Monday, November 15, 2004

A.S. Byatt's The Game

One of my students is writing an honors' thesis on the novels of A.S. Byatt. It's been a good opportunity for me to catch up on some of the Byatt novels I hadn't read (though I still have a couple of major ones left to attempt). This weekend I read an early (1967) novel of hers called The Game.

For those who haven't read any Byatt, you should probably start with Possession. It's entertaining and exceptionally well-imagined fiction, though far from easy. All of Byatt's novels require a certain amount of persistence -- a curiosity about the imaginative worlds occupied by writers and artists from earlier historical eras, and a tolerance for the lives and loves of the academics who study them from the mid/late 20th century. It's unfortunate that fans of candy-coated fare like The Da Vinci Code might not recognize it's kinship (as historical fiction) to Byatt's 500-page novels about English professors who have somewhat icy romances while researching the secret passions of fictional Victorians. The worried might, then, do better with Byatt's short stories and fairy tales; I would recommend The Matisse Stories or The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye as places to start.

The Game is the most psychologically complex Byatt novel I've read. It is about two sisters who as children have a kind of medieval fantasy game they play with one another -- a private imaginative universe not so different from the girls in the film Heavenly Creatures, minus the racy references to lesbianism and homicide. The sisters have a falling out over a man named Simon, whom they construct as a kind of mythological hero. One sister, Julia, 'wins' him, but the other, Cassandra, loves him. They grow up disparately: Julia becomes a mother and a successful 'mid-list' writer of modern domestic dramas. Cassandra becomes bitter, a medievalist at Oxford, withdrawn into a rarefied existence.

They are estranged, but remain deeply imaginatively dependent upon each other (and Simon, who becomes a world-traveling herpetologist). The intellectual sisters are mirror reflections of each other's creativity; each performs an essential -- but slightly different -- role in the constitution of the other's existence and survival. I won't say much about what happens as the novel progresses, except this philosophical statement: imaginative intimacy always requires vulnerability, and permanent damage is possible when it's betrayed.

The fantastic world of the sisters in many ways resembles that of the Bronte sisters in the 19th century, Charlotte and Emily. Byatt suggests this with her epigram from an 1835 poem by Charlotte Bronte ("We wove a web in childhood/ A web of sunny air; We dug a spring in infancy/ Of water pure and fair"). But it also resembles (I don't know how much) the real-life rivalry between Byatt and her half-sister, the writer Margaret Drabble. Interestingly, Drabble published a novel about a relationship between two sisters (A Summer Birdcage) just three years before The Game was published. A set-piece? Perhaps, for the adventurous reader.


ME-L said...

If you liked Posession, read "The Gold Bug Variations," which is to genetics what Posession was to poetry.

3:21 PM  

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