonists like Patricia and Fiammarosa, whose journeys south and ensuing intertextual and material experiences are inextricably linked to their marital statuses.

26Patricia, the Lamia and Fiammarosa, all represent therefore different stages of the “imposed biological cycle, blood, kiss, roses, birth, death, and the hungry generations” (Byatt, “Ice, Snow, Glass” 164), and embody the crucial animal, mineral and elemental tropes that are snake women, and women of stone and ice. Figures punctuating Byatt’s work at least since The Game (1968) and culminating with the icy nature of Maud in Possession and the ice woman Fiammarosa in “Cold,” these three categories undergo a figurative or literal metamorphosis: Patricia’s is psychological but driven by the northern and southern stones she interacts with; Fiammarosa’s is a bodily manifestation of her internal struggles, while the Lamia’s transformation from watery creature into sensual woman is a full corporeal transformation. All three struggle at combining the life of the mind and the life of embodied material contingencies, representing instead “a wish to escape both the biological and the cultural fate of women, marriage and the blood, childbearing and death” (Walezak 91). Their shape-shifting nature is, at the same time, their curse and their possibility of escape, through their reappropriation of the intertextual dimension of what such metamorphoses stand for.

27Stone women are characterised by their “wish for stasis, akin to a death wish” (Walezak 92) through a direct interaction with the mineral world, and a similar concern with death and fixity, although with certain variations, is shared by snake women and icewomen, too. The stony nature of Patricia, who has reached menopause and has grandchildren, is made evident by her vertical and horizontal movements across and with stones. It relates her to at least two fellow middle-aged women intellectuals on the verge of menopause populating Byatt’s corpus: Ines in “A Stone Woman” (Black Book), who literally turns into a mineral composite, and to the narratologist Gillian Perholt in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” who is confronted with various stones bearing stories and epiphanic moments. A further parallel is provided by young Jess in “Jael” (Elementals), who uncannily re-enacts the biblical story of Jael and Sisera (Judges 5: 24-27) by having the most popular girl in school hit her head against a stone, producing irreversible damage. Through its unreliable, first-person narrator feeling jealousy in a fraught, competitive space such as an all-girls boarding school, the latter story explores the darker and potentially more dangerous dimensions of stone women in Byatt, in stark contrast to the cathartic and creative aspects that stones acquire in “Crocodile Tears.”

  • 3 Cited from W. Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, Act IV, scene 16 (297, l. 90).

28Patricia’s elemental trajectory is enabled by the whiteness of the stones of Nîmes, Tony’s white tombstone, as well as by the smaller, dark, alchemical stones shown to her by her mercurial journey partner, Nils Isaksen. Overlapping complex northern folktales, mythology and actual stones, he shows her “one or two mosaic tesserae, a fragment of the golden Lens stone, a sphere of black shiny stone, a handful of sunflower seeds, a crudely carved amulet of an iron hammer on a ring” (Elementals 47), the latter a fake labradorite copy of the Norse god Thor’s hammer. Unlike the tombstone and the lighter, bigger stones of Nîmes, Patricia neither touches nor shows interest in these small, darker specimens. However, the night after seeing them she perceives a memento mori, mediated through the words Shakespeare’s Cleopatra speaks upon Anthony’s death: “This case of that huge spirit now is cold” (Elementals 50).3 This line, uttered still half-dreaming, half-awake, denotes the intertextual capacity of the stones crossing Patricia’s path to include other stones that she does not actively engage with. She incorporates them into her memory unconsciously, therefore showing not only how intertextuality evokes “a voluntary abandonment of intentionality” (Kristeva 11), but also how material objects contribute, just like texts, to the same active translation of texts onto the mind and perception, and vice versa. Patricia’s stone-womanhood entails therefore a material and textual transposition strongly rooted within a key literary precedent telling of love, loss and grief, and within the psychophysical metamorphoses that her age and her experience of grief mobilise.

