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An Interview with A. S. Byatt


									                           1. “Speaking of Sources”
            An Interview with A. S. Byatt
                                 by JEAN-LOUIS CHEVALIER

«   Jean-Louis Chevalier:
           Since riddles are the order of our day
                                                                   Jean-Louis Chevalier, professeur
                                                              émérite à l’Université de Caen, est le
                                                             traducteur de tous les ouvrages parus
                                                            en français d’A. S. Byatt. Il a obtenu le
           Come here, my love, and I will tell thee one.            Prix Baudelaire de la traduction,
                                                                décerné par la Société des Gens de
           There is a place to which all Poets come            Lettres de France pour sa traduction
           Some having sought it long, some unawares,               de Possession. Des anges et des
           Some having battled monsters, some asleep         insectes lui est dédié. L’entretien a été
                                                                  réalisé à Londres le 16 mai 1999.
           Who chance upon the path in thickest dream,             Héliane Ventura, spécialiste de la
           Some lost in mythy mazes, some direct                nouvelle et professeur à l’Université
           From fear of death, or lust of life or thought        d’Orléans, a réalisé la transcription
           And some who lost themselves in Arcady…                                      de l’entretien.

        This is from “The Garden of Proserpina,” a poem by Randolph Henry
        Ash which might be described as l’enfant de votre tête, and I would like
        to paraphrase it twice by way of introduction. First, to excuse my
        presence, in a general way:
           Since questions are the order of our day
           Beware, A. S. Byatt, and I will ask you some…

        A poor excuse, since I know how frequently and persistently you are
        being riddled with questions. Questions have become the third
        dimension of your life. You have a life which, it is devoutly to be
        wished, may be still yours, and private. You write books which have
        made you a very public person. And you answer questions. Question
        mongering has become quite a modern industry, and it is the fond wish

1999 automne sources   »                       6
                                                   “Speaking of Sources”

   of every interviewer and/or research student to try on you the one
   perfect question which will act as a glass key and open the right casket.
   I very much feel like the umpteenth traveller in questions knocking at
   your door with a view to carrrying out the full booty of Byattlore, which
   to many people shines like the fruit of gold in the Hesperidean grove.
   Which is another way of saying that one would like to out-Roland-
   Michell Roland Michell.

     A. S. Byatt: Ah bon.

JLC: My second paraphrase is more to the point:
     Since sources are the order of our day
     Listen, Antonia, and I will point at one.
     There is a place from which all Poets come:

   And could you tell me if you were born there, what it is, where it is, if
   you had to leave it to become a writer, and how it felt to be there and to
   walk away from it with a pen in your hand.

      ASB: That is very difficult. I think the places have to do with reading
when one is very small. I think the need to write comes when you realise
that there are worlds which do not exist in which things are more interesting
than they are in the world that does exist, and I suppose that what follows
from your question is that you have to walk away from the imaginary world
into the real world and take the real world back into the imaginary world in
order to write. I did live as a child thinking of that, but I did live very much
in mythical landscape in my head, Greek ones, Norse ones, very much less
Christian ones, travel landscapes, landscapes peopled by larger than life
creatures, and I always associate that, as Randolph Henry Ash did, with the
desire to write. Which I suppose is to say that I did not start as some writers
would say they did, with the desire to describe their own lives. I terribly did
not want to do that. I find that not interesting and also, as you suggested in
your first question, I do deeply believe that privacy, and secrecy, and a
certain thing that is one’s own, that is not laid out for the public, is
necessary to writing. It is very important to be nobody, rather like the
reader inhabiting the book. If you are reading a book or a myth which really
excites you, you do not set about thinking about who you are, you think
about the book or myth, and that’s that feeling that I write to get back. And
in parenthesis one might say I am sick to death of the modern habit of
writing confessional memoirs all over the place, which is increasing. It is as
though the writers believe that what human beings want is to read other
human beings’ real lives laid out like Saint Lucy’s eyes on a plate. I don’t
like reading those things, and I don’t want to write them.

                                         7                                 sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    JLC: Another way of saying the same thing I found in Rilke, in his Letters
       from Milan he wrote in 1923: “We were born, so to speak, provisionally,
       somewhere. It is gradually that we make up, inside ourselves, the place
       of our origin, to be born there after the event, and more definitively
       every day.” Would this agree with your opinion of what you might call
       your birthplace?

          ASB: It agrees with half of it, yes. I mean half of me recognizes
    exactly what Rilke is saying, which connects in my mind to Henry James
    saying that every writer comes slowly upon what is his or her subject
    matter, and then in a way it is as fated—your subject matter—as your
    family was, and every bit of what you write develops that. You discover on
    a small scale—I discover—certain landscapes or certain objects which are
    part of my writing life. Glass for one, or the Yorkshire moors for another, or
    certain parts of the south of France for another. I remember you were
    speaking yesterday about Rousseau having had in Lyon the requisite
    writer’s epiphany, and I thought to myself this is indeed a cliché, this is
    indeed something we all do, I also do it. There are places in which I
    suddenly wish to write. One of these is when the curtain goes up on the
    second act of a play which is moving me. I think, I shouldn’t be sitting here
    watching, I should be writing. Rilke said, “We’re perhaps here to say a
    bridge, a house, a tower,” and this naming is important. And I would like to
    say, to mitigate what he says, that once you are secure in the landscape of
    your origin, you can from there look out at almost anything. Almost
    anything becomes legitimate to write about. This has surprised me. I had
    always assumed I was going to be a very narrow writer who wrote good
    English about a very limited subject matter. This was to do partly with
    being a woman and partly with being born in an island in water, out of
    which we never went.

    JLC: This is akin to the idea that Frederica and Stephanie Potter have that
       women cannot move. They are attached to the places where their
       husbands or fathers live.

          ASB: Yes, and I had that idea very strongly because—simply
    socially—that was true when I was a young woman. I think if there is one
    thing the women’s movement has done to women of my kind, it is to make
    it a matter of commonplace fact in the minds of both men and women that
    both men and women may have a place in which they need to be, or may
    have a work they need to do, or may have a journey they need to
    undertake, or may have a friend they need to see, of either sex, and they
    may just go and do this. It must be wonderfully good for marriage because,
    when I grew up, a woman’s place was in the house of her husband and if

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                                               “Speaking of Sources”

she went out, on the whole her husband was always invited as well,
whereas there were things to which he went to which she was not invited.

