Interviews

A. S. Byatt, The Art of Fiction No. 168

Interviewed by Philip Hensher

A. S. Byatt lives and writes in her handsome west London house and, in the summer months, in her house in the south of France. Both are filled with art, predominantly by her contemporaries, libraries of extravagant, Borgesian range and curiosa of many kinds, hinting at her unusual fecundity of mind: exotic preserved insects, the intricate examples of Venetian millefiori glassware and objects rare and fascinating of all imaginable varieties. The impression given by her houses is confirmed by her conversation, which moves confidently between literature, biology, the fine arts, and theoretical preoccupations and displays a mind turned always outwards. She is not a writer one can imagine being tempted to write a memoir: solipsism is not in her nature.

No novelist, perhaps, has done so much to widen the range of English fiction. The current, almost bewildering gusto of inquiry in contemporary English writing owes an enormous amount to the example of Possession, which is the first, grandest and best example of that alluring form, the romance of the archive; the scientific fantasy of “Morpho Eugenia,” too, has proved enormously instructive to younger writers. If English writing has stopped being a matter of small relationships and delicate social blunders, and has turned its attention to the larger questions of history, art, and the life of ideas, it is largely due to the generous example of Byatt’s wide-ranging ambition. Few novelists, however, have succeeded subsequently in uniting such a daunting scope of mind with a sure grasp of the individual motivation and an unfailing tenderness; none has written so well both of Darwinian theory and the ancient, inexhaustible subject of sexual passion.

Her novels are Shadow of a Sun (1964), reprinted under the originally intended title The Shadow of the Sun in 1991, The Game (1967), Possession: A Romance (1990), which was a popular winner of the Booker Prize, and The Biographer’s Tale (2000). The novels The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), and Babel Tower (1996) form part of a four-novel sequence, contemplated from the early 1960s onwards, which will be completed by A Whistling Woman in 2002. Her shorter fiction is collected in Sugar and Other Stories (1987), Angels and Insects (1992), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), and Elementals (1998). All these are much translated, a matter in which she takes great interest (she is a formidable linguist). She is also the author of several works of criticism and the editor of The Oxford Book of the English Short Story, an anthology that attempts, for the first time, to examine the national character through its national writers; an exercise only flawed by the anthology’s modest omission of its editor’s own stories, as she is surely one of the most accomplished practitioners of the shorter form now living. Her status was officially recognized with the award of a CBE (commander of the British Empire) in 1990 and a damehood in 1999.

Our conversation took place over the course of five days in the summer of 1998 in the garden of her house in the south of France. We talked over champagne, by the side of a swimming pool rather like the one in her short story “A Lamia in the Cévennes.” As the hot day cooled into evening, our conversations had the feeling of relaxation on both sides. Dame Antonia spent the days working on The Biographer’s Tale, and I submitted to the rigor of cycling in solitude up the ferocious mountains that surround her house. One day, we took a day off and drove to Nimes, that beautiful Roman city: Dame Antonia’s pleasures—they seemed equal—in the dazzling glass palace of the Carré d’Art, old bullfighting posters, a ravishing Matisse nude in pencil, and a superlatively delicious lunch at that great temple of the art nouveau, the Hôtel Imperator Concorde, were contagious. Both of us, I think, enjoyed the conversations, however, as a break from more arduous activities, and although the interviewer should always try to keep the conversation to the point, it was not always easy to resist a feeling of delight as Dame Antonia moved onto evolutionary theory, non-conformism, F. R. Leavis, and dozens of other topics with a sure, swift movement of thought. There are few writers so rich in intellectual curiosity; none, perhaps, who so definitely regards the life of the mind as a matter of pleasure taken and given in equal measure.

 

INTERVIEWER

In what circumstances did you write your first novel, The Shadow of the Sun?

A. S. BYATT

Well, I tend to say I wrote nothing as an undergraduate. But, in fact, I sat there in most of the lectures I went to, which weren’t many, writing this novel very obsessively and extremely slowly. And knowing it was no good, and knowing I didn’t want to write a novel about a young woman at a university who wanted to write a novel, and equally knowing I didn’t know anything else, and had to write that sort of novel . . .

INTERVIEWER

And perhaps not wishing to put your life on hold until you did know something else?

BYATT

No, because looking back on it, I don’t have a driven desire actually to be in the act of writing. But my response to any form of excitement about reading is to want to write. I think I was lucky at Cambridge. A university English degree stops most people wanting to write. And it slowed me down and embarrassed me a great deal about wanting to write, but, at the same time, it intensely increased my desire to write.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write as a child?

BYATT

Yes, I did. In fact, I wrote a lot, most of which I burned before I left boarding school. Somebody I went to school with wrote me a letter from Canada the other day saying she remembers me reading aloud a whole adventure story I was writing, which I also remember writing. It was a story about some disguised male figure getting into this girls’ boarding school. I had this terrible need for male figures.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a very strong picture in your second novel, The Game, of childhood creativity, but I have the feeling that there’s an element of the smokescreen to it. It’s quite an accurate portrait of what the Brontës got up to, isn’t it?

BYATT

Yes, this is true. It’s also something to do with what a man I once knew said to me about his sister. It was the only thing he ever said about his sister, and what he said was that she played an imaginary board game with imaginary pieces. That was like the thing Henry James said about going up the stair and finding the one needful bit of information. A lot of what I write is about the need, the fear, the desire for solitude. I find the Brontës’ joint imagination absolutely appalling. So, in a sense, the whole thing was, as you rightly say, a construct and a smokescreen.

INTERVIEWER

To go back to your first novel, The Shadow of the Sun—how did it come to be published?

BYATT

Well, when I left Cambridge, I went and did one postgraduate year in America where I actually started a second novel, The Game, having put The Shadow of the Sun in a drawer. I then came back to England and went to Oxford, which gave me a whole area of The Game—another of the smokescreens in that it’s very much about what I think of as the Oxford mind as opposed to the Cambridge mind. Iris Murdoch is always asking me if I think there’s a difference, and I do.

I got married in 1959 and went to live in Durham, which is another medieval place. In those days if you were a woman they took away your grant for getting married. If you were a man, they increased it. So there I was with no grant, which secretly at some deep level I was pleased about, because I truly would rather have been a writer than an academic, and I needed to be forced into making that decision. I decided to put The Game back in the drawer and got out the first one. I had two small children, and in a slow and rather unhappy way, knowing that it was all inadequate, I rewrote and rewrote, with one or the other child in a little chair on the desk, rocking him with one hand. When I had finished it, I showed it to an academic at Durham who said, Oh, I expect you’re going to put that in a drawer and do something else now. So I never spoke to him really again. He turned up some years later at my publishers’ claiming that he had been the first encourager of my career!

