Sugar and Other Stories - A.S. Byatt
I am beginning to wonder if maybe some of the short story collections I have been reading are better read over an extended period. Sugar and Other Stories left me with the same feeling as I had after reading the collections by William Trevor and Julie Orringer. Each story in these collections taken on its own is fascinating and wonderfully crafted, but read as a collection over the space of a week, or so, the themes (mainly dealing with women's lives: inter-generational conflict, parental death, betrayal, missed opportunities, etc) seem depressing and bleak.
My favourite stories from A.S, Byatt's collection are: Racine and the Tablecloth, Loss of Face and the title story. Sugar is an autobiographical story about the death of a female writer's father, the mythology that memory creates around the history of a family and a mother who lies. It is possible that Racine and the Tablecloth is also partly autobiographical as the story begins with a thirteen year old girl going off to boarding school; A.S. Byatt went to a Quaker boarding school at the age of thirteen. In any case, the study of the relationships between the pupils and the didactic methods of the teacher certainly had the ring of truth. If you have attended a girls' grammar, private or boarding school I am sure that this story will instantly transport you back to a time of (best) forgotten feelings and fears.
Loss of Face, along with The Dried Witch, forms the mid-section of the collection which moves the action to different cultures. The story follows Celia Quest, a female literary scholar, and her colleagues from a British university on their visit to South Korea where they lecture at a literary conference. Celia Quest is open to new experiences and wants to embrace this strange and alien culture. The title, Loss of Face, is a pun which describes Celia Quest's failure and the reason for her failure (she commits a grave faux pas because she does not recognise someone's face).
The only story which I didn't enjoy reading due to the structure rather than the subject matter was Precipice-Encurled. In this tale, Byatt combines real events that occurred at the end of Robert Browning's life with a fictionalised story about a young painter and a tragic event at a villa in the Apennines. I found it difficult to keep the different threads of the story straight in my mind and I really only "got" the fourth and main part of the story set in Villa Colomba.
As I bought a second-hand copy of this book, I was free to write on the text. My pencil was busy scribbling away as there were so many interesting literary features that jumped out at me as I was reading. Byatt uses a lot of inkhorn terms in her writing, but they are used judiciously, and not frivolously. I like learning something when I read and if I am reading fiction then I hope to be wowed and moved by language rather than facts. Two new words for me which I particularly enjoyed in this collection are "rebarbative" and "eructation".
I found Byatt's prose sonorous and rhythmic; she makes good use of alliteration, but it is subtle and sophisticated (not that I care about subtlety; I am quite content with the overuse of alliteration). For example,
"She didn't see so far or focus so fast. She noticed her hips, on the Common, and had to make a real moral effort to see the hooded crow, or the hovering kestrel."Repetition is also used quite frequently in many of the stories. e.g. "It is amusing. It is amusing that the same girls should already have been exposed to the betrayed and betraying cries of Ophelia's madness." Also, in The Next Room the word "precipitate" or "precipitately" (not really an everyday word) is used four times in a twenty-seven page story. The father of the main character, Joanna, is described as retiring precipitately. He did not live long after his retirement which suggests that sudden decisions and events have disagreeable outcomes, and Joanna says that she will not take any precipitate decisions about her parent's house or her future after her mother's death. Later she says that she will sell the house as soon as possible which leads one of her colleagues to remark, "Isn't that a bit precipitate?"
I really enjoyed A.S. Byatt's writing and although I found the collection rather sad (more action, less agonising. That's my motto.) I intend to read more of her short stories, in particular The Matisse Stories which sounds very good.