‘A Stone Woman’ by AS Byatt

I once thought I ought to read some AS Byatt. You know, to improve myself. Shortly after I gave a copy of Possession back to the British Red Cross, defiled now by a series of ever-bigger question marks in the margins, I found The Little Black Book of Stories, and this quietly extraordinary work. It doesn’t seem to know what it is (fable? meditation? yarn?) but will stay with you for years…

First published in The New Yorker, October 13, 2003. Collected in The Little Black Book of Stories, Chatto, 2003

‘The July Ghost’ by A.S. Byatt

The story I’ve selected for the summer personal anthology series is not cheerful or with a holiday aspect, so apologies in advance. But it is set in London, during a very hot summer, and here I am, in London, and it is turning out to be a very hot summer.  The story is about a terrible loss, and the emotional paralysis that comes with it: all the more painful because it is set against a ravishing backdrop – a large, almost paradisiacal garden:

It was a lovely place: a huge, hidden, walled South London garden, with old fruit trees at the end, a wildly waving disorderly buddleia, curving beds full of old roses, and a lawn of overgrown rye-grass.

A man, an academic trying to write a paper on Hardy’s poems, “on their curiously archaic vocabulary” rents some attic rooms from a woman he has no connection with; her husband is mostly away. The initial set-up leads one to expect a foregone conclusion, but what follows is profoundly unexpected. The man has recently been left by his lover: he is bereft. Sitting in the garden each day his mind begins to recompose itself: and soon he has a companion – a silent boy of about ten with brilliant blue eyes and an extraordinarily trusting smile, swinging from the apple tree, or lying in the grass beside him.

When he asks the woman who the boy might be, and describes him, right down to his Chelsea football shirt, he taps into a wild grief. The woman’s only child, he discovers, had been killed two years before, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon (Byatt’s own son died this way: there is a personal heaviness to the writing). The woman cannot see the boy: she longs to. Neither the man nor the woman believes in ghosts: they agree that they appear to have crossed over into each other’s emotional currents: whether they can find mutual comfort through this is debatable.

The story seems to me to be very Jamesian (both Henry and M.R.) especially as it is a retelling with omissions – the man recounts it to a young American woman he meets later at a party. It is less contrived and curlicued than much of Byatt’s writing: there is a sense of urgent reflection about it. In our family, too, there is a lost child, and although she died in her early 20s, it is – sentimentally or perhaps so as not to dwell on the suffering which took her from us – that as a child I choose most often to remember her, an eternal child in an everlasting summer garden.

From Sugar and Other Stories, 1987, and also collected in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990) Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Read Catherine’s Personal Anthology here

‘Medusa’s Ankles’ by AS Byatt

What happened in an eight-month period in 1997-1998 was both my parents died. I was twenty. I had dropped out of University twice and didn’t know what I was doing. I kept running away from jobs in my lunch hour. A book shop in Camden. Past Times in Covent Garden. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

My friend gave me A.S. Byatt’s Possession the Christmas that sat neatly between their deaths, and it changed everything.

I sat, reading it, over that Christmas holiday. I was reading the same writers, or writers mentioned by those writers, and then I read that book, that one book, and I read every single writer she referenced in the half a year after. Goethe, Coleridge, EVERYTHING. I was hungry for all of it, and it opened up the world for me. Because of that book, in the summer of 1999 I applied to do a Literature degree at the University of Essex, and never looked back. It would have never happened without A.S. Byatt because I didn’t realise reading could be a thing you studied to that level, because I’d been taught that things you enjoy were too easy to study. Study should be suffering. Well. No.

That says nothing about this story, in this collection, which I bought immediately after I’d finished Possession. A woman in a hairdresser’s chair, thinking about her age, and being invisible, and how she first went into that hairdresser’s purely because of the Matisse she saw through the window, and all the things the hairdresser says, as she sits, and he talks, and they sometimes look at each other in the mirror.

I love this story. I love all of A.S. Byatt’s work, and all her books of short stories especially, are like gleaming treasures, brightly wrapped, beautifully formatted, carried about, on and off, in various handbags over decades as a reminder of something that I still can’t quite articulate.

This story has the line: She came to trust him with her disintegration.

It’s worth it for that alone.

From The Matisse Stories, Vintage, 1994

‘The Chinese Lobster’ by AS Byatt

One of three stories inspired by the work of Henri Matisse, ‘The Chinese Lobster’ – first published with its companions in 1996 – seems thoroughly in step with today’s debates about power relations between men and women and the locus of authority. The Dean of Women’s Studies at a London university arrives in the supposedly neutral space of a Chinese restaurant to present an art historian with charges of sexual abuse that a female student has made against him. He is outraged, and cites the student’s lack of ability as a clumsy defence; but we are also encouraged to consider the pain he feels at her desecration of his beloved Matisse. Beyond its subject matter, it is remarkable for the creation of a palpable atmosphere of unease and ambiguous luxury, emblematised by the live lobster trapped in its tank.

(First published in The New Yorker in 1992, and collected in The Matisse Stories, Vintage)