I sent The Shadow of the Sun off to John Beer, the Coleridge man, who was my friend in Cambridge, the excellence of whose work, his thesis on Coleridge, had struck me, and whose ideas, I think, run through almost everything I write. He wrote back and said that he thought the first part might make a nice little book, and he wasn’t so sure about the second part, but he sent it off to Chatto & Windus. I then got a letter back from there, from Cecil Day-Lewis, saying, I have read your novel with great interest. Would you care to come to lunch with me in the Athenaeum? So I went to lunch with Cecil Day-Lewis in the Athenaeum, where you had to eat in the basement because you were a woman. He kept muttering, Boardinghouse food, boardinghouse food. He didn’t really mention the novel. We talked about poetry and Yeats and Auden and Shakespeare, and it was the literary conversation I had never had. When we got out on the pavement I rather tremblingly said, Might you be thinking of publishing this novel? He said, Oh yes, of course, of course.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a sense from the very beginning of your work of what you want to do. It’s not every novelist that would write a first novel about a successful novelist.

BYATT

In a sense, it’s a working-out of one’s relation to all those great figures who stalked across the landscape of the Cambridge mind—particularly, I suppose, D. H. Lawrence, with whom my relationship is extremely ambivalent. F. R. Leavis’s book on him must have just come out about then. Graham Hough at Christ’s was writing on him. Leavis was a very important figure for me in the sense that I perceived him as a kind of blockage to everybody who wanted to do what I wanted to do. At the same time, he did teach reading. He really did teach reading. I went to two of his seminars, which, you know, is a story I have told in Possession—I decided I wasn’t going to go to any more because either I would get like the other people who worshipped him, who derived an enormous amount from him, but somehow didn’t make anything, or I would just get angrier and angrier with what I saw as his manipulation of his students into admiring him.

INTERVIEWER

And, as George Steiner says, at the rows of students sniggering automatically at every mention of the Sunday supplements.

BYATT

Exactly. He did do things which I do think were rather vulgar, like throwing other people’s books in the rubbish bin at the beginning of his lecture. And he was paranoid, and paranoia is a very bad thing for anybody. Also, I have never wanted to belong to anything ever and he was a movement. He was a guru. I’m trying to write a novel at the moment with a guru in it. I don’t like gurus. I don’t like people who ask you to follow or believe. I like people who ask you to think independently. And, of course, he was a very ambiguous figure because he appeared to be doing the one, and was doing the other.

INTERVIEWER

He became a guru because he couldn’t be accepted by Cambridge, so he set up his own authority. And yet in some ways your values are quite close to Leavis’s. You come from quite similar intellectual backgrounds. I see quite a strong nonconformist streak running through your work and through his, which I think in both cases comes from this strong awareness of George Eliot and what lies behind her. Is that fair?

BYATT

I think that’s absolutely fair, and, of course, it is worth pointing out that Leavis, when he was a young don, taught my mother. She had her undergraduate essays with Leavis’s comments in the margin, and they were good teacherly comments—but she did come from a nonconformist background.

I can understand both the delicacy and toughness of George Eliot’s morality and the impatience with nonsense. I understand the rougher edges of nonconformism that come through D.H. Lawrence’s apocalyptic visions. I can take those as well. I like Bunyan, who Leavis liked, the kind of ranting, roaring, visionary English nonconformist. I don’t like the English gentlemanly high-church sort of refined person, except for George Herbert, who is perfect and unexpected.

INTERVIEWER

Can I suggest something? I suspect that there comes a point at which you think that the English nonconformist mind starts to label things as cant and writes them off, when they are not cant at all. I’m thinking of the passage in Still Life when Frederica reads Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and gives way to impatience with someone who is too ready to identify pretentiousness. What is presented as pretentiousness may merely be someone trying to live their life.

BYATT

Yes. Exactly the tolerance advocated by George Eliot, or the Quakers with whom I lived, who would not have managed to find Bernard, the artist in Lucky Jim, funny. He is no funnier than Kingsley Amis himself sitting there sneering at everybody, and he is certainly not as unpleasant as Jim, with his nasty fantasies of sticking beads up people’s noses or annihilating old ladies who are slowing down buses or, indeed, his repulsive images of girls with big breasts.

And in my view all sartorial decisions are comic. I also took against Philip Larkin for getting desperately impatient with an undergraduate sweeping along the High in Oxford in a blue velvet cloak and saying, Oh, my god, all that is starting up again. I mean, his kind of dour, I refuse to have anything to do with the aesthetic,” is all that too. It’s just another form of all that. Both of them are stances, pretenses, ephemeral. I mean, for God’s sake, neither a caveman nor, indeed, Oliver Cromwell would recognize any of it.

INTERVIEWER

The hateful thing in Lucky Jim is how much of this loathing is directed towards Margaret, who is seen as a woman getting above herself.

BYATT

Yes, and she wears the wrong clothes, which he is allowed to sneer at, but she isn’t allowed to disapprove of anything or find anything wrong. I’ve always felt that about Amis. In a sense, you can also feel it about Evelyn Waugh. I’ve just been rereading the Sword of Honour trilogy, and he takes a few blows, which he obviously thinks are terribly funny, at the pretensions of a certain sort of non-upper-class soldier. And they’re not really funny. They depend on a dreadfully artificial set of criteria. Every now and then Waugh, who I think is a much greater artist than Amis, knows how to undercut everybody’s pretensions, and you stare into the pit. But every now and again he doesn’t do that. People of my generation at Cambridge thought Amis was wonderful. They kept saying he stood for qualities of decency. It seems to me it’s the one thing he didn’t stand for at all.

INTERVIEWER

So starting to publish, you came from an excluded position. What did you come into?

BYATT

I was very naive, which I think saved me. You see, I thought I was coming into English literature, which included everything from Chaucer to Spenser to Shakespeare. What I was actually coming into was all this sort of postwar no-nonsense, angry young men, nobody has ever reported the English provinces, which is an extraordinarily ignorant position to take up. What did George Eliot and what did Lawrence do if not report the English provinces? All of them! It was complete nonsense, and the journalists just fell for it. As they fell for it with Look Back in Anger—as though nobody had ever reported lower-middle-class anger before. It had been reported almost ad nauseam. I am possibly related to Arnold Bennett, who reported it with infinitely more depth, breadth, wisdom, and understanding than John Wain, John Braine, Kingsley Amis, or John Osborne. I actually found them rather boring, and Leavis had at least given one the proper arrogance to know inside one’s soul that they were slightly boring and that they would pass.

But I was saved, in fact. I was saved, in the sense of feeling there might be something I belonged to, by two people, one of whom was Iris Murdoch, who was not writing that kind of thing. She was writing philosophical novels, which contained myths about the nature of things. And the other was Frank Kermode, who, when I discovered him, was writing criticism about a literature that one might hope to add things to. In a way, what Kermode said William Golding and Lawrence Durrell were doing was more important to me than what Golding or Durrell were doing. I didn’t discover Anthony Burgess until a lot later, because I thought at the time he was another angry young man; but he’s another person who is actually full of rich invention and a complete lack of narrowness.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that you were writing books that were what you wanted to write and not second-guessing what the literary, the intellectual scene would like to hear at the time. What kind of reception did your first two books get? What impact did they make?

