Let me state with emphasis: I have not, for a very long time, read a contemporary novel that has given me such immense pleasure as A S Byatt’s Still Life. Although I usually shy away from comparison, this book makes most fiction published today spurious coinage. A quotation from this novel, ‘Good writers should be good readers. Writing is a civilized activity’, locates the roots of this achievement, because as themes interlink and develop, one is increasingly aware of participating in a ‘civilized activity’ (in the same sense in which one reads and rereads ‘classic’ fiction). That A S Byatt is herself ‘a good reader’ is confirmed by the way she pays her readers the compliment of assuming that they will be familiar with the cultural, artistic and philosophical references of her characters.
Still Life, paradoxically titled since it vibrates with a continuity of life, is in fact volume two of a tetralogy. It is not perhaps necessary to read volume one, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), although strongly recommended, since this introduces the main characters of Still Life.
Still Life takes us