JLC: And when she became a widow she went to the house of her
   children. They never had any house.

      ASB: They never had any autonomy, which is the word that came to
mind when I read, not so much Jane Austen, who I think was reasonably
happy within that structure even if it annoyed her, but George Eliot, who
obviously fought against it, without disliking it. The thing about George
Eliot was that she was generous. She saw the good things in things as well
as the…

JLC: But surely the place which we build in ourselves, as Rilke says, is an
   autonomous place, even for women.

     ASB: Yes, and Jane Austen built a very autonomous place, but when
women couldn’t move and couldn’t act, they built a different kind of
autonomous place, and there’s been a lot of recent feminist criticism that
suggests that women built romantic, gothic, unreal places.

JLC: Or they dressed as men.

      ASB: Or they dressed as men and travelled, like the heroine of
Patricia Duncker’s new novel, James Miranda Barry. Or I suppose they built
a place by glorifying domestic detail, claiming that if it was observed
closely and beautifully enough it was as wonderful as any other thing. I
wrote about that painting of Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and
Mary,” because I think he knew that. He knew that anything was as
beautiful as any other thing, and the fishes and the eggs...

JLC: Were objects of beauty…

      ASB: Were objects of beauty, but I really didn’t myself personally wish
to live in a world of fishes and eggs exclusively.

JLC: Rather glass fishes and eggs I think, there are lots of them here. Now
   for another quotation. I have a very small list of quotations and I hope I’ll
   find the good one. This one is from Larbaud who, as you know, was the
   son of the inventor of the Sources Saint-Yorre…

     ASB: I did not know…

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                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    JLC: Sources meant a lot to him, for several reasons, and he had invented
       the word crénologie, which is the study of sources. He says in Sous
       l’invocation de Saint Jérome: “J’aime à voir dans les sources – tant
       hydrologiquement que littéralement parlant.” Does that inspire you with
       something? Of course hydrologiquement is a sort of homage to his father.

          ASB: Yes, I think I have a natural desire to trace things back, which
    may be what he partly meant. To see where anything came from. Part of
    my problem as a writer indeed is that I think slightly too quickly why I am
    doing anything or where an idea came from. At first I used to think, this
    takes away the mystery. You think it’s rather like waking up after a dream
    and thinking oh yes, the banal reason for this dream is that I ate this and
    this yesterday and they were arranged on the plate in such a shape and
    therefore I had a dream about a sort of seaweed mountain with a little bit of
    white beach beside it, let us say. But of course you don’t ever really see the
    source if you trace it back. All you find is another mystery. So I am quite
    happy now to go tracing things back, because you simply stumble over
    another surprise. You never reach… One might use this idea of ‘voir dans
    les sources’ as an analogy for a kind of Freudian psychoanalysis. And a
    Freudian psychoanalysis might appear to reduce the origins of any human
    train of actions to one or two very simple, almost mechanical tropismes.
    But it doesn’t really. You just find another set of sources, you find why were
    the parents so if the behaviour of the parents cause the child to do such.
    You can’t reduce anything to a simple genetic tic tac. One of the books I
    love, speaking of sources and thinking of hydrology, is Claudio Magris’s
    Danubio, (Danube) that wonderful book on the Danube, where he goes
    wandering through the meadows where the source of the Danube is said to
    spring up and finds mats of welling up water. He also finds a tap, a very big
    tap, and he says actually it is quite possible the Danube comes out of this
    tap, and this is for him (and for me) a wonderful image of something which,
    in a sense, is welling up from everywhere and yet in some sense you can
    turn it on or off. And another thing your question caused me to think of was
    Coleridge’s perpetual interest in springs bubbling up from under the water…

    JLC: This is my next question. Before Coleridge, or perhaps from Coleridge,
       I don’t know, one is struck by the number of fountains and sources and
       springs in your work. I could quote a few of them, not all of them. In The
       Virgin in the Garden, in the Gaumont Palace, there is a lovely little
       nymph in a pool, and at Long Royston, which has nothing to do with
       the Gaumont Palace, there is another lovely little nymph in a pool and
       there is a sort of anti-fountain, the Bilge Pond, in the college grounds. In
       “Morpho Eugenia,” there is also a hot-house with a beautiful little
       nymph in a pool. In both “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and “A
       Lamia in the Cévennes,” there are swimming pools. In Possession, there

1999 automne sources   »                              10
                                                “Speaking of Sources”

   is the Fontaine de Vaucluse but also the Yorkshire Becks. And in
   “Dragons’Breath,” very interestingly I think, there are no springs but a
   big lake which is perhaps the place to which all rivers come. Why all
   these springs? Why so many naiads?

       ASB: The naiads have one very clear source. This is a very good
example of there being a clear answer which opens another mystery. They
come from the book of The Faerie Queen in which the Bower of Bliss
appears and the Knight of Temperance goes into the Bower of Bliss, or else
Spenser does, and there is an absolutely beautiful sensuous description of
these nymphs playing in a fountain, and the Temptress, the enchantress
Acrasia, tries to make the Knight sit down. This is a kind of false paradise.
I think actually that, going back to the question about sources, when I was
a little girl I thought the paradise myth was silly. I slowly grew into the
mythology of the Garden of Eden, which contained the sources of the four
great rivers that flowed out, which Coleridge drew on when he wrote the
sunny rivers and fountains of the garden of Kubla Khan. He was playing
with the Ur-image of the fountain of life in the garden of Paradise. The ones
in The Virgin in the Garden certainly came out of the ones Spenser put in
various false tempting bad gardens. I also think, as we speak, you said the
Bilge Pond is a kind of anti-fountain: that connects in my mind to the pond
in Wordsworth’s “Leech gatherer,” which the leech gatherer is stirring (as
Marcus when first seen is stirring the Bilge Pond) with a great stick. (We
had a Bilge Pond at the school where I boarded—Bilge was an abbreviation
of Biology, and there were said to be real leeches in the pond.)
       A lot of the water in Wordsworth, even the sounding cataract, is
usually still even when it is moving. He talks about the stationary blast of
waterfalls whereas Coleridge really likes water that is coming out from
somewhere and springing; Coleridge was interested in mythological water
whereas Wordsworth was interested in real water, and somewhere this is
possibly where the lake is. The lake in “Dragons’ Breath” is partly also an
image of mine for a Central European feeling of something with no sea
coasts around it. It was written for Sarajevo, and it is the opposite of the
sources of the Danube. It is a thing into which water runs but in this case
only snakes and dragons and ashes run, which do go back in a curious way
again to Paradise Lost. There are no fountains in Hell.