BYATT

Well, now I’m over sixty I can simply say this: the reception of my early books was completely meshed up with the fact that my sister Margaret Drabble was a writer. Nobody looked to see what I was doing, not for quite a long time. She had written more novels and she wrote them faster. I think it was extremely good for me in the long run because I had none of the things that most writers have, like the anxieties about reception. I just had this simple terror of being referred to as someone’s sister. So it was very important every time a book came out to have got the next one underway. It was very important for quite a long time not to read any of the reviews.

INTERVIEWER

That desire not to be your sister sounds like a negative urge, but actually one could see how it could start to have quite a positive impact on your work. A book like The Virgin in the Garden has an ambition to be as extravagant as possible, to go in a completely different direction. Was there a sort of freedom about that?

BYATT

There was as long as I never read the press and didn’t do interviews and, on the whole, didn’t go to parties and things, which I only partly did. But there was a freedom, yes. I did a lot of my writing as though I was an academic, doing some piece of research as perfectly as possible.

INTERVIEWER

You have written distinguished critical books, and I wondered whether you ever regretted that work on novels took you away from criticism in any respect?

BYATT

Not even for a moment. All my academic work has been done for one of two reasons. One was to sort out something I needed to think about as a writer. I think of my critical writing that I’ve enjoyed doing as being in the line of Coleridge needing to write about poetry, T. S. Eliot writing his odd essay, George Eliot’s essays, which I love.

I think of my criticism as being “writer’s criticism.” I taught an extramural class for about ten years in London University, and I loved that because that was where I learned the novels you don’t read in an English literature degree. We did Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kafka, Beckett, and we did Thomas Mann, and we did Ulysses, and by the end of it I knew the novel, not just the English novel; I also understood that people of very varying backgrounds when reading novels were interested in almost everything. It teaches you respect for the lay reader.

I took a university job in 1972 partly out of admiration for Frank Kermode, whose department I went into, and partly because both of my husbands said I had to get a paid job to pay for my son to go to boarding school. My son Charles got killed the same week* so the whole thing became the most dreadful knot. And I taught for eleven years. Really, I didn’t want to teach. I did actually weep all night after I accepted the job. Of course, in a way, after my son was dead, it was a very good thing to have the students. It was a very good thing to have the literature. And it was a very good thing to have the form of life that required you to keep moving up and down London when you would rather have sat in a heap and never moved again. Looking back on it, I treated my academic life very symbolically. I went on teaching for as long as my son had lived, and the moment I’d taught for that length of time I stopped.

But I never ever saw myself as an academic. I never, I think, ever saw it as anything other than a way to earn enough money to write a novel and have a bit of independence, though I do see scholarship as an extremely important and wonderful thing.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a very strong response in a lot of your books to rather a curious thing, which people sometimes underrate, which is the romance of scholarship. If you were to write a really big academic book, what would it be?

BYATT

If I suddenly realized I would never write another novel I would start on a book about what effect the idea of Napoleon had on the European novel. Nobody’s done it. And he haunts Dostoyevsky, he haunts Stendhal, Flaubert, he is still hovering around in Proust. He haunts Turgenev, he haunts the English, always in a low comic form, but he’s there in Thackeray. It is the most brilliant topic. Raskolnikov and Julien Sorel are nothing if they are not ideas of what it was like to be Napoleon.

INTERVIEWER

And The Count of Monte Cristo.

BYATT

And The Count of Monte Cristo. But you would need another whole life, and you’d need to be able to go and sit in the British Library, and pursue it to every single little corner. I know I can’t do that. I can’t stand the thought of what I can’t do, but it would be a good book, wouldn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that you do respond very well and very excitingly to something that, perhaps, we’d given up on in this country—the big public novel. The Virgin in the Garden, for example. It’s not small, it’s not parochial, it is about big subjects, and I wonder what on earth people made of it in 1978.

BYATT

They made two sorts of things of it. Quite a lot of the reviewers approached it in a sort of crabwise respectful way and said, This is a big book, and I haven’t yet worked out exactly what’s going on, which is reasonable. And then there were a few people who said, This is another novel by somebody rather like Margaret Drabble.

What it is trying to do, I think, is to see what you could do if you wrote Middlemarch now. It partly came out of my extramural class where I had sat with Tolstoy and with Dostoyevsky. I’d had the idea of The Virgin in the Garden in Durham in about 1961, which was the year my son was born there. I suddenly realized I had lived some history. I had lived, as it were, the war. I had lived the early fifties. I was in the sixties, and I saw the sixties, unlike many others, not as a time to make a revolution but as a time to look at the history I’d lived through.

And, also, I was thinking quite hard technically about the form of novels. I had read Angus Wilson’s The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and been very struck by the accident at the beginning. I actually thought up the death of Stephanie in 1961. I thought, I’ll write a series of books, and I’ll make the death be one of the central consciousnesses, so that the reader will be upset as you are by a real death and not as you are by a fictional death. Every two or three months, I get a letter from somebody saying, How dare you do this to me. I sat and cried all night. You know, you can’t do that in a novel. You have no right to kill people in novels like real people. It’s not fair.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, people arguing with the splinter of ice in the heart.

BYATT

Yes, that’s right. I didn’t have the splinter. That is, I formed the plan, got the splinter and wrote the accident. But anyway, all those things were going together. I also think, because I was teaching all this wide range of things in my novel course, I thought I might find a form. I was very surprised to find it far back in my thesis on Spenser and Milton. There’s a Spenserian aspect of Milton that I love. It’s the exotic. It’s the extraordinary metaphors. It’s the luscious sensuousness of him. It isn’t the stern puritan. I think I made something of Spenser that was the presence of stories about unreal things in a serious, real world. It crops up in odd forms even in things like The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which is about the serious life of the fairy tale. He was quite useful in The Virgin in the Garden when I tried to get in the coronation of Elizabeth II—when everything was quoting Elizabethan language and we were all given a children’s magazine called The New Elizabethan, which was full of stories about the old Elizabethans. I had a hair-raising experience when I tried to look up what the weather had actually been like on Easter Sunday in the year of the coronation. I went to the London Library and checked the files of The Times, and the third leader had this immense passage all about Spenser. It was talking about mutability and the death of Queen Mary, the mother of George VI. One queen dies and another queen is born.

INTERVIEWER

This was the beginning of the great explosion of literary playfulness—the arrival of Calvino in England, the advent of the English misinterpretation of South American writing as magic realism, all those explosive influences on the English novel. You were there even before the beginning.

