Monday, 7 January 2013

A. S. Byatt; Quote of the month


A.S. Byatt wrote...A good short story knows its ending before it is begun, it is always working towards its end”… This may sound impossible to live up to, but she softens the blow a little… “A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end…

I’ve always loved Byatt’s novels, grabbing each one as they come out. She has an understanding of humanity that grounds them, and an understanding of the wider world and the human condition that exults them. But on my last birthday, someone kindly gave me The Little Black Book of Stories. I’d never encountered Byatt’s short stories before (maybe I hadn’t been paying attention), but I loved these; they were brilliant microcosms, a little spooky, funny in places yet very dark, and written with a slanted clarity that was haunting. As a writer of short stories myself, I loved the way she creates hers. Writing, as I do, between 3000 and 5000 or so words, it becomes crucial that I think of an individual story as whole. I try to sum up what I’m trying to say, and find the core of each story as I write it. At some stage, I somehow manage to transform an amorphous idea into a story. Don’t always know how this happens, and at the beginning of each new story, I can hardly believe I managed it before! At that stage, at the beginning, I find it useful to think of ‘unity’. In The Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt’s story final story is called The Pink Ribbon. I didn’t like this title, and I think, having read the rest of the stories and loved them, I skimmed it a bit. But recently I went back to it, and found its meaning, and was blown away. 

I could see how Byatt’s comments I requote above which talk about rhythm ‘reaching ahead’ is very clearly demonstrated in this story. I feel that rhythm is connected to the voice you wish to use to tell your story, the structure you’ve chosen and the language and style you use, as well as the depth of character you achieve and in The Pink Ribbon, A.S. Byatt initiates a powerful rhythm in her first scene, with memory, intense description and intimate action. Her language uses the rhythm of repetition, especially of colour and pronouns and names. Her structure, at this stage, is to create long paragraphs by using indirect, rather than direct speech, a pattern which is only broken at the very end of this extract, which is the opening passage of the story:

He held the mass of hair – long, coarse, iron-grey – over his left hand, and brushed it firmly and vigorously with his right. It was greasy to the touch, despite the effort he and Mrs Bright had put into washing it. He used an old-fashioned brush, with black bristles in a soft, coral-coloured rubber pad, in a lacquered black frame. He brushed and brushed. Mrs Bright’s black face smiled approval. Mrs Bright would have liked him to call her Deanna, which was her name, but he could not. It would have showed a lack of respect, and he respected and needed Mrs Bright. And the name had inappropriate associations, nothing to do with a massively overweight Jamaican home held. He separated the hair deftly into three strips. Mrs Bright remarked, as she frequently remarked, that it was very strong hair, it must have been lovely when Mado was young. ‘Maddy, Mad Modo,’ said the person in the wing-chair in a kind of growl. She was staring at the television screen, which was dead and grey and sprinkled with dust particles. Her face was dimly reflected in it, a heavy grey face with an angry mouth and dark eye-caverns. James began to plait the hair, pulling it tightly into a long serpent. He said, as he often said, that hairs thickened with age, they got stronger. Hairs on the nostrils, hairs on the heavy chin, grasses on a rock-face.
Mrs Bright, who knew the answer, asked what colour it had been, and was told that it had been fine, and coal black. Blacker than yours, said James Ennis to Deanna Bright. Black as night. He combed and twisted. So deft, he was, for a man, indeed for anyone, said Mrs Bright. I was trained to do it form myself, said James. In the Air Force, in the War. He came to the tail of the plait, and twisted an elastic band round it, three times. The woman in the chair winced and wriggled. James patted her shoulder.  She was wearing a towelling gown, pinned with a nappy-pin for safety. It was white, which, although it showed ever mark, was convenient to boil, in case of accidents, which happened constantly, of every description.
Mrs Bright watched James with approval, as he came to the end of the hair dressing. The pinning up of the fat coil, the precise insertion of thick steel hairpins. And finally the attachment of the crisp pink ribbon. A really pretty pink ribbon. A sweet colour, fresh. A lovely colour, she said, as she always said.
‘Yes,’ said James.
‘You are a real kind man,’ said Deanna Bright. The person in the chair plucked at the ribbon.
‘No love,’ said Deanna Bright. ‘Have this.’ She handed her a silk scarf, which Mado fingered dubiously. ‘They like to touch soft things. I give then a lot of soft toys...

