A S Byatt is sometimes seen as dauntingly highbrow because she incorporates interests in art, philosophy and science into her writing in ways that make no allowance for less-informed readers. I like that about her. Most writers hope to make a connection, of course, but recently they have seemed more than ever to want to ‘reach out’, urging emotion on the reader. Byatt establishes a welcome distance: she seems not to care all that much whether you like her or not, and sometimes assumes you don’t. She was brought up in Yorkshire and there is, perhaps, a Yorkshire scepticism about some of her protagonists, including Dr Perholt in ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’, who introduces herself to the djinn who has just appeared in her Turkish hotel bedroom out of an antique bottle, ‘“My name is Gillian Perholt … I am an independent woman, a scholar, I study taletelling and narratology.” (She thought he could learn this useful word; his green eyes glittered.)’
The great pleasure of this story (which, at a hundred pages, is more like a novella) is the way the djinn – sensual, humorous and entranced, among other things, by how a tiny ‘homunculus’ (Boris Becker) can get into the television – overcomes Dr Perholt’s reserve and shares with her a night of food, stories and amazing sex. ‘He could become a concentrated point of delight at the pleasure-points of her arched and delighted body; he could travel her like some wonderful butterfly, brushing her here and there with a hot, dry, almost burning kiss, and then become again a folding landscape in which she rested and was lost, lost herself for him to find her again.’ Best of all, the djinn is still there in the morning.
That story is at the heart of a selection of Byatt’s shorter fiction that spans thirty years, with work taken from five different collections from 1987 to 2003. Intellect and sensuality commingle in most, whether they are about a recalcitrant schoolgirl or an ice princess. I confess I’ve found Byatt’s interest in fairy tales and mythology off-putting in the past. With their bland princes and princesses and the invariable game of opposites – beauty and beast, king and pauper – fairy tales seem stubbornly resistant to humour. This time I paid closer attention and admired how Byatt subverts these forms. Her fables knock up against real contemporary life. In ‘A Stone Woman’, a bereaved young woman starts turning to stone and finally travels to Iceland to incorporate herself into the volcanic landscape. In ‘A Lamia in the Cévennes’, an artist observes how a mythical creature in his swimming pool makes herself human and seduces an oafish friend visiting from London.
Some stories unfold to reveal other stories within them. ‘Raw Material’ is about a creative writing group and its tutor, Jack Smollett, who is weary of his students’ badly written psychodramas: ‘Cliché spread like a stain across the written world, and he didn’t know a technique for expunging it. Nor had he the skill to do what Leonardo said we should do with cracks, or Constable with cloud-forms, and make the stains into new, suggested forms.’ Then Smollett finds real talent in two pieces – reproduced in full – by Cecily Fox, an elderly student who describes the traditions of her childhood, black-leading the stove and doing the laundry on Wash Day, with a perspicuity that makes Jack feel ‘he had been teaching something muddy, an illegitimate therapy, and suddenly here was writing’. Fox is oddly unmoved by her tutor’s praise, though, and the story has a shocking end.
Elsewhere we find characters who tend towards unhappiness and dyspepsia, and there is certainly a theme of middle-aged disappointment, but we aren’t expected to share in the anguish; we can keep our emotional powder dry. It was a pleasure to be reacquainted with ‘Medusa’s Ankles’, the title story (originally published in The Matisse Stories), in which, despairing of her looks, a woman goes berserk at the hairdresser and smashes up the salon. ‘You’ve done me a good turn in a way,’ observes Lucian, her hairdresser. ‘It wasn’t quite right, the colours. I might do something different. Or collect the insurance and give up.’
There’s an echo of Iris Murdoch here, herself the subject of several books by Byatt. I was reminded of other eccentric pragmatists, too, such as Muriel Spark and even Kate Bush, artists who can be deeply serious about fantastic or absurd ideas. Being less clever than A S Byatt is no reason not to read her. You can always look the allusions up.