BYATT

Well, I think I was there before the beginning. I remember my first meeting with Angela Carter, with whom I became great friends later. We all went to hear Stevie Smith reading her poetry—lots of writers around her, rather like a bullring—and she stood in the middle and read. On the way out this very disagreeable woman stomped up to me, and she said, My name’s Angela Carter. I recognized you and I wanted to stop and tell you that the sort of thing you’re doing is no good at all, no good at all. There’s nothing in it—that’s not where literature is going. That sort of thing. And off she stomped. Then about five years ago she said that she had realized that she was a writer because of fairy tales, because she was hooked on narrative as a child, not by realist novels about social behavior or how to be a good girl, but by these very primitive stories that go I think a lot deeper. It wasn’t until she said it that I felt empowered, which is why I have to acknowledge that she said it. As a little girl, I didn’t like stories about little girls. I liked stories about dragons and beasts and princes and princesses and fear and terror and the four musketeers and almost anything other than nice little girls making moral decisions about whether to tell the teacher about what the other little girl did or did not do. My poor grandchildren live in a world where children’s books are about how awful it is to live in horrible blocks of flats in deprived areas of cities, which they ought to know, but you can understand entirely why everybody fell upon Harry Potter, which is more grown-up also.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think The Virgin in the Garden is so much present in the culture, still sells, is still read, is still hugely popular? I know it’s an awful thing to ask a writer to account for her popularity.

BYATT

Well, my ex-colleague John Sutherland wrote a piece in The Bookseller recently saying that it was completely unreadable, and that he and a colleague of his and mine at University College had a bet about whether any of them could finish it and none of them could! He actually published that. So I’m always deeply surprised when anyone says anybody is reading it. I think it is popular with a lot of young women. I think it’s partly popular because it does give an image of a not agreeable, furiously ambitious, rather done-down woman. But I like to think it’s popular because it’s writerly and it includes a lot of things. I had a very nice letter the other day from somebody in the north of England who said that she loved the way it kept changing tones of voice, and she loved the way I actually had a very wide range of people in the class structure of England, none of whom I particularly liked or disliked, but all of whom I could write about. I think a lot of books last if you don’t dislike anybody too much, or take a poke at them.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no accident that you do have a huge readership in Europe who responds very profoundly to your concerns and interests. When did you start to become aware of that?

BYATT

I’ve always wanted to be a European simply, you know, for a trivial and profound reason, which is that I’m good at languages. I love countries because I love their languages. I did French, German, Latin, and English at school, and then I learned Italian at Cambridge in order to do Dante. This means that I can actually read European literature with its own rhythms even if I have to have a side-by-side text for the difficult bits.

I don’t think I did have a European readership, really, until Possession. Simply because I wanted to be in Europe I rather deliberately wrote a lot of short texts, which I hoped people would translate. I think that was the only really public piece of maneuvering I’ve ever done in my life. The result is, of course, that the Europeans tend to think of me as an elegant short-story writer and a fantasy writer, and they don’t know about The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower, which on the whole are not translated, though the Danes, the French and the Germans are now setting out on the whole thing. God knows what they’re going to make of them because they don’t fit the Europeans’ idea of who I am. I remember once talking about The Virgin in the Garden in the early eighties at a French literary festival, and somebody saying, Why should we be interested in the coronation of Elizabeth II? Had this young man read the book, he would have seen it was actually about Ovidian myths of fertility, which he could have understood, or at least I hope he could.

INTERVIEWER

Well, the answer is always the same. Why are we interested in Napoleon’s wars? Why are we interested in the Duchesse de Guermantes?

BYATT

At that same literary festival, Kazuo Ishiguro was sitting there saying that he had just written this novel about a butler and that he was translated into twenty-seven languages and that you had certain responsibilities to your readership. He had actually gone to the trouble of learning about what sort of spoons and forks the butler would have put out. He had then taken out the local references because he was writing what he called, with no derogatory intention, an international novel. I wrote a little article in The Times asking what had happened to those little local details, which are why you write at all, things you want to save from oblivion, things that are specific to the time and place you’re writing in. I went on to mention Tolstoy. Tolstoy describes gathering mushrooms in Russian forests. I’ve never been in Russian forests, and I’ve eaten mushrooms, but not those mushrooms. But you know exactly what they are. That’s the difference between a good writer, who can make you care about the Duchesse de Guermantes or that particular mushroom, and somebody who can’t, who is somehow expecting you to call up a set of associations that they haven’t created.

INTERVIEWER

There’s always a spirit of sympathy in your work, and a conviction of the importance of being fair to what people—even fictitious people—might have meant or thought. I can’t think of many other writers who, in extremis, would resist the temptation to make fun, to be satirical.

BYATT

It could be seen as a weakness. I’m afraid of people making fun of other people. I was the child that sat in the back of the class and wondered how the class could be destroying the inadequate secondary French mistress. I was the child that wondered what on earth she felt like. I think the virtue I prize above all others is curiosity. If you look really hard at almost anybody, and try to see why they’re doing what they’re doing, taking a dig at them ceases to be what you want to do even if you hate them. I remember having an argument with Iris Murdoch about that. I said, You know, I really do think it’s silly to take digs at people because of the clothes they wear or because of the way they express themselves. She said, Oh yes, but all novelists have to do that, which rather surprised me because she on the whole is a nondigger as well. It’s partly my father, who never said anything nasty about anybody that I ever heard, which doesn’t mean he was a weak or sentimental man.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think, to ask rather a leading question, that the 1960s notion that “the personal is the political” is at all compatible with the practice of writing novels?

BYATT

It got dreadfully overdone. It did more harm than good to the novel. I did a talk with David Lodge and Mervyn Jones at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London], I think in the early seventies. And we were talking about what happened to the Leavis great tradition novel. Has anything happened to it? Has it now died? Has realism gone away? All those things. We sat and had a perfectly reasonable but not inspired discussion, as I remember, in the theater, which meant you couldn’t see the audience. There was a man in the front row, rather an old man, who said he wanted to ask a question but didn’t know how to phrase it. He said, Why is the contemporary British novel set always either in academe or in the media or in the kitchen? The world is full of many other things. When I was younger—he continued in rather a patronizing voice that made everybody very furious—I was interested in those three things. Now I’m not interested in any of them. And David Lodge said, Oh, well, perhaps you ought to be. Mervyn Jones said quite dryly that he could take it or leave it, but they weren’t uninteresting. But I said that I rather agreed with him. What are you interested in? I asked. So he said, I’m interested in the politics of multinational companies. I’m interested in what is happening to the relations between nations and the shift in global power. The novel seems not even to be aware of that. At this point a feminist academic stood up and said with really complete contempt for him that she thought he would realize that the personal was the political and that he would find a paradigm of every possible political situation in the kitchen. And I said, That simply isn’t true. Then a sepulchral voice at the back said, Actually there are some novels that do have political power and do actually even cause people to march up and down in the streets. Günter Grass’s, for instance, or even my own work . . . And I peered into the dark and said, Who are you? And this voice said, I am Salman Rushdie. It was when he had just written Shame. But I’ve thought a lot about that irritated man. His objections were absolutely right. The personal is not the political, although the participants in the political are persons. The political isn’t entirely personal. The kitchen is not a paradigm for everything.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about Possession. The central figure, the avenging angel of the book, is a surprising one. It’s Beatrice Nest, isn’t it?

