undefinedA.S Byatt, ca. 2007. Photograph by Seamus Kearney

 

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.