Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where I Have Always Been Coming To

For Christmas in 1991, my mom picked up two books for me. They were both by A.S. Byatt: Possession, which had recently been released in paperback, and Still Life. I hadn't read A.S. Byatt. The books had beautiful covers that felt like satin. I still have them.

I struggled through Possession first. It was heavy with poetry, with historical letters, diary entries, words even, like frisson, that I just didn't know yet. I didn't get it until I read it a second time, a couple of years later.

I read Still Life the following summer, and again the summer of 1994, before beginning my honors thesis. In between, I read The Virgin in the Garden, in an old 70s hardcover that my friend Lena got for me, maybe at a flea market. I have that one too.

My copy of Still Life is covered in my own annotations. I wrote my first really serious paper on that book, my undergraduate honor's thesis. It was on Still Life as a piece of impressionist painting. I spent a long time delving into Impressionism as a movement, and then taking apart Byatt's language to show that what she was doing was similar to what the painters had done in the late 19th century. I used passages like this one:

Anthea lay as though dancing on the hot folded sand, the pale lively hair curved outward on the duck-egg blue towel, on which her lovely profile rested, the skin darker than the tossed gold, the marvelous bones picked out by clear cut shadows and glitter of sweat. Her bathing dress was peacock, rippled green and blue, like waves of an illuminated sea (Byatt, Still Life, from the chapter Seascape, p. 79).

But further, Byatt struggles with representation in the novel, with the representation of things, of being able to hold things up, to show, as it were, and she relates this particular struggle of writing to the work of painting, in the Prologue:

At first [Alexander] thought he could write a plain, exact verse with no figurative language, in which a yellow chair was the thing itself, a yellow chair, as a round gold apple was an apple or a sunflower a sunflower. . . . But it couldn't be done. Language was against him, for a start. Metaphor lay coiled in the name sunflower (Byatt, Still Life, 2).

I wrote again, on The Virgin in the Garden, on the iconography of Elizabeth I, and again, on Byatt's short story "Body Art," in which I discussed the pregnant body as the queerest body of all. Both of these infused with art, with heady language, with odd human relationships, sex, disconnection, but peace, too, and stability in the quotidian, the ordinary.

Me and Dame Antonia, 2005
This is my context. Before I knew it, these books shaped me in a way I couldn't imagine. Before I discovered Raymond Carver, before I read Flannery O'Connor, or Joyce, or Denis Johnson, or anyone else who helped me learn how to write a short story, taut, minimal, withholding like an iceberg. Before that, I had Byatt, who taught me, very simply, to love the sentence. And to love the characters she created: smart, mouthy, gingery Frederica, her soft, golden, doomed sister, Stephanie, poor troubled Marcus, heavy, brooding Daniel, elegant Alexander. I loved them. I still do.

On Friday, A.S. Byatt comes to Clinton to read at Hamilton College. I've been invited to have lunch with her, and some other professors from the department. I've met her before, in 2005, when I saw her read at Arizona State University, and was able to ask her a couple of questions, and have her sign some books.

I don't know what I'll say to her, or what I even want to ask. She led me to George Eliot for God's sake. I read almost all of Eliot (save Adam Bede. Yes, I even read Romola.) to understand Byatt. At one time, I thought of becoming a Byatt scholar, if that's a thing that even exists. Not for love so much, but for volume, for sheer volume of information, for layers and layers of meaning and evidence, buried in every text. She taught me to be a scholar. To love language, and she helped deepen my love of art.

I walked away from scholarship, from the Ph.D. But on Friday, I get to lunch with one of my favorite minds, as a writer, as a grown up. If it's an early 40th birthday present from the universe, I'll take it.

*My title is a quote from Possession, "This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere."

Friday, February 15, 2013

In Between Days

not the cover, just an idea
I'm expecting a new book.

The Conjurer arrives in May from Standing Stone Books.

What should you expect from The Conjurer?

The stories are longer, the characters, older. It's just as anxious, and even sexier than States, but it lingers in heart break a little longer, and for different reasons. It wades through loss.

Here's what my kick ass friend, writer Melissa Febos had to say about it:

These stories, like the characters who inhabit them, are tough-skinned and tender-hearted, and wickedly funny, as only the broken can be. Jennifer Pashley is the real conjurer here, pulling beauty from the despairs of ordinary people, splitting the skin of everyday tragedies, of people whose hearts have been ravaged and whose hands have done hurting, to reveal the hot pulsing hope in them, in all of us.

I'm gearing up for a Conjurer reading tour, but in the meantime, I'll be reading this Sunday -- along with Michael Nye, Kate Hill Cantrill, and Danny Goodman (whose website has a mustache and cussing, for fuck's sake!) -- for Sunday Salon, at Jimmy's 43 in Manhattan. I'll read from The Conjurer, but I'll have States for sale.

Hope to see many of you there.