BYATT

Yes. And she, of course, is Dante and Beatrice. It’s a terribly overdetermined womanly name. She looks like a nest, but certainly isn’t one, because she’s a maiden lady. I feel immense sympathy for her. She really suffered from being put down by male English departments. The one where I taught was well-known for excluding the women members by conducting all its business over beer in the pub. And as late as 1964, women were not allowed in the senior common room. They could only go in the women’s senior common room, which was known as the Margaret Murray Room. Beatrice was the generation who was told that because she was a woman she must work not on Randolph Ash, but on Ellen Ash—it’s disgusting to want to work on Randolph, he was a man.

INTERVIEWER

It’s underestimated to what degree women understand men, and vice versa. It’s increasingly presented as a fantastically complex thing, which nobody could ever be expected to achieve, but if that were the case, we all might as well give up writing novels or, for that matter, reading them.

BYATT

I found myself doing an interview about Patrick O’Brian on the television. It was very amusing. This man came into my house and said, Why do you like the novels of Patrick O’Brian, and what do you like and what don’t you like about them? I said, I really don’t like his women characters, who I think are romantic constructs. We went on talking a bit more. We talked about O’Brian’s nature study, and how he does the sea, and how his plotting is completely surprising at any moment. Then he said, Yes, but an awful lot of this is about, you know, the life of men together in ships. What interest is that to women? I found myself saying, as though it was an incredibly surprising thing, Yes, but women like men! You know, women like Dick Francis’s books too.

INTERVIEWER

Are your characters taken from real-life models?

BYATT

None of the people in Possession has much of an original in a real human being, but Maud had an original in a student I had who was very beautiful and who never took her hair out of a very tight green handkerchief, which she seemed to have put on as a form of self-torture. She was such a beautiful woman I couldn’t see why she had done it. One of my daughters once said to me, My generation is afraid of the word love. We will use almost any other word, but not that one. I’ve always said it’s a dangerous thing writing novels about people younger than yourself, so I had to rely on little clues to that generation.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk a bit about the poetry in Possession. One of the things people always comment on is how solid and credible the pastiche, if one can use such a word, how absolutely unfaultable it is.

BYATT

It was a very odd experience writing that poetry because I’ve always had a self-deprecating belief that there are things I can’t do, one of which is sing in tune, which I certainly can’t and never will, and another of which was write poetry. I knew I was a prose person. When teachers at school tried to make me write poetry I used to say, This is no good, I can’t do it. I’m sorry, I haven’t the ear. All the way through university I only wrote essays on poetry because you could learn it by heart; and it was easy to quote the whole poem in an exam and get a good mark. It’s much easier to analyze a Donne sonnet in an exam question than struggle around with Ulysses. So, for that reason, I’d studied poetry, but at the same time I had eschewed it. When I was first teaching in the extramural classes the students used to keep saying, Can we have a concurrent class on poetry? I would say in a timid way, No, no, you know, I can’t do poetry. I do the novel. That’s what I know about. But anyway, for all these reasons, I was terrified of the poems. I had this conversation with Dennis Enright. I said to him, I had the idea that I would do what Robertson Davies did in his book about the opera about Orpheus, and take a very unknown set of poems and stick them in. I thought I might take Ezra Pound’s early poems that were pastiche Browning. He said, Don’t be ridiculous. You must write them yourself. In some ways, partly because he had been my editor, this was a challenge. I thought, Well, I’ll go back and just write one and see if it works. And then I did have this dreadful experience, which of course was just what I was writing against, of the language speaking through you. It really was a sort of experience of being possessed. It was an experience of all the Victorian poems that didn’t exist and should have existed suddenly crowding up like ghosts in Homer and trying to get out. There was no problem to writing any of it. I didn’t have to think about it. All my life I had had a passion for Victorian poetry, which had been denigrated and despised by both T. S. Eliot and the Leavis school. There was nobody who liked it. I only knew one person in the world who really thought Victorian poetry was great poetry and that was Isobel Armstrong, whom I had met by accident in the cafeteria of the British Museum. She became a good friend because we discovered that both of us really had a passion for Browning, a real passion. The book’s dedicated to her.

What I have written, to a certain extent, is modern poetry that is Victorian poetry, although there isn’t an anachronism. It also does things that the slightly feebler Victorian poems that annoy you, like some of Matthew Arnold’s lesser works, don’t do. It has metaphors that I did like when I was studying modern poetry. There are things I got out of T. S. Eliot and I convert them back into the Victorian poetry he got them from. But it was all done at terrible speed. When I wrote the novel, I was writing against the idea that we are spoken by the language. I do have this idea that an author writes, an author is an author. But in these poems, something was speaking to me.

INTERVIEWER

What was the experience like of going back the next morning or, for that matter, going back now and actually re-reading the poetry? I mean, can you see clearly where it’s coming from, or does it still seem like, as you say, modernist poetry as written by a Victorian poet?

BYATT

Well, it is all structure, all part of the novel. Another thing I should say about Possession is that it’s the only one of my novels that’s been written on the whole without interruption, without somebody getting ill, without a disaster happening, without having won the Booker Prize, without being pushed around by book tours. And it has that kind of dreadful energy that comes of having written it from the first word to the last with the whole book in your head.

I very rarely—almost never—reread my own work once it’s published. I do actually enjoy reading the poetry because it surprises me. I like the really wicked poem, which is just a great chunk of Henry James, which was actually in blank verse anyway, to which I’ve added about four words. It’s the one about the connoisseur and the beautiful tiles, which is just Mr. Verver and the golden bowl. A Henry James scholar, a very eminent Henry James scholar in New England, suddenly noticed this and got into a terrible rage and said I was cheating, that this was plagiarizing. So I wrote her a letter saying that this is a postmodern text, it is an homage to James. It isn’t nicking him. And we became friends.

INTERVIEWER

Something that’s been striking me quite forcibly is that you place a lot of weight on the simple evocation of simple things. What I’m thinking of is the weight, value, and energy you draw simply from the magical names of colors in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.

