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A.S. Byatt - Assises Internationales du Roman 2010

Par Clifford Armion : Professeur agrégé d'anglais - ENS de Lyon , Emilie Walezak : Professeur agrégée d'anglais - Université Lyon II
Publié par Marion Coste le 10/06/2010
In May 2010, Antonia Susan Byatt took part in the fourth edition of the Assises Internationales du Roman, organised by the Villa Gillet and Le Monde. She granted us an interview and was kind enough to read a passage form ((The Children's Book)), her latest novel.

A.S. Byatt reading from The Children's Book

In her latest novel, A.S. Byatt tells us about the adventures of adults and children from several inter-related families. Olive belongs to a family of artists, writers and craftsmen...


The story books were kept in a glass-faced cabinet in Olive's study. Each child had a book, and each child had his or her own story. It had begun, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Each story was written on its own book, hand-decorated with stuck-on scraps and coloured patterns. Tom's was inky-blue-black, covered with ferns and brackens, some real, dried and pressed, some cut out of gold and silver paper. Dorothy's was forest-green, covered with nursery scraps of small creatures, hedgehogs, rabbits, mice, bluetits and frogs. Phyllis's was rose-pink and lacy, with scraps of gauzy-winged fairies in florid dresses, sweet-peas and bluebells, daisies and pansies. Hedda's was striped in purple, green and white, with silhouettes of witches and dragons. Florian's book was only little, a nice warm red, with Father Christmas and a yule log.

The project had begun with Tom's discovery, in his story, of a door into a magic world that appeared and disappeared. The imaginary door was in a real place, in a Todefright cellar full of coal and cobwebs. It was a small, silver trap-door, that would take a child, but not an adult, and it could be seen only by the light of the full moon. It led into an underground world full of tunnels, passages, mines, and strange folk and creatures, benign, maleficent, and indifferent. It turned out that Tom's hero, who was sometimes called Tom and sometimes Lancelin, was on an apparently endless quest to find his shadow, which had been stolen by a Rat, when he was in his cradle.

This tale had been so successful, that Olive had invented other doors, in the fabric of their daily reality, for the other children. Dorothy's alter ego, a stalwart child called Peggy, had found a wooden door, with iron bolts, in the root system of the apple tree in the orchard. This proved to be a way into a strange country populated by half-beasts, people and creatures who could change their skins and sizes, sometimes by choice and sometimes by accident, so that you might find that you were a human child one moment, and a hedgehog the next, hiding in dead leaves. There were wolves in this land and wild boars. Phyllis's character, a princess who had been changed for a little servant girl, found a crack in a teapot she was being made to wash, in the middle of a picture of a pretty glade, in which ladies danced, with flutes and tambourines. You could make yourself small enough to slip through the crack by chewing a certain  kind of Chinese tealeaf, known as gunpowder, which came un hard little pellets and unrolled into leaf shapes in hot water. In Phyllis's story there were princes and princesses all waiting in castles, frozen or sleeping, for the redeemer to find the clue, and release them. Hedda's way in was inside the grandfather clock in the dining-hall. You could see the gateway whilst the clock was striking midnight. It led to a world of witches, wizards, woods, cellars and potions, with children roosting in cages like ckickens in need of setting free, and wondrous contests in shape-shifting between magical dwarfs and wizards, black ladies and blue gnomes. Florian's story had hardly begun. It was possible his door was in the chimney, where he claimed to have seen a hefty scarlet figure with a sack. It was also possible that he would grow out of that, and make another world. In the interim, his story was peopled by stuffed toys, a bear called Furry, a white cat called Snowy, and a stripy knitted snake called Ringary. In the world through the portal they were figures of power, sleek and glossy, Bear, Cat, and Snake.

Tom looked into his book. The story had advanced a page or two. A group of seekers were descending a dark tunnel - they were the shadowless hero, a gold lizard the size of a terrier with garnet eyes, and a transparent jelly-like formless being who poured along the ground and constantly changed shape. A new figure had appeared, who ran in front of them, leaving soft footprints in the dust. There was some question as to whether it was the lost shadow, who had taken on substance. Or it might be another seeker, a friend or an enemy or simply a stranger, in the dark.

A. S. Byatt, The Children's Book, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009, pp. 80-81.

An interview with A.S. Byatt

This interview was filmed at the Hotel du Collège in Lyon, during the 2010 edition of the Assises Internationales du Roman.


Emilie Walezak: I wanted to talk about two aspects of your work: realism on the one hand, and all those tales and stories within stories in your work, so I'll just start with a question about realism. Your novels are described - and you yourself also describe them - as realistic. The Quartet tells the life of the Potter's family from the fifties to the seventies, Possession is a neo-victorian novel and your latest novel The Children's Book tells the lives of characters from the Edwardian period on to the First World War. What does it mean to you, writing realistically?