JLC: I am just struck, I did not think of it before, that there is no water at all
   in “The Story of the Eldest Princess.” There is a forest, there are insects,
   there are men, there is a good witch, there is a green sky, there is no
   water, even if the Princess has a bottle of water, a magic bottle…

      ASB: I think this is because it was partly I was trying to write about
fear of something going wrong with the earth, and the green sky is meant

                                       11                               sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    to be a very beautiful image of some dreadful shift having happened in the
    nature of the earth and, of course, the rain comes out of the sky and the
    water comes out of the sky, and something had gone wrong with it. I think,
    I mean, I am certain I didn’t think about that, but the fact that there are no
    sort of obvious springs in the forest or rivers to be crossed on the journey
    is again to do with the sense, rather as in “Dragons’ Breath” of something
    having gone wrong.

    JLC: Exactly. Which very clearly appears again in The Virgin and
       Possession with the sealed founts.

           ASB: Of course. Yes.

    JLC: That comes from The Song of Songs, of course, and it is interesting
       that the telling riddle which allows people in Possession to know that
       there was something of a literary or more than literary relationship
       between Ash and Christabel should be the repetition of the same line
       about sealed founts in their poems, while your readers had already met
       the same fountain sealed on the uniforms of the Blesford School for Girls
       in The Virgin.

          ASB: This also has a long literary history as the source of a source of
    a source. It begins with “A garden enclosed is my sister my spouse. A
    spring shut up, a fountain sealed” in The Song of Songs, which is very
    beautiful and is an image, as it were, for virginity. Tennyson took this up in
    The Princess, his strange poem about women’s education, in which the
    Princess herself proclaims to her women “Knowledge is now no more a
    fountain sealed”— women’s education has stopped women being a spring
    shut up or a fountain sealed. So from being, as it were, a very sexual
    image, it has turned into an image of the springing of the intellect. I
    remember the sort of awful shock with which, long after I had left Sheffield
    High School for girls, which did have this as its motto, I discovered that its
    source was in Tennyson, in many ways a mockery of the feminist
    movement, and that was another sort of metamorphosis, another shape-
    shifting of this rather beautiful image. That would be one of the original
    interests I had in it, and also, in a way, when you think about it, the
    Sheffield High School motto is almost a double negative: Knowledge is now
    no more a fountain sealed—if you take the sealed as being a negative—as
    though female progress went in a series of removal of negative

    JLC: There are two more instances of fountains or springs I’d like to quote,
       the absolutely wonderful erotic image of the Fountain of Mélusine as
       first seen by Lusignan and the corresponding image of the Fountain of

1999 automne sources   »                              12
                                                “Speaking of Sources”

   Fire which Yorkshire provides at about the same place in the narrative
   or, at least, it is from the vision of the real Fountain of Fire that Christabel
   is moved to write about the fountain of female beauty.

       ASB: This is rather splendid also because this is a sort of archetypal
version of that movement between reality and mythical images that goes
on. I started writing the description of the fountain of Mélusine partly
because of Luce Irigaray’s book about “Femmes Divines” who were neither
virgins nor mothers, and I wanted to make it coincide with feminist
descriptions of feminized landscapes by women writers, and then I wanted
it to stop doing that because that is too simple and too narrow, so I picked
out everything I could think of in a fountain that could be very erotic and
very female, and then my husband and I went back to Yorkshire to check.
I wanted to put it in one of the real Fosses and I went to look at all these
things and it was when we were actually standing at the Thomason Foss
that I saw the Fountain of Fire. I felt very like Coleridge, really, making
precise physical observations for metaphysical reasons. This was a
physical experience of light in water which I had no idea existed. We have
in fact been back since, and been unable to repeat the experience, which
existed only in certain very limited angles of bright sunlight and
movements of shadows on the water within the cave. So I was
extraordinarily lucky to see it, and it could immediately become part of all
the mythical images of the fountain of light. The thing that is haunting all
these remarks, which I’ll immediately say and then it will be thrown into our
discussion, is of course John Beer’s wonderful work on Coleridge the
Visionary which I read when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge,
wondering whether to work on Coleridge. John Beer’s work on Coleridge
and the fountain of light, and Coleridge and real fountains and unreal
fountains, and Coleridge and all these things, lies behind my creation of
Christabel. Certainly she has a name out of Coleridge, though she is also
named for the great suffragette Christabel Pankhurst who came after her in
time. Presumably my invented Christabel, and maybe Christabel
Pankhurst, were named by their parents for Coleridge’s Christabel and so it
goes on. Everything connects to everything backwards and forwards. It’s
also true of course that I saw the Fontaine de Vaucluse differently because
of having read all these female erotic descriptions of essentially female
landscapes with dimplings and welling ups of things among hair and
streaming weeds. I had seen the Fontaine de Vaucluse when I was
seventeen and just thought it was beautiful. I was almost inevitably made to
see it biologically when I saw it again. On the other hand it was perfectly
true that Browning took Mrs Browning there and sat her on a stone and let
the weeds run round her, which is very beautiful.

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                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    JLC: And told by Mortimer Cropper in his very peculiar style.

         ASB: Yes, exactly. But I wonder, I mean, it’s almost impossible to
    imagine what it would be like to think about fountains, in my case, without
    these very powerful archetypes haunting one.