29While Patricia’s loneliness following her husband’s death is sudden and not chosen, Byatt argues nonetheless that solitude is necessary for women seeking to create art and to pursue one’s intellectual ambitions, as her icewomen emblematically embody “the perfection of the work” (“Ice, Snow, Glass” 164) precisely because, as Andersen’s Snow Queen exemplifies, they prioritise their individual independence over the demands of female biology. Indeed, Fiammarosa’s narrative arc explores how this paradigm is shifted once an icewoman wants to retain her independence and marry a man belonging to the desert. The fact that “Fiammarosa gives in to the biological imperative and becomes the glassblown pregnant woman” (Renk 625), in an enfleshed replica of a series of glass miniatures her husband has blown for her, potentially makes this a story of female sacrifice and oppression at the hands of a society that places greater bodily burdens on women. At the same time, though, this story explores how “the meat of the body is thinking material” (Kirby 75; emphasis in the original), in that material elements and corporeal experiences both determine a body’s “thinking” drives, in an equitable exchange of love that defines the marriage’s ultimate success. Upon Sasan’s inviting Fiammarosa to visit the caves he has made for her, the two engage in “a dance of compromise, intertwining the incompatible opposites of heat and cold” (Mathews 217). Significantly, when the dance stops, it is Sasan who this time is at risk of freezing to death; Fiammarosa, then, finally true to the fiery and flowery nature of her name, revives him with a kiss of love, “and with friction and passion brought his blood back to some movement” (Elementals 181). The kiss that saves a frozen body (or soul) is a key metaphor also in Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” as it is the girl Gerda’s kiss that saves Kai from the thralls of the cold Snow Queen, but with a difference: Andersen juxtaposes the heathen Snow Queen to the warm-hearted, Christian Gerda, whereas Byatt’s princess combines these two characters in one to rescue her husband, who has put himself in danger out of love for her.

30The happy ending of “Cold,” while showing selflessness and genuine love, also suggests how, in the realm of fairy tales, chemical opposites, such as fire and ice, can coexist thanks to artistic creation. In this respect, the meat of Byatt’s characters’ bodies becomes not just thinking material in itself, but it produces thinking material as well. Once the two opposites are conjoined, they produce compounds which are chemically impossible in the realm of the real, but become possible in a materially-embedded world of fantasy. Textual material and material texts overlap, giving way to creative and lively intersections which, in the case of “Cold,” reach their most productive potential precisely because the fantastic frame and the genre of the fairy tale allow for the pretence of verisimilitude that her more realist fictions abide to, to be upended.

31Textual and material overlaps determine the metamorphoses of all three female protagonists in these three stories: in this respect, the north-south journey aside, Fiammarosa and Patricia share a common, elementally-defined female destiny with the Lamia more than with Bernard. As “an ontological and cultural hybridity of the marvelous and the material” (Stewart 180), however, the Lamia is shaped almost exclusively through Bernard’s gaze and the intertexts that he, as the reader’s alter-ego, attaches to his encounter with the snake woman residing in his pool. While the story has a far less tragic tone than the other two, foregoing most psychological conflict, especially pertaining to the Lamia herself, the question of her agency, within and without her literary genealogies, is crucial. Whereas Patricia and Fiammarosa are well-read, creatively active women choosing to travel, marry, read, create and more (and, in Patricia’s case, to travel back), the Lamia is less psychologically delineated and appears literally constricted within the confines of her oft-written story of seduction and ensuing metamorphosis.

32Indeed, on an intertextual level, Byatt places the Lamia within the traditional pattern where an unfortunate knight or maiden is enticed by the watery creature. Explored by Romantic texts such as John Keats’s “Lamia” (1820) and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1820), and Samuel T. Coleridge’s “Christabel” (1816), this is a trajectory that Bernard, with his choice to abide by the abstract “luxe, calme et volupté,” carefully circumvents. His preference is for the Lamia’s colours, as the moving palette that can provide the missing piece to his pictorial endeavour; for her, conversely, Bernard is a means to free herself from her animal form and become not only human, but a remissive wife:

    “What I want . . . is to be able to paint your portrait, as you are . . . with all these amazing colours and lights—if I could paint you in my pool—just for a little time—”
    “And then you will kiss me, and we will be married, and I shall have an immortal soul.”
    “Nobody nowadays believes in immortal souls,” said Bernard. (Elementals 99-100)

33The ironic tone in this exchange could not be more different from Fiammarosa’s painful realisation that the love she desires with a man belonging to another natural element might kill her, but the sequence of the kiss, the marriage, and the immortality of the soul guaranteed by a traditional union mobilises the same language and imagery as “Cold” and Andersen’s “Snow Queen.” In this respect, the power dynamic between the human and the non-human creature is not in the advantage of the latter: Bernard, as a human male and an artist with his fair knowledge of the intertextual nature of the Lamia has the liberty to choose at what level to engage with her. The Lamia herself, instead, is trapped inside the watery and textual enclosure of the swimming pool, with only the possibility of playing the tired charade of seduction as an escape. As a character functional to the hero’s aesthetic pursuits, indeed, she is a mythical appearance determined by fixed intertextual patterns and, described as intellectually superficial, she is without the life of the mind that Fiammarosa pursues.

  • 4 As Jane Campbell and Peter Mathews, among others, have noted, the names Melanie and Raymond are dir (...)

