A.S. Byatt Makes Magic, Is Worth Your Time

14 Mar

Thank goodness for used book sales.


Right now I have my biggest-ever backlog of unread books.  I don’t think about it too much because I’d go into binge-reading mode, and I’m having enough trouble getting things done already.  (My attention span will become even shorter when this happens.)   But this weekend I started A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories and am roundly impressed.  And when I say “ roundly impressed,” I mean “Byatt squeezes my heart like grabbing my hand right before I fall off a cliff.”


From the second story in the collection, “Body Art:”

He lost his faith as a result of a vision.

The vision was conventional enough, in one sense.  It was a vision of Christ on the Cross – not a heavenly appearance, but the result of an unnaturally close inspection of the carving that hung in his local church, a painted wooden carving, neither good nor bad, a mediocre run-of-the-mill carving of a human body, unpleasantly hammered through the palms of hands neither writing in pain nor distorted by stress, but spread wide in blessing…

He felt for the shape of the time – his whole life – when he would have said he believed, and was aghast to sense it like a great humming ice-box behind him in which what he had been had kept its form, neither dead nor alive, suspended.  He was a human bowed down under the weight of a man-sized ice-box.

He went on looking at the figure hanging by his hands, with outrage and then with pity.  There was a man, who had been dying, and then dead.  And there was an idea of who he was, which was a dream, which was a poem, which was a moral cage, which was a film over a clear vision of things.  A man is his body, his body is a man.

Her storyteller’s even-handed care for language and dark undercurrents of magic bring to my mind Philip Pullman and Angela Carter.  Most of what I’ve been reading the past several months has fallen into poetry and indie lit categories, so Byatt, whom I’ve never read before, has been a refreshing return to a kind of writing I’ve enjoyed for — well, about a decade now, weird as that is.  Or more, I guess, if you can count getting obsessed with the Redwall series when I was ten.


Interests: talking mice with swords, not ever going to prom with a boy*


Stumbling on this kind of literature happens to me once in a blue moon anymore.  The emotional effect an elegantly crafted piece of fantasy/magic realism has on me is tremendous, and I miss finding new authors and books as often as I once did.  (Which usually entailed scouring the young adult section of my hometown library high school for covers that looked cool.)  But my love of reading solidified in early adolescence with such writing, and it’ll always inhabit a sacred space in my bookish heart.


Authors I know/love:  Pullman and Carter along with Garth Nix, Clive Barker, and Madeleine L’Engle, among others I’m sure I’m forgetting.  And I know I’ve read pitifully little Neil Gaiman.  What a shame.  Tell me, whom else might I be missing out on?  GIVE ME YOUR KNOWLEDGE.


*I actually did manage to go to prom with a boy.  Success story.


3 Responses to “A.S. Byatt Makes Magic, Is Worth Your Time”

  1. leeraloo March 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Please tell me you’ve read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.” Because if you haven’t, why aren’t you reading it right now?

  2. Layne Ransom March 14, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    I read it last spring after my fairy tale colloquium professor assigned us one of the stories for class, but I feel like I remember pitifully little of it for how much I enjoyed it.

    But I agree, I’d maybe need to slap my own face if I hadn’t.

  3. ashlee April 6, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    I’m considering writing a paper about Byatt’s stories (The Glass Coffin) and comparing it to Pullman’s “Golden Compass” — would you be able to provide me with a few helpful pointers as to how these 2 authors can be compared, in terms of their writing with regards to major themes and such? It’d be greatly appreciated!

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