Review: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) by A.S. Byatt   Leave a comment

A.S. Byatt is one of those writers that has grown on me over the years. I first encountered her work, as most of her readers do, through her highly-decorated novel Possession, only to come away from it disappointed by a sense that an opportunity had been lost. The recurrent fault that I found in Byatt’s work was that she has a tendency to overwrite, with too many superfluous details and ornaments (think of her pastiches of Victorian poetry in Possession, for example, which were masterly yet, for me, void of interest) that distracted from the story she was trying to tell.

While I haven’t yet returned to Possession to gauge whether my initial impression was correct or not, I have nonetheless continued to read Byatt’s other works with an ever-deepening sense of appreciation. What I like most about her fiction is her sense of intellectual adventure. Byatt may be the most intelligent writer in British literature today. She is an author who demands from herself – and thus, in turn, from her readers – a rigorously honest and complex appraisal of whatever issue is at hand. While this determination sometimes leads to a tendency to overreach her skill as a storyteller, when it works, as it does in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, the results are outstanding.

As its subtitle suggests, Elementals takes the classic metaphorical opposition between hot (passion) and cold (rationality) and plays with it in new ways. There is, of course, an implicitly Blakean twist to how Byatt goes about doing this, in which hot and cold are never simple oppositions, but are instead made to depend upon each other in order to understand fully their meaning. This idea gets its fullest treatment in the allegorical story “Cold,” a full-blown modern fairy-tale that confirms Byatt’s long-acknowledged debt to Angela Carter.

While Byatt, in treating the opposing symbols of hot and cold in these stories, nods several times toward the Romantics – the narrator of “Jael,” for instance, remarks on her appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel that gives particular weight to this metaphor – she also targets them repeatedly for critique. The Romantics, after all, privileged emotion and passion in their work, whereas Byatt urges the reader to consider the other side of the equation by pondering the pleasures and rewards of coldness and detachment.

Although this thread runs through the entire collection, Byatt makes her most articulate plea in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” the underlying message of which forms an implicit riposte to John Keats’s poem “Lamia.” At the center of the story is Bernard Lycett-Kean, a painter who moves from Britain to France in order to pursue his rigidly solitary investigations into the problems of color. There he is visited by a lamia, a mythological, snake-like creature who promises him that, should he kiss her, she will be transformed into the woman of his dreams and love him eternally. Bernard, wary of such a pact and wary of giving up his solitude, proposes to paint her instead.

The story’s message hinges on a key couple of lines from Keat’s original poem: “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” This Romantic suggestion that we should not look too closely at things, that we ought willfully to blind ourselves for the sake of preserving an illusion, is vigorously opposed by Bernard. Instead, Byatt shows that, rather than leading to a simple opposition between science and art, Bernard’s rationality possesses an artistic impulse with a beauty all its own.

Byatt thus makes a repeated argument in Elementals for qualities such as coldness, rationality, and solitude – qualities that, while obviously more difficult to embrace than their warm, emotional counterparts, nonetheless have their own rewards and advantages. Byatt is not, of course, opposed either to Romanticism or emotions as such, but champions this cause out of a sense of balance. Today’s culture is unthinkingly sentimental, it seems, and so Byatt prescribes the qualities of coldness as an important corrective.

Byatt’s occasional tendency to overreach means that sometimes her work can be a bit hit and miss, but Elementals is impressive in its consistency. Byatt also helps matters by concluding the book with “Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary,” one of her best stories, in which she imagines the story behind a Velasquez painting of the same name. Speaking to the distraught cook Dolores, who will later become the model for Martha in Velasquez’s painting, the artist says: “You must learn now, that the important lesson… is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning” (p.226). There are few statements with which I can agree more wholeheartedly. It encapsulates why it is that Byatt, whatever her occasional faults, is truly a great writer: for her, art and literature are not merely intellectual pastimes, they are intimately bound up in the living, breathing moments of living one’s life.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted March 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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