34Her transformation into a woman after seducing Bernard’s visitor Raymond is a veritable transcorporeal metamorphosis, in which the Lamia, or Melanie, as her human name goes, shifts from one species to another while remaining anchored to the intertextual frame of the snake woman.4 Importantly, her adopting a human form only transposes the shallowness she had had as a snake onto her new existence: she moves “with an actressy gesture” (Elementals 105) and is promised to be taken to the Riviera for luxury shopping and to see the Hollywood stars in Cannes. While the intent of the narrative is clearly to provide a mockery of the empty promises of “worn-out magic” (Campbell 199), the Lamia’s shape-shifting nonetheless fails to offer the same liberating compromise that Patricia’s and Fiammarosa’s material and textual transpositions provide. Instead, her narrative highlights how a life in intertexts necessitates an active mind and critical engagement in order to disentangle oneself from the limits of genre and gendered embodiments.

35If transposition “indicates an intertextual, cross-boundary or transversal transfer, in the sense of a leap from one code, field or axis into another, . . . in the qualitative sense of complex multiplicities” (Braidotti, Transpositions 5), then Elementals is a feast of such intersections of multiplicities. In the three stories examined here, ice, glass, fire, water and stone are active components of the texts’ fabric and define their geographies, enhancing their intertextual dimension towards the material. Indeed, while intertextuality is “the very breach of subjectivity . . . , able to prompt a single process of semiosis out of a representational failure” (Kristeva 10), Byatt’s stories expand the liminal zones between individuals, matter, subjectivities and their agency, making texts material, spatially located agents, active in defining spatial relations, and making texts out of matter.

36Byatt’s stories make a fictional contribution to the contemporary material turn: Elementals overhauls the poststructuralist-materialist incompatibility identified by Alaimo and Hekman (Material Feminisms 1-3), positing instead how the two can productively intertwine. Her women of ice and water, and her snake women, powerful signifiers of patriarchal traditions of female silencing and oppression, are the best examples in this respect: clustering intertextual layers of stories, myths and art, they nonetheless mobilise the potentiality of their materiality as well, embodying, through their chimeric, natural and supernatural essences, biological experiences of femininity. The fact that both Patricia and Fiammarosa embrace their respective elemental natures through reading texts and creative efforts exemplifies precisely how Byatt embeds intertextuality in matter. For the Lamia, an emblem of the powerless and voiceless muse of men-made art, the process instead occurs through the validation of the desiring gaze of Bernard first and of Raymond later. Her constriction within the intertextual schemes of the mythology she—willingly or not—belongs to is defined precisely by the men’s agency over her, and over the type of interaction (platonic only for Bernard; sexual with Raymond) they decide to have with her.

37Finally, for Byatt’s northern characters, to travel south redefines cultural allegiances and ideas of home. Fiammarosa’s and Sasan’s transcorporeal relations with their elemental natures, Patricia’s cartographies of estrangement and Bernard’s artmaking rewrite relations with places of origin and places of exile through the north-south axis: inhabiting space and defining it as one’s own is determined by the complex material and textual overlap between bodies, their geographical position in space, and the layers of stories that such overlaps generate.

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Notes

1 “Baglady” was published in the Daily Telegraph (15 January 1994); “A Lamia in the Cévennes” appeared in Atlantic Monthly Press (July 1995); “Jael” first came out in The Guardian (27 December 1997); “Crocodile Tears” was published in Paris Review 146 (Spring 1998); “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” appeared in Mail on Sunday (31 May 1998).

2 Cited from Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, Act IV, scene 14 (296, l. 68-70).

3 Cited from W. Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, Act IV, scene 16 (297, l. 90).

4 As Jane Campbell and Peter Mathews, among others, have noted, the names Melanie and Raymond are direct references to d’Arras’s and Byatt’s Mélusine and Raimondin, the fated couple in the romance and its subsequent rendition in Possession (see Campbell 199, and Mathews 217).

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Barbara Franchi, « Material and Geographical Intertextualities in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 121-141.

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Barbara Franchi, « Material and Geographical Intertextualities in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/jsse/3504

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Auteur

Barbara Franchi

Barbara Franchi researches contemporary women’s writing, neo-Victorian culture, and historical fiction. She is also interested in the intersections between cultural memory, the legacies of Empire and eco-criticism. Her current project examines the sea as a trope and an ecosystem in contemporary historical fiction by British and postcolonial authors. Her publications include book chapters and articles on A. S. Byatt, Eleanor Catton, Rose Tremain, David Mitchell, and she co-edited Crossing Borders of Imperial Travel: Spaces, Nations, Empires (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018). She obtained her PhD from the University of Kent in 2017 and is currently turning her thesis on A. S. Byatt and intertextuality into a monograph. She is a Teaching Fellow at Durham University.

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