    JLC: There is a very frightening one in your work, which is the Dropping
       Well. For some reason, after a lot of research, I have decided to translate
       it Fontaine Larmière, because there are drops of petrification there,
       which are more or less tears of death.

           ASB: It does exist, of course

    JLC: Fontaine Larmière is not an invention of mine, it is borrowed.

         ASB: That is beautiful because it adds something. It adds a human
    touch to it. The Dropping Well is in Knaresborough. It is so peculiar
    because people have brought almost any object, shoes and hats and
    ribbons and little sort of domestic things, and they have slowly become like
    a Magritte painting.

    JLC: His grisaille paintings?

           ASB: Yes. I don’t know if he had ever seen a dropping well, but he
    does these pieces of bread which are the same as stones, which is taking
    the metaphor out of the Bible, you know, when Christ is tempted by the
    devil to turn the stone into bread. Magritte paints stone bread but you
    would get stone bread in a perfectly ordinary little sort of folkloric way in
    the Dropping Well. So it is terrifying because petrification is terrifying, but
    it is also rather comical, and you feel that particular well has some small
    local deity rather than a large angry deity. It goes with Mother Shipton, of

    JLC: Mother is the word I shall get from and hurl another quotation at you:

           France, mère des arts, des armes et des lois,
           Tu m’as nourri longtemps du lait de ta mamelle...

        What was your cultural milk in England?

          ASB: It was English. I always think of England as male interestingly,
    given Britannia and all the… I mean that is very interesting, I think very
    rapidly, if you try and personify England I think of something which is a

1999 automne sources   »                              14
                                              “Speaking of Sources”

cross between King Lear and Saint George and Alfred the Great and almost
anything other than a woman.

JLC: That would be John Bull.

       ASB: Yes, and John Bull. It has mostly to do with Anglo-Saxon kings
if I think rapidly about ways of personifying England. It’s complicated
really, because I have increasingly come to think about myself as English
fairly recently. There are two layers of my response to England. One of
which starts with the end of the war and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which
he talks about “now and England.” I don’t think you exactly think about
your country until you’ve been out of it, and I had never been out of it until
I went to Paris when I was a school girl. That was the first time I had ever
moved out of my country at all, and it’s exactly when you’re not in your
country that you see what it is that you like about it, whereas when you are
in it you tend to see what you don’t like about it.
       The other thing that has in a sense changed the whole of my attitude
to any cultural origins is what I was good at school, that is, languages. So I
have—before I went anywhere—I have Latin and German and French, and
English. I remember being entranced as a child by the idea that all these
ran in and out of each other. A language is not circumscribed, belonging to
a people. A lot of English is actually French and the bits that aren’t French
are German and the bits that aren’t German are Latin and so on. And so, I
have this double sense of the earth which is my land, and the culture which
ought not to be identified with the earth. I have never had quite that sense
about it.
       Recently I have had a quite different feeling which is that the English
need defending against everybody attacking them. Most courses about
Modern English Literature abroad are now about post-colonialism and if
they are not about post-colonialism, they are about the English oppression
of the Irish, and I’m beginning to feel that somebody needs to defend the
English. But this is a very recent feeling and it causes me to be much more
nationalist than I ever was as a girl and I don’t quite know what to do with
it, because it is part of a rather grim sense of justice I inherited from the
quakers and my father.

JLC: I suppose it is like criticizing one’s own parents or family, but not
   liking other people to do it.

      ASB: And not liking them to do it perpetually and steadily and
expecting you to stand there and say yes yes mea culpa, mea maxima
culpa. Because for one thing the British Empire is not mea maxima culpa
nor that of anybody now.

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                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    JLC: You also drank the milk of quite a number of good foster parents. I
       would quote Milton, Racine, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, George Eliot,
       Proust, and Iris Murdoch. Would you acknowledge them? Have I
       forgotten some?

           ASB: Did you say Coleridge?

    JLC: I did not.

          ASB: No. Well, I’ve been thinking about him a lot at the moment.
    Those certainly and beyond those, Herbert, and Donne, and Sir Thomas
    Browne, who are more hidden because I don’t talk about them so much.
    Also, a little bit, Thomas Mann. I don’t love him but he figures in the shape
    I have of the world. Possibly also, Virgil to a certain extent, because of the
    accident of my having done Aeneid VI and the bit about the golden bough,
    for my A levels. But anyhow, on the whole, that is my pantheon, yes, and
    it contains, too, very high powered women novelists.

    JLC: Which women novelists would you name apart from Jane Austen,
       George Eliot, and Iris Murdoch?

         ASB: Willa Cather. I discovered her so late that I was largely who I
    was before I discovered her, but it was like meeting something one had
    always known ought to be there.

    JLC: She had written a book called My Antonía.

          ASB: Yes, that was a distraction. I tend never to mention that one. I
    mention all the others as the ones I really love. Emily Dickinson also makes
    you feel the possibilities of being a woman. I tend to repudiate the Brontës,
    partly because I don’t like what feminism has made of them—they stand
    for the irrational, they stand for the marginalized, they stand for the
    romantic as opposed to the reasonable and partly because I resist the
    identification of my three sisters and my brother with them. But actually the
    Brontës meant a very great deal to me when I was young, and still do if I
    think hard about them. When I did the book (Imagining Characters) with
    Ignês Sodré, the psychoanalyst, it was a revelation rereading Villette and
    realising just how much, in an immensely primitive way, I had identified
    with the woman who wrote that. When I was asked by the Sunday Times—
    they have this sort of questionnaire they send all writers—one of the
    questions was, with which character in fiction do you most identify
    yourself? and I wrote: Lucy Snowe. Which is going back to your very first
    question. This is to do with the sense of almost impossibility to move, and
    having very violent feelings which are probably shut up like a spring shut

1999 automne sources   »                              16
                                                “Speaking of Sources”

up. She really was a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, and it was a fountain
of fire and she—they, Charlotte Brontë and Lucy Snowe—do precisely use
all this imagery.

JLC: And she is called both Lucy and Snowe.

