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).
|Me and Dame Antonia, 2005|
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 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."