In the introduction to her novel "Babel Tower," A.S. Byatt says that her intention was to write a book without metaphors. Apparently this proved a difficult feat: "The best I could do was a kind of regretful commentary on the impossibility... [more]
In the introduction to her novel "Babel Tower," A.S. Byatt says that her intention was to write a book without metaphors. Apparently this proved a difficult feat: "The best I could do was a kind of regretful commentary on the impossibility of refraining from metaphor."
Right. Byatt is a serious metaphor addict. Far from refraining, she regularly binges on these and other linguistic treats -- for her, the odd overlapping of words, concepts, and images that occurs when two or more languages or historical periods are juxtaposed provides a deep font of inspiration. Metaphors are not merely ornaments in her work; she employs them as the underlying structures that organize her narratives.
Her novella "Morpho Eugenia," for example, revolves around the metaphorical play between an ant hill and a rigidly ordered, incestuous Victorian household. Byatt delights in pairing descriptions of androgynous servants shuffling deferentially about with images of soldier ants scurrying to and fro. And just as the queen ant sits at the center of her mound, feeds, and pumps out children at an astonishing rate, Byatt's lady of the household is an enormous and ferociously fertile tyrant with an insatiable craving for sweets. As the insect-human analogy unfolds, it creates a network of associations that weaves the story -- and the parallel universes of man and animal -- together into a tight, coherent whole.
A similar nexus provides the glue for "Possession," Byatt's most widely read novel. Here, the dialectics of possessing and being possessed unite the stories of two dead Victorian poets and a pair of scholars who study them. This is Byatt at her best: she parodies almost every literary form related to her characters, from high-flown, Victorian poetry to the fairy tale to academic commentary. Indeed, she creates her narrative almost exclusively out of secondary texts: diaries, documents, poems, and letters. Though dispersed across time and differing widely in style, all these voices are unified by the metaphor of possession. The unquenchable desire to find a lost letter or relive a lost love drives the novel and, one suspects, fuels Byatt's own fixation on language.
This account may make Byatt's work sound excessively ideational. It's true that she is a lover of ideas. As a scholar of literature and philosophy, she has been publishing criticism of Romantic poetry and the modern novel since the 1960s. But her own novels don't suffer from academic sterility or abstraction. Her metaphors are like living, resonant webs, and from them she creates sensitive, engaging texts -- texts which trap and possess. [show less]