       ASB: Yes exactly. I mean she really is. I remember sort of fastening
on her as a girl without even knowing what I was doing, as a way into being
a writer. I never felt like that about Emily Brontë. The only bit about Emily
Brontë I think of as being origins of me is the moment when the people are
lying on the moors just watching the air and saying paradise would be like
the air moving on the moors, and at one point I actually put the movement
of the air above the Yorkshire moors into Christabel, I think, and this was
my one tribute to Emily Brontë. I can see all the arguments for Wuthering
Heights being better than Charlotte, but I like the ambition of what
Charlotte would have done, was trying to do. I like her rather broken
intelligence as opposed to Emily’s stoical withdrawal, and I actually don’t
like Heathcliff and Catherine at all, to be truthful. And somebody else asked
what was the greatest love story. The world is become full of millennium
questionnaires. I was asked by the Washington Post earlier this year for
Valentine’s day, What is the greatest love story? and I wrote: Persuasion.
Which I still think is the greatest love story. But an awful lot of Americans
wrote and said that of course it was Wuthering Heights, and that just makes
me feel ill.

JLC: I’m coming to your Coleridge. Of course I couldn’t miss quoting:

     I may not hope from outward forms to win
     The passions and the life, whose fountains are within.

   To me the fountains within have been exemplified in your first chef-
   d’œuvre—“Sugar”—and your latest chef-d’œuvre—“Arachne”—for
   which I have coined the word “auctorbiography.” How would you react
   to fountains within, auctorbiography, “Sugar” and “Arachne” all put

      ASB: I think that auctorbiography is a lovely word and, of course, one
of the imperatives of my kind of very very limited autobiography is that it
shouldn’t really talk about the fountains within.

JLC: But it does.

     ASB: And Coleridge was a confessional poet, and I was thinking
oddly on the stairs before this interview, I was thinking very carefully about

                                       17                               sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    how much you could say by omitting certain pieces of information. I was
    thinking this partly because I have got this video diary put in by the BBC,
    which is going to be there for a year watching me write, and every now and
    then I stop and tell them what I think, and I was thinking what I don’t tell it
    would be much more interesting than what I do tell it.

    JLC: It is a kind of dropping well.

           ASB: Yes it is a kind of dropping well and, of course, the thing about
    both “Sugar” and “Arachne” is that they turn aside always from the
    narrator, who nevertheless uses the first person singular most
    unexpectedly and for me unusually, in the sense that this first person
    briefly does coincide with this woman. I am writing a first person singular
    story at the moment called “The Biographer’s Tale” written by a character
    who absolutely refuses to be an autobiographer—but what else is he
    writing since he is writing in the first person?—and this is rattling him. But
    I think “Sugar” and “Arachne” are almost in a sense opposite, because
    “Sugar” is about my life’s imaginative origins, and about the origins of my
    sense that I am writing well when I am writing well, which has to do with
    having found a metaphor that also seems to be a truth. The metaphor at
    the centre of “Sugar” is of the twisting hanks of brown and white sugar,
    which is the fact that my mother told lies and my father told the truth, but
    wound together they make my family history. And then you see with a
    little shock of horror that Goethe said the same thing about his family—
    that his mother liked telling stories and his father liked truth and these
    were both part of him. So I had the sense, when the metaphor was found,
    of it being both a good metaphor that was local to my family and a kind of
    universal truth that made it possible to write. It was a sense of the
    language itself making me always be saying more than something
    personal. All the words about my father like “judge” and “justice” and
    “exact,” and the word “evidence,” which of course was to do with what I
    was doing with the story, were to do with his profession: the language
    somehow held the autobiography and extended it. I have always said to
    you I feel that “Sugar” is a French story. I think this is what good French
    writing does again and again.

    JLC: Looking into one’s personal myths?

           ASB: Well, the language sort of, the language being...

    JLC: Analytical?

         ASB: Almost a judicial system for examining something, it’s
    Cartesian at one level. Proust does it. Proust can be as extravagant as he

1999 automne sources   »                              18
                                              “Speaking of Sources”

likes but he is always lucid and analytical. And the analytical thing is the
imaginative thing, as an English critical sense isn’t. Whereas “Arachne” is
quite different because it took the metaphor as a donné in an extravagant
manner and explored it in every conceivable direction—which weren’t that
many: I mean there were spiders, there was the landscape…

JLC: And there was the choice of telling a bit about your own girlhood,
   about your interest in science, your interest in poetry when it is
   mythological, and your interest in painting when it has to do with light
   and silks and that sort of things. This is a form of auctorbiography. It
   tells things about how your mind or your sensitivity or your sensibility
   or your art or whatever works, how you work, how your mind works,
   just as “Sugar” tells how your mind works on your origins, and
   therefore it is not the origin of your family but the origin of a sort of
   general myth. But in both cases it has to do with myth. In “Sugar” you
   are aggrandising your family history into the Norse myths and so on,
   whereas in “Arachne” you reduce it to your grandmother’s embroidery,
   but at the same time you reduce it through Velázquez and Ovid and the
   great scientists, which is not nothing. So it seems to me that perhaps
   they go different ways but there is a meeting point which is “auctor”
   rather than biography.

      ASB: This reminds me of the image which I gave to Marcus in The
Virgin in the Garden and to Cassandra, the original Cassandra in a play I
kept writing but never worked out, which is of a kind of funnel of light
which then crosses like a bobbin. The image I formed for Cassandra was,
as it were, of a burning glass with all the light coming in, and because
Apollo had said she could not tell the truth, it could not come out, so it
was destroying her, and I do see myself as auctor, as a person who is, as
it were, the meeting point of a lot of things coming in which then, on the
whole, come out. There is a sort of flow of light coming in and of light
emitted, whereas if it all comes in and you can’t release it, it destroys you.
There is a sense in which, if I can’t write, experience becomes intensely
oppressive, and this is to do with connections, and the connections go
through me.

JLC: That is again the author’s source, or well, more or less. If you never
   draw water from a well, it goes bad. And it is also an image of the
   author as receiving water from the mountain.

      ASB: Yes, it is the same thing really as the fountain sealed, except
that in the case of Cassandra it was her tongue that was sealed, her eyes
could take in all the light and information but Apollo forbade her to speak.

