A Way With Words

Book cover
Little Black Book of Storiesby By A. S. ByattKnopf. 240p $21

In The Thing in the Forest, the opening story of A. S. Byatt’s latest collection, two young girls, evacuated during the last war to the English countryside, witness a monstrous creature in a sunlit wood. Rolling toward them, devouring everything in their path, comes a grotesque worm that appears to be created out of the trees and leaves themselves, to be integral to the forest even as it destroys it. It and its stench passed within a few feet of their tree trunk, humping along, leaving behind it a trail of bloody slime and dead foliage, sucked to dry skeletons.

This story, a revisiting of the ancient English folk legend of the Loathly Worm, returns to familiar A. S. Byatt territory. With its themes of storytelling and memories woven into myths and fairy tales, it is a story about stories. And all the tales in this collection in some way return, obsessively even, to this central theme, the telling of stories, the way in which memory distorts and enriches experience, and the way in which all readers and tellers of stories are fed by the same cultural springs of ancient myth. Byatt is fascinated by words, by the sound and shape of them, by the music of lists, and by etymology and how one can unravel in a single word a hundred skeins, different histories and unexpected connections.

In A Stone Woman, Ines, a New Yorker (and a dictionary compiler), finds herself literally hardening into stone: One day she found a cluster of greenish-white crystals sprouting in her armpit. These she tried to prise away and failed. They were attached deep within; they could be felt to be stirring stony roots under the skin surface, pulling the muscles. Jagged flakes of silica and nodes of basalt pushed her breasts upward and flourished under the fall of flesh, making her clothes crackle and rustle. Under the protection of a cemetery stonecutter, Ines goes to Iceland and, as the winter sets in, is drawn inexorably to take her part in an Icelandic folk legend about stone creatures who beckon the living into the high crags in a wild dance: ...figures, spinning and bowing in a rapid dance on huge, lithe, stony legs, beckoning with expansive gestures, flinging their great arms wide in invitation. In The Pink Ribbon, the elderly James, a classicist caring for his senile wife, Mado, is visited by a beautiful young woman who identifies herself as the Fetch. She tells him she has come to take his wife: There are many things in heaven and earth you can’t see, James. The etheric body can get separatedfrom the clay. It can wander in churchyards. It needs to be set free. As she needs to be set free.

The stories in Little Black Book are all beautiful to look at. Byatt has a way of using words as though they are individual treasures that have been patiently sifted from a muddy riverbed. She picks them over, dwells on them, makes them jewel-like to her reader. And now as she wandered on, she saw and recognised them, windflower and bryony, self-heal and dead nettle, and haddespite where she wasa lovely lapping sense of invisiblejust invisible life swarming in the leaves and along the twigs, despite where she was, despite what she had not forgotten having seen there.

But, despite this writer’s virtuosity, these stories do not really live. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is. While reading them, one is impressedoften brought up short with admirationby the author’s superior literary sensibility, by the research and knowledge that are so seamlessly woven into the narrative, by the swoops of imaginative intellect that draw themes together so fascinatingly. But I for one never really cared a jot for any of the characters that inhabit them. All too often, in fact, it seemed Byatt’s people, all of them clearly starting off as good, fleshed-out characters, before long became rock-hard ciphers for their creator’s larger ideas.

There is more than a touch of didacticism to Byatts writingand her characters are made into dictionary compilers, classicists, doctors, professional storytellers or stone masons, not so that we can learn about them, but so that through them Byatt can instruct us on the subject of one of her own hobbyhorses. There are flashes of humor, but they are few. In Raw Material she does an amusing parody of the list of books written by a creative writing class (and anyone who has read Possession will know what a superb parodist she can be), but it is rather a tired target. Unfortunately, many of the stories in Little Black Book seem to peter out as if exhausted by their own ideas. It is as if the delicate bones of plot and character were simply crushed under the weight of all that rich and lovely language.

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