sugar and elementals (byatt)


Mrs Smith’s own life made no sense to her without her art, but she was disinclined to believe in it as a cure, or a duty, or a general necessity. Nor did she see the achievement of the work of art as a paradigm for the struggle for life, or virtue. 

She had somehow been inoculated with it, in the form of the novel, before she as a moral being had anything to say to it. It was an addiction. The bright books of life were the shots in the arm, the warm tots of whisky which kept her alive and conscious and lively. 

She often asked herself, without receiving any satisfactory answer, why she needed it, and why this form of it? Her answers would have appeared to Joyce, or Mann, or Proust, to be frivolous. It was because she had become sensuously excited in early childhood by Beatrix Potter’s sentence structure, or Kipling’s adjectives. 

(from: on the day that e.m. forster died, in: sugar & other stories, p129-130)

byatt describes mrs smith as having clearly been seduced by reading itself. (a feeling i can appreciate because i have often felt this happen to me. if you are interested in this phenomenon, i recommend frances wilson’s “literary seductions”.) her description feels accurate and like she is speaking from experience herself. at the same time, this passage serves well to illustrate the difference between this book (sugar and other stories) and the other two byatt short story collections i have read, namely “the little black book of stories” and “elementals”.

the stories that stood out for me when reading “sugar” were “racine and the table cloth” and, more so for its simplicity and almost ‘black book-ish’ style, “the july ghost”. the first story is in fact the first story in the book. it introduces us to emily bray, a girl / young woman at a boarding school. what made this story interesting to me was the devolution of emily’s belief in ‘the Reader’ as a higher being for whom she writes, for whom all important writing is done.
i have to admit that i find this collection more ‘work’ to read – my reading is slower, i feel less involved, i get less engaged with the characters. i feel much like mrs smith in the story already quoted above:

She liked things to happen. 


that’s the main point of difference i find between this and the little black book of stories – the texts here are much more wordy, much more, if you will, “thoughty” than the earlier stories. it may well be just my personal reading / due to the order in which i read the books, starting with the black book followed by elementals and finally sugar, but there seems to be a progression here – an increase in wordiness and most of all in abstraction. as a poet i am not a big fan of abstraction, though i realize it has its place. all i can say is i enjoyed the black book the most, elementals quite a bit, and am struggling a little with sugar.

lamia, by waterhouse, 1909
note the snakeskin on her lap

as for elementals – the story which stood out most here, for me, was “a lamia in the cevennes.” this was my first encounter with the lamia. for those who, like me, are new to this species of mythological creature, while there is a specific person who was / is referred to by the name lamia (a queen of lybia who became a child-eating demon), the lamia referred to in the story is the creature described by keats:

“Lamia” is a narrative poem written by English poet John Keats. The poem, written in 1819, tells how the God Hermes hears of a nymph who is more beautiful than all. Hermes, searching for the nymph, instead comes across a Lamia, trapped in the form of a serpent. She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and in return he restores her human form. She goes to seek a youth of Corinth, Lycius, while Hermes and his nymph depart together into the woods. The relationship between Lycius and Lamia, however, is destroyed when the sage Apollonius reveals Lamia’s true identity at their wedding feast, whereupon she returns to her serpent state and Lycius dies of grief. 


 it’s a good story, byatt’s. read it. it’s set in our day, it involves a painter, and has lots of colour references.  waterhouse’s lamia, inspired by keats’ poem and updated by byatt’s painter, is still as mysterious and stunning as in her first appearance.

p.s. – you can read the whole (long) poem by keats here:


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

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

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