enchanting territorial aggression (Byatt)

little black book of stories,
by a.s. byatt
the “black” in the title is appropriate in that the stories each have a fair measure of darkness in them. at the same time, there is such a fascination with people, with the private worlds they inhabit, and with the acceptance, or rather affirmation of something that needs no explanation, defies explanation, in every day life, that the stories sucked just sucked me in. thank you, s, for suggesting and consequently lending me this book. (it’s actually a different edition, with a red and brown-ish painting of trees in the center of the cover, but i found this literally black cover more attractive.)
i will be the first to admit that i sometimes have problems with “literature” – it tends to be so long-winded. my attention span is short, my tolerance level for superfluous words is low. i have mentioned before, in other posts, the magic 300 or 350 page limit – if a book, especially a novel, is longer than that, chances that i will finish it are not very high. but i think it would be ok if it was a byatt. because her writing is concise, observant, filled with interesting details, strong imagery, and no spare words. she is witty, too, when she feels like it:

Small feathered throats above her, and in the depths beyond, whistled and trilled with enchanting territorial aggression and male self-assertion, which were to Primrose simply the chorus.  (p. 32, The Thing in the Woods)

all these stories, however varied their characters and settings, have the common theme of bodies (particularly women’s bodies), ownership, and identity:

Both little girls had the idea that these were all perhaps not very good children, possibly being sent away fro that reason. They were pleased to be able to define each other as ‘nice’. They would stick together, they agreed. Try to sit together, and things. (p.5, “The Thing in the Forest”)

the two little girls stick together by identifying each other as good and different from the rest of the displaced children, and then later, when they meet again, each other’s existence and their shared memories of “the thing” serve as reassurance that neither is insane. at the same time, somehow, the other-constituted identity no longer works the same way it did then.
in the following story, the central character, a doctor in the gynecology department of a hospital, is surprised by a falling ladder, and the person thereon.

Damian Becket […] staggered back under the full weight of the falling artist, whose head hit his chest, whose skinny ankles were briefly flung over his shoulder. He clutched; his arms were full of light, light female flesh and bone, wound up in the rayon and muslin harem trousers and tunic, embroidered in gold and silver. His nose was in baby-soft, silver-dyed, spun-glass spikes of hair. Lumpy things began to bounce on the floor. Bitten apples, a banana, a bent box of chocolates. The woman in the nearest bed laid claim, loudly, to these last. (p.58, Body Art)

while one could certainly argue that the image of her legs flung over his shoulder in her crash landing on him / his catching her (whichever way you want to read it) is not necessarily an image of ownership (the caveman putting “his” woman over his shoulder and walking off with her, or the archetypal mills & boon or harlequin hero), it is a foreshadowing of things to come.
damian becket thinks of women as bodies, which he claims is because of his daily dealings, professionally, with women’s bodies that are sweaty, naked, and in any number of forms of at times even life-threatening distress. when he does meet a woman he finds attractive, he notes not only that her clothes are very nice, but especially the fact that they are ON her, and also that, in contrast to women in various stages of labour, is “in control of herself.” (p.89)
damian is in charge of an old collection of hospital “artifacts” – boxes and crates filled with specimens, medical tools, plaster casts, – that is hidden away from the public and also the hospital and its patients. there is something deeply disturbing yet touching and – no doubt – symbolic in this routinely ignored collection. when parts of this dark secret, these shut-away truths about women’s sexuality and child bearing, come to light in the form of a work of art, damian cannot face them and tears up the structure as soon as he discovers it. this, i read as a panicked response to a loss of control.
damian is a controlling man. when he accidentally fathers a child, he still thinks of the child’s mother as a body, and the child as his own body, his property for which he is responsible. he has no consideration for the risks he is exposing the mother to, and the idea that, because this child is growing inside her body, she should have a say in the matter as to whether she wants to risk her life to birth this baby, never enters his mind until it is too late.
the other three stories also deal with the body, our relationship to our own body – especially “the stone woman” – and identity, which for me was a particularly strong issue in “the pink ribbon”, and, in between, there is a piece of meta-fiction if you like – “raw materials” is a story about a creative writing teacher. here, the theme of defining oneself comes in again, among other interesting observations.what i like best (among many things i like about this collection) is the lack of explanation. there is a murder but we never find out who did it, or why, or what really happened. because these things are not the point of the story. we also never do get to see the “thing in the woods” in broad daylight, we get no taxonomy, no genus or subspecies, no debunking of a myth, no proof of its truth. because that is not at the heart of the story.in any case, i much enjoyed this little black book of stories (i finished it in less than 2 days), i am quite taken by byatt’s style and voice, and look forward to the other two books of hers s lent me. next on the list is another collection of stories, “elementals.”


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Hush Hush, by Steven Barthelme | Outside of a Cat

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