BYATT

I think the names of colors are at the edge between where language fails and where it’s at its most powerful. One of the things I noticed when I was working a lot on van Gogh in Still Life was how he doesn’t decline his color adjectives. It is as though all the colors remained things. So if you’re talking about quelque chose blanche he just leaves it as blanc. Apparently you’re allowed to do this because it isn’t quite clear whether they are nouns or adjectives. That in itself is very beautiful. I also read and reread Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color in which he asks how do we know when we say red that we mean the same thing? There are no guarantees, in a way, that if you write something people will read what you wrote. I used to go round the department when I was teaching at UCL, when I was writing Still Life, and try out not the big color words but the little color words. There’s a particular very subtle English language expert and I would say to her, If I put in malachite, what do you see? She’d say, I haven’t the slightest idea, and she didn’t know what ocher was, or gamboge, or viridian. Those people who do will have a completely different experience of what I’ve written from those who don’t. I’ve just this morning had a letter from my friend and French translator, Jean-Louis Chevalier, who is translating the bit in The Virgin in the Garden about Wilkie’s glasses, which were sometimes Cambridge blue and sometimes Bristol red. He’s translated Cambridge blue as bleu clair, which is, a, accurate, but, b, not quite right. He obviously doesn’t know Bristol glass, so he can’t see that particular red that Bristol glass is. He gave me a list that went on for about a line and a half of French possible words that might do for this particular kind of red. I couldn’t find one that was the right red for Bristol red. This made me despondent and at the same time very gleeful.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a question of taxonomy, isn’t it? I mean, there are languages, such as Italian, in which what we call blue has two different names, blu and azzurro, which probably have the same incidence.

BYATT

One of my favorite books, which I read again and again, is John Gage’s book on the theory of color. He talks about how green and yellow in ancient Rome probably meant blue.

INTERVIEWER

Purple in Shakespeare pretty definitely means blue.

BYATT

And purple in French always means red, which I didn’t know. I wrote a whole beach scene in Still Life in which the Wittgenstein philosopher talks about how on earth Proust can refer to something being purple when it clearly isn’t. And of course I didn’t know then that actually pourpre doesn’t mean purple, it means red. I don’t think any English person seeing it in French will not have a quick visual association of at least a very reddish purple or purplish red. It’s one of the areas in which, as a writer, you get very interested in your readers because you know that they will have very quick physical reactions to those words, and some of them will immediately see what you see, and some of them will see quite some other thing, and some of them almost won’t see anything. And this can lead you philosophically to think about the fact that really, truly no reader reads the same text as another reader. And yet they are all in a fair degree of agreement about what it is they’ve read or what it is that they’ve been asked to visualize.

INTERVIEWER

One of the intriguing things about your books is that you are very interested in science, but also explore very effectively some of those magical concerns, some of those divisions between the scientific investigator and the charlatan.

BYATT

I remember reading an article by Frank Kermode in which he said in a rather small voice, “Will no one stand up for reason?” Actually, I think I am a rationalist. But I think our descriptions of the world are inadequate. I think most of the scientific descriptions of the human place in the world are as inadequate as those of the magicians or religious people, though I’m completely on the side of the scientists. I am at the moment reading a completely ludicrous book by a popular follower of Jung about the importance to everyone of the zodiac. I think the zodiac represents human poetry at its most ludicrous and arbitrary. If you actually look at those things in the sky they are not, God help us, a ram or a bull or a virgin. They are a series of dots. There’s a wonderful bit at the end of a novel by Cees Nooteboom where the man is sailing in the ship of death down the Amazon with a lot of other dead people, and he meets a Chinese sage who is also dead, who points out that all the alchemical symbols, all the astrological symbols have different names in Chinese and are differently arranged. I fail to understand why human beings need these systems, but they do. It’s ingrained in our natures in the way in which we seem to feel that we need to celebrate birth, marriage,and death. We must have a form to go with them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve talked and written a good deal about Darwinism, and I’ve been very struck by the fact that you often place it intellectually in relationship to Christian belief.

BYATT

Certainly, for Darwin himself, there was a dreadful conflict here. It’s partly to do with the fact that Christianity is an historical religion. It might be much easier to be a Buddhist and a Darwinian than it is to be a Christian and a Darwinian, because the Darwinian image of history undid the Bible. This is interesting in terms of the novel, which is a narrative about incarnate beings. If you see them in Darwinian terms you are losing the whole biblical structure of the kind of skeleton of a narrative as well as all the beliefs about the dignity of human beings that you might have had. Some nineteenth-century writers recognized this, and some of them didn’t. I don’t think Dickens did. I don’t think Dickens really saw what was being done to the mindset, whereas Browning deeply and profoundly did, and hung on to his Christianity knowing that he really didn’t think it was true, and not having worked out the modern churchman’s positions at all about how a thing can be true and not true.

INTERVIEWER

Tennyson began to see something of it even before Darwin, surely. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” is before Origin of Species.

BYATT

And “man who built him fanes of hopeless prayer” and “stretching your arms to that which we believe is good indeed and faintly touch the larger hope”—that’s not quite exact, I know. Tennyson, much more than Browning, was a man through whom ideas spoke. The whole idea that Tennyson wasn’t intelligent is rubbish. He was a profoundly intelligent man. He did exactly what T. S. Eliot said he didn’t do, which was think the world out solidly with metaphors that held the idea in a solid object. Of course, Eliot was a Christian working against the grain of his time, so he wanted to believe that Tennyson didn’t believe in incarnation, whereas Tennyson, in some much deeper sense, knew what it was better, I think, than Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Darwinism is fundamentally an intellectual structure without any element of redemption, running alongside a universal conviction that to make art one must console, and to console one has to have a myth of redemption. Can we do without redemption in a work of art?

BYATT

I don’t think we can, or at least I don’t think almost any of us can. The person one needs to read here is probably Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s idea of strong pessimism and his sense of pleasure in not being redeemed is a way where it is possible to be intensely happy just to be and to see how things are. This has the danger for the artist of meaning that your art gets to mean too much for you because your intense happiness probably consists of just enjoying the fact that you can actually do it. I notice that, partly out of a sense of the lack of redemption, I have been introducing more and more into my recent texts people who are very good craftsmen, people who are very good at something, people who do something perfectly that is almost a reflex action. You know, like someone cycling down a mountain, or the little tailor, who is not made happy by finding the beautiful woman but by being allowed to go on making perfect clothes.

I’ve just finished a fairy story about a cold princess who manages to make a compromise, having married a glass-blowing prince who comes from a very hot place, where they live in a place where both of them can survive, but neither of them is then completely comfortable. I nevertheless felt compelled to end it with the fact that she made a scientific study of the things that were on the mountainside (I made her go into very long and very distant correspondence with people about particular plants). I’ve come to see redemption as people doing things human beings do as best they possibly can before they’re snuffed out. It’s the opposite of Herbert: “Teach me, my God and King, / In all things / Thee to see, / And what I do in any thing, / To do it as for Thee.”

INTERVIEWER

But redemption is an element, a solution, a structure that literature reaches for and has reached for so often and for so long that it’s very difficult to know where we can go without it.

