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

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