<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

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April 2, 2004

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IAN SANSOM enjoys A S Byatt's engaging essays, On Histories and Stories
On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays
A S Byatt
212pp, Chatto & Windus

If, as one suspects, the only reason for our existence is approbation, then most literary criticism is a waste of time, since most literary criticism concerns itself only with disapprobation. A book of criticism is usually like a long plumber's whistle or an irritated shake of the head, and reading it is about as much fun as sorting nails or sifting thistles.

A S Byatt's On Histories and Stories is another kind of criticism. Byatt is no grumbler. In her discussion of works of fiction, rather than judging weaknesses she sets out to account for strengths. She talks things up. You get the impression that she actually enjoys reading. On Histories and Stories is therefore criticism as it used to be written, before critics toned up on theory and pigged out on cultural studies, and before what Byatt calls that "gladiatorial antagonism" developed between writers and critics.

Byatt discusses contemporary fiction but ignores pulp. She engages with ideas but avoids jargon. The book probably contains fewer niggles and prickles than the average work of polemics or scholarship, but more than the average weight of subtleties and insights. In seven chapters -- on "Fathers", "Forefathers", "Ancestors", et cetera -- Byatt sets out to explore the various uses and meanings of historical fiction and discusses her own methods in composing novels, novellas and short stories. The essays are, she claims in her introduction, "a writer's essays".

Many of them are also, it should be said, lecture notes, and there is a certain tone, both authoritative and casual, that indicates their true origins. "I shall come back to the the opposition of probability and chance, both as subject and as form of the novel later," Byatt announces to her empty auditorium. She waves and signposts, with a rather aristocratic and proprietorial air, directing the traffic and attention like the lady of the manor who has opened up the house for the summer. "Come on, hurry up, please, into the library. Chop chop. Now, look! Look over there. Yes, look at all this terrific literature!"

In discussing and enthusing about writers and their works -- from The Arabian Nights to Lawrence Norfolk -- Byatt summarises neatly and quotes wonderfully. The quotations are often lengthy and there are many of them. This matters. "Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it," wrote Emerson ( Journals , volume 16). "My quotations", Byatt claims, "are like the slides in an art historical lecture." They are in fact nothing like so dull and flat. It's more like listening to someone humming arias - pleasant, but occasionally irritating. Her embellishments can be rather artless.

The Irish, apparently, "argue beautifully and passionately" and "are happy to suppose that English writing can be dismissed". This is caricature. She is also prone to digression and doodle. "It is interesting to compare Free Fall with Earthly Powers." "It is interesting to compare Hawksmoor with William Golding's The Spire , which is also about the building of churches." "It is interesting also to compare Ackroyd's thresholds between past and present with a recent novel by a young Scottish writer, A L Kennedy." The comparisons and intuitions are often stimulating, but sometimes insubstantial: as with a flirtation, the expression of interest becomes the interest itself.

The book contains, nonetheless, some important insights. Her reading of contemporary fiction as a series of plays on certain Darwinian plots is illuminating. For example, it allows her to read Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Gate for Angels through Ian Hacking's book about probability, The Taming of Chance, and her summary of Fitzgerald's book reveals exactly what is surprising and disturbing about its apparent simplicity -- that sense that "there is more here, more significance, than the sheer pleasure of elegant prose and the satisfactory storytelling". Fitzgerald, she concludes, is "playing lightly with the random and haphazard, in the form of her novel and in life".

What Byatt won't admit about historical fiction, though, despite all her talk of such subtle plottings, is its determined thrust and ambition. The historical novel may throw light upon modern sensibilities, and may often be an example of considerable ingenuity, and even an expression of great moral seriousness, but it is also an example of the will to power. "Playing lightly" it is not. The historical novel is always boasting about its knowhow, whether it's by Penelope Fitzgerald or Norman Mailer. It loves to display its credentials. It preens. It knows how to sell itself. And above all, it desires success. One suspects that Byatt, author of the bestselling Possession , knows more about this -- the real secret of histories and stories -- than she is letting on.

This article was first published in the Guardian.




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