BYATT

Absolutely. I don’t know that we can. I don’t think we may be historically in a position to know. Iris Murdoch has asked that question again and again, and has given no answer, but has described the structure of the question. The way she puts it is, From where do we get any sense of moral imperatives, given that all the forms of God have gone away? I love the moment in The Time of the Angels when the priest turns on the philosopher and says,“If there is no God, what you’re doing is pointless. It happens again in A Fairly Honourable Defeat. There are modern enchanters who know that there is nothing, no transcendent source of value, that Nietzsche is right. But, again, Iris always leaves you with a few beetles that are continuing to go about their path. In a sense you can be all right in a world if you just look at the beetles. The beetles do become terribly important. The sense I have of possible redemption now is to do with stopping us destroying all the other species. I’ve come right round to Coleridge’s early vision of one life, which I used to think was just a metaphor, that we and the tree and the bird and everything are all one. It was a kind of pantheon.

INTERVIEWER

Why was there that sudden Europe-wide appeal of the absurd for about twenty years? Why did it start and why did it stop?

BYATT

I think the absurd may be connected to Nietzsche. I think it may be connected to an interest in nonsystems. It used to be said that before the war there were big descriptions of grids, that was the word that was always being used. There were Marxist descriptions of the way everything functioned, or there was Freud’s. Or Frazer’s, and the anthropologists’. Then they said the grids had broken up and what were left were a lot of little bits of unrelated absurd things. You’ve got Black Mountain poetry in America and Zazie dans le Métro. I think Iris learned a great deal from the French surrealists, and then somehow went and sat in Oxford and became a slightly less interesting novelist than she would have been if she had stayed in contact with the world of Beckett and Queneau—she would never have gone into Sarraute-like writings. I think she developed a theory about the virtues of Jane Austen that wasn’t all that good for her.

INTERVIEWER

In your books you talk about poststructuralist systems that are not systems but antisystems, and I think you are interested but wary about them.

BYATT

I don’t know of a system that I believe in. I do feel a compulsion to respect people who build systems, because it’s obviously a human thing. I don’t see much point in doing things for a pure joke. Every now and then you need a joke, but not so much as the people who spend all their lives constructing joke palaces think you do. They think it’s a form of sanity in an insane world, but I’m not sure it is. I love Tinguely’s machines, which don’t do anything, but it’s rather like framing the urinal. You can’t do that very often. Then you start thinking, Well, wouldn’t it be more interesting to look at a machine that lets the water out of a dam, that really works, or wouldn’t it be more interesting to look at why the Aswan Dam has killed the Mediterranean? You get to feel it’s a kind of preening narcissism. The one thing I really don’t like is narcissism. I don’t like writers sitting there admiring themselves for being so clever. I suppose what one ought to think about is what one does love in postmodernism. If you asked me what I wish I’d written, I would say Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” That is a completely pointless postmodernist structure of total beauty that nevertheless has a profound point.

INTERVIEWER

What about Italo Calvino?

BYATT

Calvino is analogously wonderful. He isn’t quite as much like a knife cutting to the center of the problem but he’s been immensely liberating to me. There was a wonderful moment of liberation when I realized I could write tales that came out of my childhood love of myth and fairy stories, rather than out of a dutiful sense of “I ought to describe the provincial young man coming up from Sheffield and how he can’t cope with the aristocracy in London.” Anybody would rather write about a princess who had to live in the snow. Calvino in Baron in the Trees and The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount gives you the permission to do this at a very elegant level. Similarly, reading Karen Blixen’s Tales of Imagination, which I did before Angela Carter had got going at all, I thought, If she can do this, one day I can. It isn’t really the absurd in that case, though. It’s the liberation into the invented, but the invented is deeply connected back to the myths that underlie our society. I remember the moment when I realized that the myths only exist because we all believe them; I was very annoyed with Iris Murdoch for behaving as though only she could write about the flaying of Marsyas, and suddenly I thought, She’s done it, I can’t. But of course the point about Marsyas is that unless many people write about him, he isn’t there. The gods are us but more so. Then I had this idea about Diana of Ephesus being more alive than I am because more people believe in her—a lovely thought. That in a sense comes out of a response to Karen Blixen and Calvino. I read Calvino’s Italian fairy tales in Italian, and a great, wonderful joy they were. Hans Christian Andersen on the other hand is a deathly person because it’s all dreadful Christianity and Danish imperialism.

INTERVIEWER

And redemption.

BYATT

Yes, and redemption. The glory of Calvino is that he goes right back and goes as far as he can go. I love his Invisible Cities—the way he builds them up and they fall down again.

INTERVIEWER

The wonderful one is about the city suspended on ropes between mountain tops, the one that ends with the observation that this city’s happiness is less uncertain than those of other cities, since it knows its life can only be so long. There’s a wonderful sense of rejoicing in the brevity of life on earth—just like the bird in the barn in Bede. Or the Wallace Stevens poem “Sunday Morning.”

BYATT

Yes. In a sense, this is the opposite of redemption, because redemption requires an imaginary structure of time and eternity in which you transfer goods from time to eternity because you’re redeemed. At least that’s one way of looking at redemption.

INTERVIEWER

Given the place of Tolkien in Babel Tower, what is the place of Tolkien in all this?

BYATT

It can be connected to what I got out of Calvino and Blixen, a sense that there were still mythical worlds going on. When I was teaching in the art school, student after student was painting pictures out of Tolkien, those who weren’t painting hard-edged abstraction, that is. Sometimes they were doing both—a hard-edged abstraction given a Tolkien name. They would say, You know, I haven’t read anything since I was a child that I enjoyed, and then suddenly there was this. I think the cult of Tolkien in England was quite different from the cult in America. In America it had to do with the frontier, with the sense of Thoreau and Walden that the wild was better. One of the emotions I feel in Tolkien is to do with my ecological emotion—that he’s describing a world in which the landscape is as big and as endless as it is if you’re a human being who has to walk in it. It’s simple things like that. I don’t actually like any of his people very much, but I like being in a world where you experience the midges and you can’t ever get away from the midges. That I like, and a lot of its readers like that. It also crosses over into the world of Dungeons and Dragons. I went to take my youngest daughter out, when she was at Newcastle University. There’s a kind of deep dingle next to this rather good restaurant. As we arrived these Land Rovers drew up, and all these people got out in cloaks and swords and things. They were all dressed as different people out of Tolkien and they just vanished into the bushes! It is immensely powerful. I think you can read Tolkien, and you can identify with the very small people with furry feet, or you can identify with Aragorn, who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. You have to do it in a very primitive way. If you start thinking, you’ve got to stop reading. I read it as a sort of soporific. I read it when I’m very tired, and I read it partly because there’s no sex in it. I read it because it’s not stressful, which is why I don’t think the argument that it’s too simple because the good are going to beat the evil carries much weight. You ought to know that. It’s that sort of story. It’s good that you know that nobody you really care about will die except the very old. That’s very soothing, and children, after all, should have their literature.

INTERVIEWER

You haven’t written about your son Charles’s death directly, apart from, I think, in one short story in Sugar. But do you think that a new valuing of indirectness, of not saying exactly what is in your head came into your work at that point?