                                     19                               sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    JLC: And Cassandra in The Game, too.

          ASB: Yes, she in a sense also saw things but couldn’t speak whereas
    her sister wrote. But that did not work. It was very early in my career. I
    suppose if you take it one step further back, if you take it back to The
    Shadow of the Sun, exactly the same thing is going on. Anna is the
    shadow of the sun. The sun is the father and he receives the light and
    gives out the light. It isn’t personal, in a sense. Really it is the sense of a
    whole string of connections coming through you, and it is almost your
    duty to add to them, to complicate them, to put your little bit in and send
    them on their way. I don’t think of it as a culture, that is not the word I use
    to myself. I think much more of language. The English language comes
    through you and so do all the other ones you know little bits of. And you
    have to do something with it and add your little bit, and then it goes on
    slightly changed. I remember thinking about myth in that context. I
    remember I had a brief day of being very angry with Iris Murdoch for using
    the Marsyas myth so frequently because I had been doing a lot of thinking
    about Marsyas because I had been reading Edgar Wind on Pagan
    Mysteries in the Renaissance, and I had been reading about Saint
    Bartholomew being Michel Angelo’s version of Marsyas, and I had a fit of
    being angry with Iris. I thought to myself, she is taking the myth I was
    going to use, and then I thought, don’t be ridiculous, the true power of the
    myth is that she has it and I have it. This isn’t true of everything. But it is
    a different attitude to art from the modern sense that originality is all, that
    you must say something that nobody has said before, and paradoxically
    most people who try to do that say things that everybody has said before.
    All avant-gardes resemble each other quite shockingly and they do a very
    narrow number of things in exactly the same way as other avant-gardes.
    The same is true of people writing personal confessions about their
    personal relationships. They tend to repeat, whereas curiously somebody
    thinking of something to do with Marsyas or the Fountain changes it a little
    bit, might do something more original. But it does depend, of course,
    which is the very terrifying thing, on having readers who know other
    Fountains and other Marsyases.

    JLC: Who can connect them.

         ASB: And if people can’t make the connections, you get reviews
    saying this has got a dead weight of literature on it, whereas it feels to me
    like a tremendously live, living, tapestry, in which the people keep
    changing places and moving a bit.

1999 automne sources   »                              20
                                               “Speaking of Sources”

JLC: If they can’t sense the thing, it is perhaps a question of culture or a
   question of memory. Here is another quotation, about memory, from
   Christabel LaMotte’s great poem, “The Fairy Melusine”
     Help me Mnemosyne, thou Titaness…
     Mother of Muses…
     O Memory who holds that thread that links
     My modern mind to those of ancient days…
     O thou the source of speech…

   What I like here is that you start from memory and then you add

     ASB: And the word source is in there.

JLC: Which is another reason for quoting it, for I think part of your problem
   with memory and sources and auctorbiography might be a sort of
   refusal to accept yourself as your own source, or rather to always try
   and find some Virgil or some grandmother who does the job for you and
   not to acknowledge yourself as source. It is captivating, if one knows
   you, not as a private person but as a writer, to find or sense what you
   might call sideviews, the sort of profil perdu of which Virginia Woolf was
   saying we never catch more than a glimpse, something turning away,
   always in movement. When one considers many of your characters—
   Frederica Potter, of course, but also Josephine Piper in “The Changeling”
   or Christabel LaMotte in Possession, Cassandra Corbett in The Game or
   Mrs Smith in “On the Day that E. M. Forster died,” Gillian Perholt in
   “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” Jess in “Jael,” Patricia Nimmo in
   “Crocodile Tears” and so on—there is none of which one could say: this
   is Antonia—but I think each of them, somewhere, sometimes, often very
   fleetingly, in a good thing or a bad thing, gives one the sense that there
   is, for one minute, for one paragraph, a special relationship to your own

      ASB: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean one could be doing it for
two reasons which are opposed to each other. One is that there are things
you need to say very briefly about, say, grief, which you don’t wish to
expand a great deal of time on analysing or deploying or displaying, but
which you wish to say. And those you let slip past for those to see who can
pick them up. The alternative is the opposite, really. You look around for
something that will exemplify what you want to do and you think, oh yes, I
did something like that, that will do, I will use myself for once, and you put
yourself in. I do that quite a lot with clothes when I can’t think of a dress. I
think, What was I wearing in nineteen seventy something and I put my
dress on the character, which does not mean that the character is me. But

                                      21                               sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    in all the cases you’ve mentioned, there is one emotion at least which is
    really mine. For instance taking the easiest and the furthest away, which is
    Jess, the girl in “Jael,” it is the boredom that I wanted to write, the dreadful
    boredom of being a young girl at that time.

    JLC: In that kind of school.

          ASB: Yes, and you felt perfectly safe in that nothing would ever be
    interesting. She went some way that I didn’t go, but the boredom was
    described out of life. It is the same with Gillian Perholt. I did actually have
    the thought of being “floating redundant,” going through the air towards a
    conference on metaphor. I was going in the opposite direction. I was going
    to the North of Holland. So I just turned her around and made her go to

    JLC: And let us be gossipy, she collects glass paper weights, like you.

           ASB: Yes, yes, indeed she does.

    JLC: But you wouldn’t say that any of these characters is your Madame
       Bovary, would you?

         ASB: No, I wouldn’t. Particularly not Frederica, which is the one
    everybody thinks is my Madame Bovary. She is very much somebody I am
    looking at.

    JLC: From time to time, she is most particularly what you were not.

          ASB: Yes, exactly, and she shares many of the things that I have lived
    through but her attitudes towards them are not exactly what mine were.
    She has more courage and slightly less sense, and she grasps at things that
    I wouldn’t have grasped at. I used to say, and I think I still believe, that in
    order to invent any character you need to be able to add together
    observations taken from at least two or three people and quite often one in
    a book as well. A character won’t stand up if it is a portrait or a self-
    portrait. It has to have its own autonomy, which means it has to have at
    least two or three sources. It can’t just sit on one. It won’t live. You could
    invent a false biology for this; it must have two parents, it must have a
    genetic code, which it has inherited from several places. A clone is no
    good. There seems to be terrible problems with the real life of clones. They
    seem to die early of insufficiency. I think self-portraits in books do that.
    Madame Bovary was so far from Flaubert that he could go into her, that’s
    one way of doing it. Also of course, it was partly a lie, Madame Bovary
    c’est moi.

