Friday, May 14, 2010

Still Life: A S Byatt

Image Credit: biblio

Literature, art, poetry, paintings and the travails of human life. Doesn’t this sound like a heady mix for a book? This is precisely what A S Byatt’s “Still Life” is comprised of. The second in a tetralogy, Still Life follows the lives of the Potter family in 1950s England. The focus is mainly on the siblings, Stephanie, Frederica and Marcus. Stephanie was once a brilliant student of English but now leads a life of domesticity with her curate husband Daniel. Frederica is the more adventurous, the one who dares to go a bit further. She goes to Cambridge for an academic life. Marcus is the slightly off brother who is still recovering from a breakdown and stays with his sister Stephanie.

After having read the extremely riveting and well paced Possession, Still Life comes to mean what its title says. Progression in the novel is limited and it is more like a montage of incidents and fringe characters. I truly enjoyed the character studies though as Byatt has devoted much space to the three siblings. My particular favorite was Stephanie, a woman caught between the vague bliss of married life and the happiness found in the literary world. Byatt raises part of the famous Woman Question through Stephanie – can a woman continue her passion while being a homemaker? Stephanie tries to. But she doesn’t realize that her identity has already dissolved until the perceptive Gideon asks her a question –

“But you must allow me some curiosity about you – not Daniel’s wife, William’s mother, Marcus’s sister, not yet the helpful spouse of the curate of this parish. All those are roles.”

The conversation stirs up uncomfortable, long forgotten feelings. Later, she goes to the library to read, something which she hadn’t done for long. But now she discovers how difficult the task is –

“One had to peel one’s mind from its run of preoccupations; coffee to buy, am I in love, the yellow dress needs cleaning, Tim is unhappy, what is wrong with Marcus, how shall I live my life? … It was hard. She was tired. She yawned. Time moved on.”

This brilliant passage highlights the disconnect between Stephanie’s past and present life.

What weighs down the book heavily is the erudition. Many readers might draw a blank at the many names that Byatt drops and texts that she weaves in. To top it all, she mixes Van Gogh’s art too along with excerpts from his letters to his brother Theo. She does it all to highlight Frederica’s academic life at Cambridge as well as to draw parallels to the occurrences in the lives of other characters. Even the subtle humor in the book is related to literature! While undergoing severe labor pain Stephanie frantically asks around for the one thing that is closest to her – her book of Wordsworth poems.

After a point, though, the vast swathes of literary genius lie heavily indigested in the mind. And yet, the places where the focus is on Stephanie are spots of clarity like the sun bursting through the clouds. And Marcus too. I enjoyed a lot of the novel because of these two people. I also skipped a number of pages where the writing was too laden with references I was not aware of. I know comparison is not fair, but I couldn’t help recollecting the raciness of Possession both in terms of plot as well as the content although that work too had a lot of literary references. Bottom line – read it for Stephanie and Marcus as I did.

Verdict: Well, give it a shot

Rating: 3.5/5


  1. I would say that's a very good review which really informs me about the book. I agree that it might be a bit too wordy (or erudite!) and this can be wearing at times.

  2. Thanks Tom! It's not even the words, it's the unending literary references, which sometimes takes you off the story too much...

  3. Nice review Birdy! Am a great fan of A.S. Byatt, loved her "Possession"; was wanting to read other books of her but haven't got down to it yet. Reading your reminded a promise to myself that I should more of Byatt. Once again great review -:)

  4. Thanks Thoughts! I too am a Byatt fan, hence picked up Still Life. It's not that I didn't like this book, she should have just reduced its literary weight a bit :)