Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Comparing Byatt and Woolf

I've started reading through all of A.S. Byatt's novels in chronological order.  She fascinates me nearly as much as Woolf, to whom I think she owes a good deal more than she is admitting.   Of course the attempt to relate Woolf and Byatt is somewhat perverse as Byatt herself has been emphatic and explicit about her lack of interest in Woolf as a fictional precursor. The locus classicus of this rejection is her rebuttal of Woolf’s famous assertion in “Modern Fiction” that life is an “incessant shower of innumerable atoms. . . [which] as they fall. . . shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.” In a 1986 essay “Still Life/ Nature Morte” Byatt explains that she is “resistant to the idea that the world hits us as a series of random impressions” (PM  5), an idea further adumbrated in later interview with Nicolas Tredell where she maintains that life instead “hits us as a series of narratives” (Tredell 60; qtd by Campbell 8).  In her 1991 Introduction to Shadow of the Sun, Byatt repeats the charge that Woolf is an inadequate writing precursor because she "is too full of nervous sensibility.  All strung up, like my mother" (ix).  Byatt’s perception of Woolf as a self-involved impressionist – in the introduction to Passions of Mind Byatt approvingly repeats the observation that “in Virginia Woolf’s world, the only sensibility the reader meets truly is the novelist’s own” (PM xvi) – is a misreading of both Woolf and Modernism so willful that Karin Westerman is moved to develop a series of hypotheses about the reasons for Byatt’s “anxiety of influence” (77), which basically boils down to the idea that Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, has publicly claimed to prefer Woolf to George Eliot,  that Byatt doesn’t want to be shut up in a feminine ghetto with a feminist writer, and that Byatt is still channeling a Leavisite disdain for Woolf’s supposed aristocratic bloodlessness.  In light of the comparison of Woolf's sensibility to that of her mother, one might speculate that there is maternal rejection as well as sibling rivalry involved in her explicit critical rejection of Woolf.

         Recently Alice Lowe commented in an e-mail to me that Woolf most often appears in Byatt's novels —"as a cultural marker within her characters’ milieu, a dropped name."  In an attempt to investigate whether Woolf persists as a more substantial influence on Byatt, I am beginning the  process of systematically comparing the novels of the two women writers, initially in chronological order, to see what patterns may emerge.  Because of my own particular interests, I will be looking especially for floral and garden imagery as well as the use of diary tales, especially references to Hans Christian Andersen.  As soon as I started reading carefully, other themes began to suggest themselves, especially the idea of the geometrical structure of art/novels. I'm sure more will continue to accrue.

Here's my chart of the two writer's novels.  For now, it has some fascinating potential symmetries, though I do of course hope that Byatt continues writing more books.

A.S. Byatt: Novels
Virginia Woolf : Novels
1964    The Shadow of the Sun,
1915     The Voyage Out
1967    The Game
1919     Night and Day
1978    The Virgin in the Garden
1922     Jacob’s Room
1985     Still Life
1925     Mrs. Dalloway
1990     Possession: A Romance
1927    To the Lighthouse
1997     Babel Tower
1928     Orlando
2000     The Biographer's Tale
1933     Flush
2002    A Whistling Woman
1931     The Waves
1937     The Years
2011    Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
1941   Between the Acts

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thoughts on Night and Day

Thoughts on Night and Day—Freewrite
Chelsea Embankment

Having been ruminating over Night and Day for a couple of weeks now, two main (somewhat related) issues come to mind.  The first arises out of also reading Derek Ryan’s new book on Woolf and the Materiality of Theory.  In his second chapter on Granite and Rainbow he does a brilliant job of showing how to look at binary frameworks in Woolf not in terms of “generalized polarities” in need of synthesis but as subversions of the very oppositions they invoke. I think the dichotomy of Night and Day operates in a similar fashion.  Early critics make night and day into an opposition or dialectic—the factual world of day vs, the visionary realm of night, the dark inner world vs. the daylight outer one, the “Dreams and Realities” of the original title.  But it’s not just that the two need to be synthesized.  The very distinction between the two needs to be broken down.  Yeats says “in dreams begin responsibilities.”  Woolf’s version of this seems to be “in dreams begin reality.” In her Introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, the blessed Julia Briggs points out the importance of day-dreams to the book.  Both Katharine and Ralph begin by discounting/denying the validity of their idealized daydreams—his visions of her as a Greek goddess, her attraction to the figure of the magnanimous hero riding through the forest.  But those very illusions are the key to their respective psyches and instead of representing lies, are the bedrock truths on which their relationship is founded.  It does seem quite Jungian: the magnanimous hero is her animus; the Greek goddess is his anima; they are in love with each other’s unconscious. 

The other major issue is how to read Ralph.  Kathy Phillips’ read of him as a typical representative of colonizing, domineering masculinity seems just overboard to me.  I see Ralph as sensitive from the beginning to Katharine’s interior life, at times more aware of that life than she is herself.  Yes, he has idealizing tendencies, but so does she.  Yes he is drawn to her because she represents aspirational desires, but it seems to me that just as the novel charts her growing acceptance of the validity of the unconscious, intuitive, and passionate, it also shows his gradual relinquishing of the need to make her into a goddess figure, and consequent movement towards a recognition/ acceptance of her need for autonomy.  It is true that both sometimes still “lapse” into their old habits: he worships her; she wants only to be alone.  But I feel like they both give each other permission to have those lapses, almost make them into a shared joke.  She knows he’s always going to tend to worship her; he knows she is always going to need her moments of impersonality and abstraction.  It reminds me a bit of Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway, who marries Richard because he will allow her the white upstairs room of her own. (Shades of Possession by A.S. Byatt and Maud and Roland’s shared dream of a white bed)

These two problems are of course actually related to each other and turn on the issue of whether one reads the book as a Shakespearian comedy of integration or as an ironic deconstruction of that possibility.  While I agree that Woolf’s entire opus can be seen a series of critiques of domestic institutions, this is the one novel where she allows for a traditional comic ending in marriage, and so while I don’t deny the stresses and compromises, I do want, this one time, to feel a happy-ever-after is possible, at least something like the vital arrangement that Virginia and Leonard lived out.