A few weeks ago, I went to the Strand Bookstore to see A.S. Byatt read from and speak about her newest novel, The Children’s Book, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I have yet to crack open the book (personalized and signed by Byatt herself!), but my anticipation for it continues to build. I had been meaning to read her books for a long time now, so when I saw that she would be at the Strand I decided to build at least a working familiarity with her work by reading some short stories. The Matisse Stories, as the title implies, is a collection of three stories loosely inspired by and centered around paintings by Henri Matisse. Each story is a glimpse (as short stories are) into the life of a middle-aged woman and her relationship, however varied, with art.
The woman of the opening story is drawn into her hair salon by the Matisse copy hanging inside. As she develops a play on the standard relationship with her hairdresser, her deeply rooted insecurities about growing older begin to manifest with the painting of the rosy nude (and its incongruous salon setting) as a strangely fitting background. This discomfort with aging is certainly a running theme throughout the stories, continuing with the woman of the second story as she attempts to reconcile the artistic dreams of her youth with her abandonment of this passion to support her family (particularly her failed and spoiled painter husband). As this self-proclaimed ‘creative’ family is forced to reassess what they accept as art through a surprise of their housekeeper, Byatt brings up questions on the limits and purpose of art and how different people in different situations view it. This discussion is expanded in the final story, which follows the dean of women at a London university and her struggle in dealing with the accusations of an unstable Fine Arts graduate student against an elder, distinguished visiting professor. Should the principles of art, beauty, and the devotion to artistic scholarship be upheld? Or should this woman and the university do what it can to help this unwell, but also untalented, student? What is more important – art or human compassion?
The stories are artistic in themselves; Byatt evokes paintings – Matisse ones especially – with her colorful and descriptive language. Her depiction of objects – their colors, light and presence – is striking. In fact, this is something Byatt discussed at the signing, in relation to The Children’s Book. She said that she often writes towards objects; that she develops ideas, and then has specific ideas of what objects she wants to write about and how she wants to represent them. Specifically, she spoke of a candlestick in The Children’s Book (I suppose that will mean something to those that have read the book). She had a very specific idea of what kind of candlestick she wanted and, with the help of the curator of The Victoria & Albert Museum, found precisely what she was looking for and made it an important part of the novel.
Both The Matisse Stories and seeing A.S. Byatt read have certainly whet my appetite for more of her stuff (The Children’s Book and Possession are eagerly waiting for me in my to-be-read pile). And she was very nice, which is always a plus. As I nervously approached her to get my book signed, I mumbled something about loving The Matisse Stories, and she told me how earlier that day she had tried to go to the MOMA to see their Matisse collection but was unable to get in because of the long line. MOMA, you should have been rolling out the red carpet for her!