BYATT

After Charles’s death, I also came slowly to value comedy, because I began to see that tragedy and terror are things for the young, to whom nothing dreadful has happened, that there are things that are almost unwriteable, and you shouldn’t write them if you don’t know them, and you don’t have to write them. Whereas very great comedy, Shakespeare’s or Jane Austen’s comedy, curiously appears to be more important when you’re in a world of desolation and devastation. I suddenly thought, Why the hell not have happy endings? Everybody knows they’re artificial. Why not have this pleasure, as one has the pleasure of rhyme, as one has the pleasure of color? Once I’d worked through Still Life it took me away from heavy subjects and heavy events. My novels know that these things happen. When you are young you write tragedy, because you know that the world is terrible and so you feel a moral need to face up to it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in consolation equally for the inventor and his audience? I was thinking of that novel of Kazuo Ishiguro’s, The Unconsoled. His concept of the artist is that there’s always something missing, some vacuum within the artist that he is always struggling to fill, and never will.

BYATT

I don’t think I have that idea of the artist. It depends how much you mind no work of art being perfect. Ishiguro is a perfectionist. One of the things I loved about The Unconsoled was that it was the nightmare of an artist who is stopped from exercising his or her art. Paradoxically, although this is a terrifying and terrible novel, every time that pianist gets to play the piano the worst thing doesn’t happen. Somebody comes along and stops him from playing. But he doesn’t play badly, and to that extent it isn’t about the perpetual inadequacy of art. It’s about living in a world in which you can’t do it right, and you can’t get enough of it; politics interferes with it and book tours—that’s the great novel of the book tour, which I know about!

I used to think that I agreed with what Iris Murdoch says: that tragic art is the refusal to be consoled at the very highest level and all art below high tragedy is consolation. I don’t think I set art as high as she did. It happens to be the thing I care about in the world, but I think there are perfectly valid ways of living that have nothing to do with art. And, given that, I think it is one of the functions of artists to make people happy, to give pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there are works of art in which the consolation is so excessive that it seems to cure things which in reality couldn’t possibly be cured? I’m thinking of The Winter’s Tale, which does infuriate people.

BYATT

It infuriates me. I write against E. M. Forster. I have spent most of my life writing against The Winter’s Tale. It is really quite bad cheating, to take away a woman’s whole productive life, the whole of her years of sexual activity, shut her in a cellar, and then say if she comes back as a statue that’s fine, that’s consolation. That’s one thing. But I am increasingly consoled by the underlying Persephone myth. I’ve reached an age where I actually am consoled by the fact that the spring will go on being the spring when I’m dead, whereas I don’t think I was at all consoled when I was thirty. I thought, It’ll be absolutely dreadful because it’ll just go on heartlessly being spring and I shall be old and I shall be dead.

INTERVIEWER

With rocks and stones and trees.

BYATT

With rocks and stones and trees. But now I think that’s fine. It’ll go on coming out as long as we haven’t snuffed the planet out. And probably it’ll go on coming out on some other planet even if we destroy this one.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say something about The Biographer’s Tale?

BYATT

It began with the idea of a short story that was going to be called “The Biography of a Biographer.” My idea was that a biographer has a secondhand life because a biographer spends all his time or her time in a library looking into somebody else’s life. Then when I started to write it I realized it was about a lot more than that. I got the idea of writing the biography of a man who tries to find out about a biographer but only finds fragments of three biographies that the biographer hadn’t written. I decided to juxtapose bits from the lives of the three people I happened to want to find out about at the time: Linnaeus, the taxonomer who invented the Latin names we now have for the plant world and the animal world. Sir Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin and is infamous for inventing eugenics but also who invented the deviation from the statistical mean and weather balloons and couldn’t stop inventing things from one minute to the next—an amazingly interesting innocent sort of a man who was constantly making extraordinary little mechanical objects for measuring things. He went through the streets of London measuring the responses of animals to sounds above the sound level by blowing on a sonic whistle, and then he pricked his hands depending on whether horses or dogs or cats responded to this noise and then he came home and counted all the pricks he had made on his hands and wrote it all down. He invented a machine for reading underwater and nearly drowned in the bath because it worked. One of the things I quote in this book is an extraordinary description of him coming up and realizing that he had been drowning. My third character is Henrik Ibsen, who invented what strikes me as the most amazing image of the person who hasn’t got a center, hasn’t got an identity, which is Peer Gynt sitting on the stage saying, “I will get to the center of this onion” and he peels it and peels it and peels it. And in the middle there is nobody. This novel of mine is in a sense an onion; there is layer upon layer of description of all sorts of people. None of them is complete, but nevertheless the whole novel is a description both of my hero, Phineas G. Nanson, and of the biographer he’s chasing, whom he never finds, and of course of myself, because I didn’t know why I wanted to know about Linneaus, Galton, or Ibsen, though I realized afterwards that they were people who described human beings according to different systems. Linnaeus did a taxonomy, Galton did psychology and statistics, and Ibsen was a great tragic dramatist, possibly the last great European tragic dramatist.

INTERVIEWER

How do the names of your characters come to you? Phineas G. Nanson, for example.

BYATT

He is called after an insect. The biographer is called Scholes Destry-Scholes and that is because he wrote a biography of the great Victorian Sir Elmer Bole. The beetle that caused elm disease and killed the elm trees is called scolytus destructor and I wrote to my entomologist friend Chris O’Toole and I asked, What preys on the beetle that preys on the elm tree? He said, There is a parasitic wasp called phaeogenes nanus. So I sat and thought for about five days—my hero has obviously got to be called something that calls up phaeogenes nanus—and I finally called him Phineas G. Nanson. Halfway through the book I realized he had to say what the G stands for so I put in Gilbert. This is uncanny: when the book was going into proof, my publisher pointed out that Phineas Gilbert Nanson is almost an anagram of Ibsen, Galton, and Linnaeus. I do not believe in coincidence or magic, but I did not intend that. I just picked the Gilbert because it sounded nice.

INTERVIEWER

And finally, that inevitable question here. Your writing methods?

BYATT

I write anything serious by hand still. This isn’t a trivial question. There’s that wonderful phrase of Wordsworth’s about “feeling along the heart,” and I think I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act. For that reason I could never learn to write what I think of as real writing with the cut-and-paste on the computer because I have to have a whole page in front of me that I wrote, like a piece of knitting. On the other hand I do my journalism on the computer with the word count. I love the word count. I can write a piece now to the word, to the length, and then I put the word count on and triumphantly it says three hundred and two. It’s a quite different thing. But I’ve never written any fiction not with a pen. I sit out of doors with very large numbers of very large stones and other objects on top of the pieces of paper that blow away in the wind. I’ve got a cast-iron mermaid and an enormous ammonite that a French ethnologist gave me that came up out of the bed of the road. I put these on the paper and I sit there scribbling in a kind of tempest. It’s great fun.

 

*Charles was killed at age eleven by a drunk driver while he was walking home from school.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.