Saturday, May 11, 2013

eaten alive

Regular readers of this blog (if such an irregular blog can be said to have regular readers) may know that I am a big fan of A.S. Byatt- I've loved her books ever since I read Possession at the end of high school. Despite this, there are still a lot of her books that I haven't read, and I just recently read her first book, The Shadow of the Sun. The Shadow of the Sun is about a young girl, Anna, in her late teenage years and trying to figure out what she should be, while at the same time feeling overshadowed by her father, a famous author. Enter Oliver, a family friend and academic, who agrees to tutor Anna to help her get into university, and becomes increasingly convinced she needs to decide what she should do with her life, and that he knows best what that is. When Anna successfully gets into Cambridge she continues to (somewhat listlessly) wonder about her purpose in life. Eventually she runs into Oliver again and, almost accidentally, they start an affair.
Image from Goodreads

I wouldn't say I loved this book, for one thing all the characters were maddening, and I took such a strong dislike to Oliver that I almost couldn't bear to continue reading. But it is an interesting book, it's often interesting to read a writer's first book because it illuminates some of the themes they go on to explore more in later books. In this case, Anna Severell is a pretty clear predecessor of Frederica Potter (from A.S. Byatt's later books
The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman). Both are interested in English, both go to Cambridge, neither are particularly likeable (though not exactly unsympathetic) and both get involved with men who are fairly controlling. It's this last point that I find particularly interesting, because I think that is definitely a recurring theme in A.S. Byatt's work. Not that men are controlling, but that relationships can be stifling and consuming. It plays out somewhat ambiguously in her novels. In The Shadow of the Sun, Oliver comes to define Anna's personality, her future and her limitations. In Babel Tower, Frederica Potter's husband is physically and emotionally abusive, as well as unfaithful, but what troubles her the most is that he doesn't let her work- thus robbing her of some of her identity and independence. Interestingly, they are supposed to be very sexually compatible, at least to begin with, which is the basis for their relationship. Possession has a very ambivalent attitude toward sex, with Roland and Maud both feeling somewhat stifled and constrained by their relationships or sexual entanglements at the beginning of the book. The idea of 'possession' in a romantic sense encapsulates this ambivalence fairly well, I think.

What I really find interesting is how these ideas play out in culture more broadly. Earlier this year I read Marina Warner's
From the Beast to the Blonde, which is about fairy tales and their transmission. In her chapter about Bluebeard, she writes "in myth and fairy tale, the metaphor of devouring often stands in for sex: ogres like Bluebeard eat their wives, we are told, even though the story itself reveals their bodies." The metaphor of devouring seems to fit so well into this idea of relationships. I actually like the idea of A.S. Byatt, who often weaves fairy tales into her stories, writing Frederica Potter's husband as a sort of Bluebeard who seeks to devour her, he even has a locked suitcase (full of only the pictures of the bodies of women, and if not dismembered, at least restrained). It's also a nice summing up of Angela Carter's Bluebeard story, which is both erotic and disturbing. As Marina Warner says, "[Bluebeard's] castle possesses the allure and dread of the strange". In Carter's story, at least, there is a happy ending- the heroine is not, in the end, devoured, and Bluebeard is defeated.
Wilson, Romer, editor. Red Magic: A Collection of the World's Best Fairy Tales from All Countries. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. London: J. Cape, 1930. From Sur la Lune.

The key is that though these stories have a sense of horror about them, and a cautionary air, they also have a certain allure or appeal. I've heard it said that Perrault's Bluebeard was meant as a way of preparing young women in the 17th century for marriage, and acknowledging their expectation and fear. Though it can't have been a very encouraging story for this audience. But this kind of story is not always told with a warning about Bluebeard as a moral. Many people have noted that Edward, from Stephanie Meyer's
Twilight, is a very controlling and possessive hero, and not a great role model for young women to be looking for (or for young men to aspire to be). But maybe that is to miss the point- Edward is a kind of demon lover (he is a vampire after all)- and that level of possessiveness has a certain fascination I think, which clearly has appeal for many. Of course, for Bella, Edward is the happy ending, she doesn't end up happily free of him like Bluebeard's wife. But he does endanger her- particularly through her pregnancy to him (I haven't actually read that far in the books, but I have read summaries, so that's all I'm going off here). For Marina Warner, too, pregnancy is a likely source of dread and danger to fairy tale heroines- considering that most fairy tales were written in times of high maternal mortality. This is one of the reasons sex, and marriage, was a cause for trepidation- for both Bella and Perrault's audience. And maybe one of the reasons  Twilight was so successful, however much we might disapprove of it, it that it taps into this cultural narrative of love and obsession, of power and control, that is such a force of fear and fascination. When I start looking for themes, I start to see them everywhere, and sadly a line in the xx song Islands- "I am yours now, so now I don't ever have to leave"- which I always felt was so romantic, has started to sound quite sinister. But which is it really? Maybe the lesson here is that the answer isn't so clear cut. 


  1. Anonymous29/5/13 19:47

    What an absolutely fascinating post! Have you ever read 'The Game'? The central relationship there is between sisters, and it's equally devouring. (Knowing that Byatt's relationship with her novelist sister in real life is not exactly straightforward does mean the novel feels a bit like a chance to score points, even if it isn't.)

    1. I haven't! I heard that one of A.S. Byatt's earlier books was about incest, and that has made me cautious about approaching any of them. But I should, because it sounds interesting, particularly since you've pointed out the parallels with Byatt's relationship with her sister.

  2. Anonymous10/6/13 06:34

    I haven't read any Byatt, but surely the symbolism in fairy tales is about more than sex: growing up and independence, the dangers of the wide world, rewards of virtue (and risks of vice) and so on.

    I started out to say that devouring was a pretty unlikely sexual metaphor, but perhaps you are right. I just tend to read things straight, and perhaps miss some of what is there.

    That you should mention twilight is interesting of course, because I understand that the heroine makes exactly the wrong choice in classic fairy tale terms (and I think in ordinary moral terms) in that she goes after fulfilling her immediate infatuation without any thought of the risks she is taking or subjecting others to (I also have not read any of the books, but have read some commentary on the plot and issues. If you want to reject my comments on that ground, fair enough.)

    1. Oh I don't think the symbolism in fairy tales is all about sex- this is just one strand I suppose. You're right I think, all those other things are there. I really think, on the other hand, that devouring can be a metaphor for sex. We have the phrase "consuming passion" after all. I don't like to read anything as a single metaphor I guess, but I think there are some strong sexual undertones at work.

      I haven't read all the Twilight books, but I've also gotten the impression that the hero is not the best choice of romantic partner. Apparently he is modeled on Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, who is hardly a role model. But despite his bad qualities, clearly there is something about him that appeals to people- maybe he just fits into an archetype that is both troubling and appealing.