Bugger. This will teach me to buy untested books rather than take my usual path of borrowing from the library and buying them when I find I need to keBugger. This will teach me to buy untested books rather than take my usual path of borrowing from the library and buying them when I find I need to keep them within arms-length.
Last year at the Webstock conference, a speaker gave a presentation on "all the other presentations I could have given today but didn't". It did not go down well. Likewise, Dyer's book is "all the things I thought and did to avoid writing my book on D.H. Lawrence". Touted as outrageously funny, mordant, a comic masterpiece, I found it so irritating that I gave up towards the end. I didn't care one way or another whether Dyer wrote the damned book - I just wanted to stop hearing about it.
Naturally, you learn a lot about Lawrence through all this dilly-dallying, but unfortunately, I'm not a fan, and don't share Dyer's awe-tinged fondness for the guy. Dyer does write rather beautifully, and very insightfully, and one observation he made really struck home:
I am the kind of person, I thought to myself, who will spend the rest of his life saying 'I lived in New orleans for a while' when in fact what I meant was that I had spent three months there, dying of loneliness, banging away at some useless novel, simply for the companionship of writing.
Forget the rest of it. Linger on this: "the companionship of writing". That is just how I find writing. When I am writing - reviews, blog posts, emails, memos, radio notes, plans, presentations, whatever - I never feel alone. I feel hooked into something; myself, and something beyond, somewhere where the words come from. It is certainly one of my happy places, and that phrase captures it with such elegance....more
It hurts me to be so disappointed by this book. Byatt is one of my favourite writers, Norse mythology one of the most important imagination-shapers ofIt hurts me to be so disappointed by this book. Byatt is one of my favourite writers, Norse mythology one of the most important imagination-shapers of my childhood. But Byatt's tactic of layering the retelling of the end of the world between the experience of a child evacuated to the English countryside in World War II, as her airman father fights in North Africa, and the contemporary, spiraling destruction of the environment seems to me to take away from the strength of the myth.
Oh, I get that myths are less stories (stories in the sense of novels, with psychology and stuff) and more patterns or archetypes for understanding human behaviour and our place in the world. The books I've read in this series - Atwood's Penelopiad, Smith's Girl Meets Boy - take these archetypes and invest them with individuality. Byatt resists this; her gods are trapped in their stories, playing out their scenes, unable (or unwilling) to manipulate the story into another ending.
Instead, the personality is all Byatt's. The book is framed by her childhood experience of reading of Asgard and the Gods (a German translation published in 1880). 'The thin child', as she casts herself, does much of her reading "late at night, with a concealed torch under the bedclothes, or with the volume pushed past the slit-opening of the bedroom door into a pool of bleak light on the blacked-out landing." 'The thin child' is both literal ("She was a thin, sickly, bony child, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke') and metaphorical, as Byatt explains at the end of the book:
I tried once or twice to find a way of telling the myth that preserved its distance and difference, and finally realised that I was writing for my childhood self, and the way I had found myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods. So I introduced the figure of the 'thin child in wartime'. This is not a story about the thin child - she is thin partly because she was thin, but also because what is desccribed of her world is thin and bright, and the inside of her reading and thinking head, and the ways in which she related the worlds of Asgard and Pilgrim's Progress to the world and the life she inhabited.
And yet, there's not quite enough personality. Or if there is, I'm petty enough not to be able to buy into it. Could an eight year old really have 'felt in her bones the crippling burden born by the Man mired in the Slough of Despond, ... followed his travels through wilderness and the Valley of the Shadow, his encounters with Giant Despair and the fiend Apollyon'?
Byatt's lushly detailed writing - one of my favourite things about her oeuvre - also feels out of place for these Northern stories. Inside my head, Norse myths have a sparse tone, studded with the odd evocative word, all the stronger for being rare. Byatt weaves with world, long, incantatory passages, that feel - as Ursula Le Guin notes in her review - like spells, or dirges for a world that teeters in the brink of destruction:
from the vast tracts of bladderwrack to the sea-tangles, tangleweeds, oarweeds, seagirdles, horsetail kelps, devil's aprons and mermaid's wineglasses ... streamlined sharks in many forms, thresher, shortfin mako, porbeagle, tope, leopard shark, dusky shark, sandbar shark and night shark, the hunters of the hunters of the hunted
You should read that Le Guin review, actually - she does a much better job than I'm doing here of explaining why this book feels like a miss, not a hit. I'm just sad that I can't like it more.