1999 automne sources   »                              22
                                               “Speaking of Sources”

JLC: It has caught. Another form of, I do not know if it is sources or outflow,
   I wouldn’t know, is a word coined by Héloïse d’Ormesson, one of your
   French publishers. It is the word Byattitudes which she doesn’t apply to
   any psychology but to writing. She says that your style is full of
   Byattitudes, which I think is true. Do you think your characters are full
   of Byattitudes? do you think your thoughts are full of Byattitudes? Do
   you think your writing is full of Byattitudes?

     ASB: I would need to go and have a good argument with Héloïse
about exactly what she means. The answer to that is you can sense
yourself slipping into what you know to be your own style, and this can be
good because you know how to do the next sentence, or it can be quite bad
because it is something…

JLC: Parody?

      ASB: Yes, you’re just good at doing it and you can do that again. I
think I do it less than Iris Murdoch. Iris had a great many stylistic tics which
she simply used to move the narrative on. I don’t think she cared as much
as I do about the textual web of language partly because she didn’t really
come out of English Literature. She came out of philosophy and
her linguistic preoccupations were always truth and precision and dialogue.
Mine are really with poetic resonance and with the kind of intensely thickly
woven mat of linguistic crisscrossings. Iris was a story teller. I have learned
to be a story teller. I wasn’t born one. And a lot of what I feel I have to do
when correcting the next novel is taking out the less agreeable Byattitudes.
I construct a kind of block with the next paragraph because I know what
sort of things will be in it and I found myself horrified by sort of sentences
with dying falls of the kind I can construct without even thinking, and I need
to get them out again. I think, it is interesting I have taken this sort of
remark to be about stylistic faults.

JLC: I don’t think it is. We are not speaking of Byattitudinizing, which you
   never do. I think it has to do with the pictorial quality of your sentence,
   which is also flexible, sinuous, a bright and balanced sentence which
   really moves on like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

      ASB: And it is trying to hold things together and it does not wish to
come to an end until it has got everything in that sentence that belongs in
that sentence. Which, of course, is one of the reasons why I so love Proust,
because he does that. His sentences go flexibly on. The two writers who
have sentences like that are Proust and George Eliot. And Proust loved
George Eliot. Both of them have been felt, particularly in the English
translations of Proust, to be writing heavily because they seem to slow

                                      23                               sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    everything up. Both of them, if you actually read them, sentence by
    sentence, with proper attention, are very rarely heavy. They intersperse the
    very short, the very clear, the very sharp, which people don’t remark on as
    much because they don’t get bogged in short, clear, sharp sentences or
    very precise quick observations. I hope I also do that. George Eliot could
    do almost anything and there is one of her turns of voice that has simply
    not survived very well, a kind of sententious, sentimental voice which, I
    think, is the voice of her narrative persona and not the writer. And there are
    places where you feel that Proust is very far from his narrative, which is
    floundering about, and the writer is slightly impatient with the narrator
    going on and on making distinctions and something like that happens to
    me. I find myself almost, as you say, parodying myself. Because I have a
    style. I remember I had a friend when I very first came to London, which
    therefore must have been in the early nineteen sixties, and she had
    published a novel and I had one going through the press. She thought she
    was a real novelist and I wasn’t one, and I remember she once took me to
    a party and said in a very grand way, We are two novelists at different
    stages of our development. She thought she was terribly kind to me by
    saying I was a novelist at all, and she used to talk to me perpetually about
    what she used to call in inverted commas “my style.” She said, I have to
    consider “my style.” I remember sitting there thinking “What is she talking
    about? I don’t have anything that is ‘my style’, I try and write clearly; do I
    ought to be thinking about whether my style is this or that?” And it’s better
    not to on the whole. So I suppose for that reason I think of Byattitudes as
    being derogatory because if I notice “my style” it means I am looking at the
    writing and not at the thing.

    JLC: No, no, no I don’t think it was derogatory at all.

             ASB: No, I don’t think it was either but I think I reacted defensively
    to it.

    JLC: What was meant was that Byattitudes work in English whereas they
       wouldn’t do so well in the French translation.

             ASB: I think it is probably true.

    JLC: I hope it is not.

          ASB: They’re all right in German because the German sentences are
    even longer and more inclusive and wait for the verb to the very end
    winding everything in itself as it goes along to the verb, which means that
    any German translation of anything is usually a third as long again as the
    thing was in pages. English comes somewhere in between.

1999 automne sources   »                              24
                                               “Speaking of Sources”

JLC: And French is always a bit longer than English. And now my last
   question is: Do you find, or feel, or fear that you have become a source,
   an influence to the younger generation? Does that please you, irritate
   you, or don’t you see it at all? Are you a source? Are you an influence?

      ASB: Yes, I think I am an influence because young writers,
particularly women, but not only, will say to me how did you do it?. At one
level, they simply think how I did it to have four children and a full time
teaching job and write anything. I think there are a lot of rather romantic
novels rather like Possession that believe themselves to be influenced by
Possession and rather depress me. I feel that some people picked on the
wrong aspects, on the easy aspect of that work. I like talking to people, so
I very much like feeling myself to be invisible, and I love talking to the
young writers, but I don’t actually like it when I notice that they are listening
to me as I used to listen to Iris Murdoch.

JLC: Like disciples?

       ASB: Yes I would much rather have a good ding-dong argument, and
it’s true that I like talking to a lot of the very young ones because simply
they are still at the stage of having a good ding-dong argument about what
a book ought to be like,—then I sit there and talk about it. I feel, as a writer,
which I haven’t really ever said before, I feel quite lonely in the sense that
there aren’t really any English novelists of my generation. There is a
generation older than me, which consists of, say, Anita Brookner, Malcolm
Bradbury, David Lodge, Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, who is older
than those, and Iris.