A.S. Byatt: Writing realistically means describing. Oddly the way I think of answering the question is that it means writing like realist novels, it means writing as you read novels which claim to describe reality as people experience their own lives. When I began to write, I believed that the novelists recorded the world they lived in, but I always knew that was only one way of writing, that there were other ways of writing. As a child, I never liked realist stories very much, stories about children who talked to other children and lived in houses and cooked things in pans and made clothes with needles. I liked stories like fairy stories, I liked the stories of the Brothers Grimm, and I began to see that you could write, you could make forms which, at one level, were realist account of events as they happen and the world we believe we live in and, at another level, were an account in other forms of narration about, as it were, imaginary events and imaginary worlds, which are also of course real: as a child you spend your time in an imaginary world and you live in it and therefore it is real. It's quite complicated. Realism in a sense is only a literary term really. And then you get things, of course, which I don't think is what I write, but you get Garcia Marquez inventing magical realism in which impossible things suddenly happen in a world that is possible. But I don't do that. I work in layers, with different kinds of storytelling interwoven the one with the other. I found when I got to Possession that I couldn't go on writing if I didn't write in some different way from the ordinary English realist novel.

E.W.: That was also one of my questions because those embedded stories that were incorporated to the realistic frame of your novels, they started with Possession. So what happened, how did this develop, this new layer, how did it emerge in your work?

A.S.B.: I began to get something, a feeling rather like Sartre's nausea, I began to feel nauseated by describing things like clothes, and food, and trains, and cars, and time passing in a regular manner. And I was very struck by Angela Carter who said in the seventies that she had realized that why she enjoyed reading was nothing to do with accounts of daily life but was exactly to do with the unreal world, with the world of the imagination, with the ancient and primitive world of the fairy tale or the myth. And I thought, in a sense, the same story has a form which is a fairy story and a form which is a soi-disant realist story, and in fact most of the sort of fairy stories are part of the plot, of the realist story. If you don't know the fairy stories, you don't know a great deal about the psychology of the people in the realist part of the novel because fairy stories are part of their mental life. And it works quite well, I think, at least I enjoyed doing it. It made writing much happier.

E.W.: It does work. You talking about layers reminds me of another metaphor that you use in your work that refers to that is patterns. I wanted to ask about those patterns because many of them stem from your precise knowledge of specialized fields such as science - entomology in The Biographer's Tale, geology in many of your works like Possession - law in Babel Tower, craftsmanship like pottery in The Children's Book. How do you appropriate those technical details in writing?

A.S.B.: I wait until I find what I think of as the ruling metaphor of a particular story. The Children's Book in fact has several, as you said, it has both the pots and the making of pots and the nature of pottery and it has the puppets, and the whole world of marionettes, and puppet plays which in themselves are like fairy stories, they have their own reality and unreality. What I then do when I find my metaphor is I do exactly the opposite of making a metaphor, I do a lot of factual research so that I have names. For instance, I love the names of stones, I wrote a short story called A Stone Woman and I bought a book of geology and I just sat there and saw that every name of anything is in itself a metaphor, which is also true of the entomology. If you study butterflies, every butterfly has a name which is both the name of a creature in the real world and the name of a creature in the mythical world because Linnaeus called all the butterflies in the South American forests where nobody had ever been after the classical Greek gods and goddesses, the Trojans and the Greeks and so he categorized them. And he added the myth to the beautiful real creatures, to the entomological order. And I liked the way all those orders cross and interconnect and the same thing is a bit true of the marionettes. I was delighted  when I discovered a puppet play in a cabaret in Munich, called Eine feine Familie, which was a puppet drama about the European royal families squabbling like children in a children's book, and fighting over the ground, and you had all these cousins, the Tsar of Russia, the Queen of Denmark, the King of England, the Kaiser. They were exactly a family and the first world war was a family quarrel. This puppet play was a German satire on them tearing Europe apart before it happened. I love it when things connect, I'm not sure how much meaning the connections have, but they give you a kind of shock of intellectual delight as though you had made a scientific discovery. I don't know whether you've discovered an order or just something rather beautiful: I think it's just something rather beautiful, you make an order. And there's no real connection between Brazilian butterflies and Greek warriors, but once one has been made, it's very beautiful.

E.W.: And how did the other structuring metaphor of pottery in The Children's Book emerge, where did it come from?