Byatt continues in this slow, absorbing rhythm relating James’ day through the first third of this almost 10,000 word story. James goes out, while Mrs Bright cares for Madeleine, and purchases a soft toy for his wife, although it’s clear that the choice is not quite kind; its name is Dipsy and it is...slightly  bilious green... 
It is then that Byatt introduces a new rhythm, and a catalyst to the story. Finally, evening comes, Mado is in bed, and James is quietly reading Virgil.  A late night ring on the bell takes James to the door, where a young girl in distress is standing, begging for escape from a pursuer. Against his better judgement, he lets her in:

She was wearing black shiny sandals with very high, slender heels. Her toenails were painted scarlet. Her legs were young and long. She wore a kind of flimsy scarlet silk shift, slit up the thigh, with narrow shoulder straps. It was a style the younger James would have identified as ‘tarty’ but he was observant, he knew that everyone now dressed in ways he would have thought as tarty, but expected to be treated with respect. Her hands, holding her head, were long and slender, like her feet, and the nails were also pointed red. Her face was hidden by a mass of fine black hair, which was escaping out of a knot on the crown of her head...

James offers her water, then whisky, and it is at this point that Mado appears, cowering and gibbering...‘Get that out of here,’ said Mado. ‘That’s a wicked witch that means bad for us all  –’

Once his wife is back in bed, the girl asks him about Dipsy:

‘She likes red,’ said the visitor, picking up Dipsy. ‘You could have got the red one, Po, but you got this bile-coloured one.’
‘I did it for myself,’ he said. ‘A harmless act of violence. It does no hurt.’
The young woman swung away from the chair, leaving doll and ribbon in place. 
‘Dipsy’s a daft word,’ she said.
‘Po’s even nastier,’ he said defensively. ‘Potties it means. Pot-bellies.’
‘The river Po is the River Eridanus, that goes down to the Underworld. A magical river. You could have got her Po.’
‘What is your name?’ he asked, as though it followed, a little drunk, mesmerised by the flow of the red silk as she paced. 
‘Dido. I call myself Dido, anyhow. I’m an orphan. I cast my family off and names with it. I like Dido. I must go now.’
‘I’ll come down with you, and make sure the coast is clear.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’
He wished she would, but knew she wouldn’t.

However, the reader might guess that she will return – the word magical has already been used. They might already be wondering if this girl is James’ imagination, or a phantasm from an earlier time in his married life. They will have spotted the fact the girl’s hair is black, and coiled on the top of her head. James thinks that the name she gave herself had come out of his own reading, along with her knowledge of the classics. Dido was Queen of Carthage, and died for love of a man. 

Later, he’s visited by a memory of Madeleine as a young girl, unpinning her hair... She had always demonstrated a sturdy, even shocking, absence of the normal feminine reticences, or modesty, or even anxiety. She loved her own body, and he worshipped it... 

James and Mado become unsettled, and when Dido arrives a second time, bearing a gift of a red Po, he’d been in the act of torturing Dipsy with his wife’s hairpins. They begin to talk, and it’s clear that Dido can recall his wife’s memories, which releases further memories in James’ mind. Finally he confronts his own truth:
I know what you are telling me,’ said James. ‘You must know I’ve thought about it.’
‘You don’t do it, because you would be set free yourself, and you think that would be wrong. But you don’t think of her, or you would know what she wants. What I want.’...

The story is left satisfyingly open. After Dido leaves, Mado and James watch Teletubbies on the TV...They lay down to sleep like nodding ninepins, each snoring his or her differentiated snore. Nighttime, Teletubbies said in the mid-Atlantic motherly voice in the cathode tubing. Night, said mad Mado, more and more angrily, night, night, night, night, night. 
‘Come to bed,’ said James, very gently, adjusting the pink ribbon. 
‘Night,’ said Mado.
‘Just for a rest, for a while,’ said James.

This line ends The Pink Ribbon from Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt (Chatto & Windus, London, 2003) But it didn’t end it for me. Like all good short stories, it is a ‘moment of illumination’ - i.e. a very short moment that illuminates a longer, and grander drama. Byatt leaves us with so many alternatives; 
Did James invent Mado entirely, so he could justify what he wants to do, that is end his wife’s sad life? 
Or did Mado construct her, to bring James to the conclusion he couldn’t reach without her help?
Or is Mado real, a sort of ‘genuine angel’ (we’ve all met them, haven’t we) - someone who turns up in our lives just when we need then to.

I think Byatt wanted us to decide this for ourselves, and to think deeply about what she is ‘telling slant’ (to quote another great woman writer, Emily Dickenson), and be able to raise the disturbing questions about ending the life of someone who cannot ask you to do this for them. Euthanasia can only take place when the person wishing to die has left instructions, or give direct instructions. Even so, in Britain, this act still stands as murder or manslaughter, but in the case of the sort of killing we might be looking at in The Pink Ribbon, by law this certainly wouldn’t be considered euthanasia. So Byatt brings in a massive subject, one that is debated hotly in general society, and encapsulates it into a tight little story that takes only a few days to run out by concentrating on just a few, brilliantly-drawn characters. 

I think this is genius.

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