JLC: And Doris Lessing?

      ASB: And Doris Lessing who is more than ten years older than I am.
Then there is what I think of as the flamboyant generation, which is largely
male and a lot of it not British in origin: Barnes, Rushdie, Mo, Ishiguro,
Graham Swift, Caz Phillips, all of whom write wonderfully, but I don’t think
they bear much relation to what I do. And then, there’s the generation after
that, which does interest me, the generation of Lawrence Norfolk, Patricia
Duncker, A.L. Kennedy (who I am sure isn’t the slightest bit interested in
my work because she is so very Scottish, but I like her work), Candia
MacWilliam. And some of those, I feel, have learned odd things in certain
ways. But I don’t think there is a kind of school of Byatt.

JLC: There is a school of doctorates.

      ASB: There is an enormous school of doctorates on Byatt and I find
this very moving. The other thing which you didn’t ask but actually I find it

                                        25                             sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    so exciting I shall say it, is that because of the fact that I have become more
    and more curious about things that are not literary, there are several worlds
    which regard me as the novelist that knows about that world. The scientists
    treat me with respect. They say most novelists don’t know any science but
    you have done your homework. And the entomologists, who are not at all
    the same as the scientists,—by scientists I mean the biologists, the
    geneticists—I don’t know much physics—but they treat me with respect.
    They write me letters and they say will you read my book?

    JLC: And the painters, I should think.

          ASB: And the painters, from some quite other angle, also say, you
    understand what it is to be a painter, you don’t just turn painting into a
    metaphor for the novel. And now I do get odd letters from sort of medical
    people and sociologists and things saying, you have understood this or
    that. I find all this very moving. I increasingly enjoy my journeys out into
    other worlds that are not the literary and not the literary academic. I will go
    to things I am invited to by entomologists whereas I often won’t go if I am
    invited to yet another gathering of writers, just because I think the
    entomologists will tell me something I didn’t know which might become
    useful, and this is a kind of meeting of minds.

    JLC: Your new source has become otherness.

          ASB: Yes it has, and again this has partly to do with Iris having said
    that otherness was what one needed to be looking for. But when I look
    back, in my early work which I tend to parody to myself as being very
    narrowly literary, there are moments—for instance when Anna says in The
    Shadow of the Sun that she really thinks it would have been better to be a
    crystallographer—when I always knew that if you didn’t have the Other,
    you didn’t have the thing. And there is another world—lawyers. There is a
    man in Yale who is teaching Babel Tower in a course on courtroom
    presentation and Law and for that matter Possession is taught in San Diego
    University on the course on Research Methods for all research students,
    which I find extremely funny. But all that is quite pleasing to me, not
    because I have a sort of pedantic feeling that novelists ought to get things
    right (which I do), but because I think that the source of the imagining the
    world is in getting things right, which is a different matter. If you don’t know
    any entomology, you shouldn’t be writing metaphors about butterflies
    because they will be boring metaphors. The source will be only within. If the
    source of the metaphor about the butterfly or the glass isn’t in the butterfly
    or the glass, at least half of it…

1999 automne sources   »                              26
                                               “Speaking of Sources”

JLC: I suppose one of these days you will get letters from Fairyland. Have
   people ever written to you from Fairyland, telling they could find
   themselves in your stories?

      ASB: The sort of people who really like the fairy stories which come
out of the world of fantasy are the ones I like least of the people who write
to me. Like the man who came up to me almost in tears when I gave a
reading in Boston from The Matisse Stories. He came up afterwards and
said, You know, Mrs Byatt, you don’t really like Matisse, do you? What you
really like is Arthur Rackham’s fairy illustrations. This is what you think is
really good art. So I said, No, I enjoy them but what I care about is Matisse.
It means much more to me. And he looked as if I had shot him, because he
had me placed in a world of Pre-Raphaelites. I actually intensely dislike
most of the Pre-Raphaelites. I like the Burne-Jones painting that is on the
cover of a lot of editions of Possession, but I am not a Pre-Raphaelite
person. I like the High Victorians much better than them. I like the
toughness of Tennyson and Browning much better than the Pre-
Raphaelites. The Lady of Shalott is not a Pre-Raphaelite poem, it is bigger
and larger and straight out of romanticism. So I don’t like that end of the
people who like my work. Every now and then this is also very amusing
because you can never tell what is happening. There is another thing which
is beginning to happen which is that I am becoming a source for films and
plays and there has been a lot of spin-off dramatisation of “The Story of the
Eldest Princess” in various countries, including for instance what sounds
like a real good opera for school children out of it, which I really would like
to go and see, but I shall probably be writing in the Cévennes. And there
are two women who wrote last week from California. One said she was a
professional story teller, and wanted to add “The Story of the Eldest
Princess” to her repertory and did I have any rights I had to sell? So I sent
her a nice letter, Please tell it. She may be telling it wonderfully or terribly.
I don’t know. The other is an embroiderer who was going to construct a
very very long silk tunnel in which “The Story of the Eldest Princess” would
be enacted with quotations of it embroidered into the silk tunnel. So, I sent
her a copy of “Arachne” and said, You might be interested in this. But I
have no idea.

JLC: And “Art Work?” I hope she knows Mrs Brown!

     ASB: Yes, of course, I should have sent her Mrs Brown who derived
from a French artist whose name I’ve forgotten—I once saw her in
Montpellier—who made these immense cushion-like embroidered things
and had works of art with little balls of silk falling out of drawers. I always
wondered who she was. I must find her. Anyway, all that is very exciting
and the tunnel might be beautiful or awful. There was also a female

                                       27                              sources   » automne 1999
                           Encountering A. S. Byatt

    sculptress who did a kind of underwater set of images of Mélusine, also in
    California. And speaking of influence, there are the German and American
    tourists who were denuding the beach at Boggle Hole of all these very large
    pebbles. I am not proud of that at all. I am deeply worried. It is imaginary
    things spilling into the concrete world. Come to think of it, those are far
    worse than literary influences. On the other hand, it means that you are
    there. If you have actually caused someone to take a pebble, you must


1999 automne sources   »                              28

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