A.S.B.: Where did the pots come from? I think increasingly I see art as craft. I've been surprised because I've been talking to potters since I wrote The Children's Book because they love it, because it dignifies their craft, they say. Usually novelists are only interested in the high arts, I increasingly don't see the difference, I think a beautiful pot, a Chinese pot, a Corean pot, an art deco or art nouveau pot, is just as beautiful, in some ways, as a Matisse, just as strange, and just as much of an order. I've always avoided pottery because my own ancestors were potters so I've written about glass, but this time I decided I would write about pottery. The novel opens in the Victoria and Albert Museum, so I went and looked at the pots at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And one of the things about being a novelist who is a bit known is you can go and ask the curator of the ceramics to show you the pots. So that was stage one. Then my eldest daughter lives next door to one of the very great modern potters, Edmund de Waal, and she said, you go to Edmund's studio, he will show you the pottery. Edmund has written a history of modern pots and I went to his studio and he allowed me to put my fingers in the clay, which was really important, and he's done a wonderful installation in the Victoria and Albert, and so he told me all the beliefs that people had in the 1890s about how pottery should be brown, earthenware, rustic, without pretention. They hated Sèvres china, they really hated it, the arts and crafts people in England, but Edmund loves it: Edmund loves porcelain, and he makes very chaste, cylindrical forms and beautiful pale greys and greens and tiny touches of real gold and it's been a great pleasure getting to know him because that starts me being curious about other things so one thing moves into another thing moves into another thing... And then I'm very lucky with my translators because all of them are interested in what I am interested in and they all tell me things. The Danish translator tells me Nordic mythology and my German translator took me round puppet museums in Munich. I see real things and then I arrange them in the fiction.

E.W.: You said yesterday night during the conference with the dead authors that you considered words as some sort of primary matter.

A.S.B.: I used to talk to a novelist called Gabriel Josipovici and he said music in wind instruments was breath, which was different from music in string instruments or pianos. Of course, words are breath and words are rhythm in the brain and words are movement of all sorts of different parts of the body. I have to talk this evening about whether the novel is fatigué or not, and I think the novel won't become outdated in the same way as classical theatre has changed, because the novel is much more primitive, it is to do with language which we all use all the time, this is what I hope to be able to say this evening. We are language, we wouldn't be quite human if we didn't construct ourselves at every moment in language. There is very little human experience that doesn't almost immediately get into language, taste perhaps, and so an art form that is made out of this sort of intrinsically primitive part of one's own body is almost infinitely flexible, at least that's what I think. And when I start thinking of a novel, I see in my brain a kind of abstract three-dimensional form, which is actually not in words but is more like a spider web with colours and little knots where lines or threads meet each other, and I can look at this object which is a linguistic object although it's not in words, I can look at it and see where it is strong and where it is weak, where it needs something that isn't yet there, even perhaps when it is too intricate. And I'm terribly interested, I've taken to doing talks with neuro-scientists because I'm interested in what they're doing, If you're writing a novel, at one moment, you imagine with your body what the character is feeling or thinking, one almost takes possession of the body, bodies of these unreal people, and then I'm thinking with my fingers, and then the next moment I'm thinking with language, I'm thinking with the rhythm of words, and even things like the derivations of words, and where is the point where I'm more thinking of language than of what the language is saying, where is the point where I'm standing inside the novel watching the events. You can make yourself almost mad by trying to occupy the moment where the language meets what the language is becoming, I don't know if that means anything.

E.W.: It does. Maybe a last question on what you're writing on at the moment and which has to do with mythology. You told us last year about fairy tales at the Assises, what about mythology, and in particular you favour Norse mythology, can you tell us about the myth Ragnarök that you're writing on, and why you've chosen this myth?

A.S.B.: I chose it. When I was a very small child, my mother had this book called Asgard and the Gods and it was about the Norse gods, I had lots of books also about the Greek gods, but the Norse gods seemed to me much more horrible and more stupid, and more probable than the Greek gods, and less human in a curious way. It was my best encounter with a myth that nobody was asking me to believe but I could see that a myth was different from a fairy story. As we saw last night in the fragments, Lévi Strauss said a myth is a story, a myth is a way of describing how the world came about by telling a story, but it's different from a fairy story because people need a myth to hold the world together in their minds and the glory of Ragnarök is it's the story of the world disintegrating. And as a small child I was absolutely appalled and absolutely delighted when all the gods came to an end. I didn't know it would be possible to write a story in which instead of the gods triumphing over the forces of danger, the wolf kills the king of the gods, he swallows him and the snake spits poison at Thor, the almighty Thor with his hammer, and Thor falls dead. I felt this was some sort of religious truth in a way, things do come to an end. Most myths are designed to make you feel that you will immediately be reborn and that everything never comes to an end and everything is sort of good, but in this myth the gods were incompetent and then they were dead, and the world was burnt up by a fire and became simply a sort of black flat surface with a few golden chessmen floating in it. I love that image. I think I partly loved the Norse gods because it was the war. I was a child in the war and I knew the world was bad, nobody said to me the world is bad, but I knew it was bad. I haven't quite got the writing of it right yet, but I will, I will.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Clifford Armion, Emilie Walezak, "A.S. Byatt - Assises Internationales du Roman 2010", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2010. Consulté le 04/03/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/a-s-byatt-assises-internationales-du-roman-2010