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A Fugitive Virtue

Kalika Sands

A S Byatt
Colloquium at Exeter College, Oxford
21 May 2014

The first time I experienced the work of A.S. Byatt, I was flying from Vermont to New York, ultimately bound for an undergraduate interview at Oxford. I can still recall, with striking clarity, clutching the pages of Possession as the plane cut through the lemony dawn, the jet engines whirring, the world around me still waking as the one in my grasp unfurled with consuming immediacy. And though that morning was now over a decade ago, it still feels only a breath away, the richness of Byatt’s narrative having fixed the moment in my memory.

On 21 May, Byatt was invited by the Rector of Exeter College to a colloquium of college members and guests. The assumption was that a literary discussion would ensue, yet how inadequate an assumption that proved to be. The discussion served as a reminder to us all of how easy it is to forget that our lives are constructed of words and tales and mythologies, and that the best writing serves as a point of reference. It is a mooring in a world that is too often rushing around us. Perhaps the most capable storyteller never loses sight of this: the power of a narrative to connect the fragments, to make them whole.

Byatt began a DPhil at Somerville College in 1958; when asked about the earliest moments of her authorial career, Byatt responded, without hesitation, with words her supervisor, the late Helen Gardner, imparted to her. “Every clever girl thinks she can write a novel,” Gardner informed her student. “None can.” As Byatt related the incident, her tone was imbued with particular satisfaction. How different Byatt’s life would have been had she heeded Gardner’s words, which, reiterated over fifty years after the fact, remained exigent, as if the author was still working against the conjecture.

After setting such a generous, candid tone, Byatt spoke of the task of revising her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, twenty or thirty times before its publication in 1964, and how the writing process has evolved for her over the course of her career. Now, she casually informed the room, she writes only one draft of a given novel. At this admission there was some visible shifting in seats: the claim seemed fantastic. But as Byatt explained, the idea that she should write a single draft of a 600-page novel had become not only plausible, but entirely sensible. “I need the thread of the langue,” she explained, comparing writing to knitting, noting that the thread—the yarn—needs to go from the first knot to the last without interruption. She writes by hand, and if a mistake is made, the page is begun again. “I keep very complicated Coleridgean notebooks,” she continued, and something in even this small divulgence conjured images of Possession’s Christabel LaMott, of a sort of intertextual web being spun between reader and writer. Byatt’s own confident and thoughtful manner throughout made it clear that the lively abundance so present in her writing is not distinct from Byatt herself—the line between art and life is thoroughly and delightfully obfuscated.

While Byatt may have long ago rejected an academic career in the purest sense, her path still seems to be that of research and reason, moving towards the point at which life and work become a single expression of curiosity and diligence. This was perhaps illustrated most clearly when Byatt related some of her experiences in writing Possession, and the ways in which one can achieve ownership over a text, read or written. When questioned about the difficulties of inventing the poetry central to the novel, Byatt remarked that its composition was possible because it did and did not belong to her. “I hardly had the courage to write the poetry in Possession,” she admitted, explaining that she had originally suggested to Dennis Enright that she could simply use those of Ezra Pound’s poems in which he pretended to be Robert Browning. Enright replied, “Antonia, you will write it yourself.” The poetry that runs throughout the novel was a product of her childhood reading. “It was all the Victorian poetry I grew up on, that wasn’t useful as an undergraduate at Cambridge,” she said, adding emphatically that “[she] thought Robert Browning was a good man.” Once again, there was a sense that, for Byatt, the relationship between reading, writing, and living is an intricate one—both complex and necessary. “It wasn’t mine—that’s why I could write it,” she remarked of the poetry she sees as belonging to LaMotte and Ash. As compelling as this explanation is, it seems to illuminate another truth about Byatt’s writing. If she refuses to take ownership over the verse that frames the novel, this suggests that she is capable of building characters so full and felt that they take on their own power and agency. Byatt’s relationship with Browning—the verses she has carried since childhood—coupled with the fullness of her imagination, creates a singular expression of seamless art through the medium of the novel.

Byatt’s aim seems to be to expand the ways in which a life can be seen, by making the simplest objects striking and extraordinary. At the colloquium, she gave the impression that writing was almost a necessity—a response to reading, a response to the world. In Possession, Christabel LaMotte articulates the following position:

[W]ords have been all my life, all my life—this need is like the Spider’s need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out—the silk is her life, her home, her safety—her food and drink too—and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew—you will say she is patient—so she is—she may also be Savage—so she is—it is her Nature—she Must—or die of Surfeit.

Byatt has found a way of managing the excess of the everyday, of taking complex ideas and emotions and shaping them into something hard and stunning. Her busy intellect and hands are constantly at work in this quiet, elegant way, making connections, spinning intricate stories out of the surfeit. Sitting in the Rector’s living room, I felt like a teenager again, bleary-eyed and hopeful, anxious to be as close as I possibly could to the stories I love.

Kalika Sands is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.