Monday, October 05, 2009
Byatt’s Children’s Book
[Note The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is announced tomorrow. The date has crept up on me a little, caught me on the hop even—I have only three of the titles read-and-reviewed (half way through the Coetzee right now). But I persevere.]
So, A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This is an odd, densely crammed saga-novel: six hundred pages that read like nine hundred, moving a large number of characters from the 1890s through to the First World War. The density is created by the sheer quantity of research Byatt has pressed into the mould of her narrative—if not infodumping, exactly, then certainly info-kneading, or info-compressing. There’s no doubt that she knows this period very well ... which is to say, she certainly puts out great gouts of historical-cultural knowledge: about the Arts and Crafts movement of the fin-de-siècle; about anarchism and children’s literature; about the Jameson raid and Fabianism and Anarchism and life in the Potteries; about the Suffragettes and the establishment of the Victoria and Albert museum and the popularity of Peter Pan; and a great mass of other stuff about turn-of-the-century England and Germany. Queen Victoria dies on p.300, and from there the novel slides inexorably towards World War I. Density has its advantages, and by its end this novel certainly builds a considerable degree of heft, which gives its soap-like family births-and-deaths actual emotional momentum. But density can very easily become stodge, and it often does so in this book. It took me a long time to read, and for long stretches the reading process was a treacly-wading, not a smoothly-gliding, one.
In the middle of a swarm of characters is Olive Wellwood, a children’s writer, wife to a foxily unfaithful husband and mother to a large brood—I took her to be a fictional version of Edith Nesbit until, later in the novel, Nesbit herself crops up. There’s also weirdo-genius-artist Bejamin Fludd, a version of Eric Gill. I assume the point of fictionalising these famous folk is that it frees up Byatt to take these characters’ stories in the directions she wants without being constrained by actuality (which, I assume, is why some figures from the period appear in fictional guise—H G Wells, for instance—where others come along as themselves: William Morris, say, or James Barrie).
Alright then, but a novel is built out of its prose (its prose, obviously, constructs it) and the prose here is a problem. Individual sentences are mostly fine, and occasionally they are better than fine; but the sentences are put together, paragraph by paragraph and page by page, in a disconcertingly clunky, jolty manner. There’s something almost aspergers about the jerky, clotted larger rhythm. It’s not helped by Byatt’s fondness for lapsing into reported speech, like a newspaper article or a Hansards parliamentary account (‘Griselda said to Dorothy that it was interesting, how different the story was. Dorothy said she wasn’t very interested. … [Griselda] said she really wanted to know why the story was different’, 51). Quite a lot of the book is like this:
1896 was a gloomy year. William Morris died in October, as Tom [one of the children] was hiding in thickets and Olive was pacing the corridors. … the Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896, the National Portrait Gallery moved from Bethnal Green to a site next to the National Gallery in the same year. A Fabian Society member, incurably ill, committed suicide and left his fortune to the Fabians, to forward their ends. Sidney and Beatrice Webb decided that this could best be done by the founding of the London School of Economics, and in 1896 the rich Irishwoman, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, took the top floor of no.10 Adelphi Terrace for the first students and lecturers. 
Or this, on the build up to war in 1914:
...which isn’t, but reads as if it might have been, cut-and-pasted from Clute and Nicholls. Occasionally the research sounds a wrong note. ‘Anselm Stern began suddenly to sing a version of the opening music of Rheingold‘ : fine, except that the opening of Rheingold is essentially the same chord for, like, eight minutes, which would be an odd thing to sing.
The English were reading novels about the invasion of England, and the invaders were Germans. There was the legendary William Le Queux, whose tales were serialized by Lord Northcliffe, in the Daily Mail and hugely increased its circulation. He began with The Great War in England in 1897 which was published in 1894 … In 1906 Le Queux wrote the Invasion of 1910, a futuristic tale of a German invasion of England’s green and pleasant land … Among Le Queux’s innumerable other works was Spies of the Kaiser, published in 1909, a mock-factual series of descriptions of infiltrating Germans and dangerous new weapons. The Secret of the Silent Submarine. The Secret of our New Gun. The German Plot Against England. The Secret of the British Aeroplane. 
Oh, this review is not above nitpicking. Oh indeed not. Did you think it would be?
Anyway: the overall flavour of the prose is one of flatness, something compounded partly of the style itself, and partly by a rather uncertain touch with narrative focalizing, combined with an approach to detail that might be described as incontinent. Sometimes the writing is just ungainly, or actively bad. (‘Breakfast was happy and sad’, 556). Sometimes there’s an eew quotient. For example: here’s working-class Philip, given a home by the Wellwoods, wanking in his room on his first night: ‘he lay back, and took himself in hand, and worked himself into a rhythm of delight, and a soaring wet ecstasy’ . I’m not sure the English language contains three words less effective at evoking a swift adolescent Barclay’s than ‘soaring wet ecstasy’.
Now I’m prepared to believe this is a deliberate strategy on Byatt’s part: a sort of deliberate rough-hewnness fitting to the Arts and Crafts aesthetic she is describing. I’m just not convinced that it works, overall. It is earnest and plodding, by and large, where it needs to be gracious and transporting.
To be fair to it, there are aspects of The Children’s Book that are very effectively rendered. The governing thematic of the whole—children, and children’s stories, what I described in another place as the entry into and explusion from Narnia-like paradises—is one of these: Byatt insets a number of Olive’s children’s stories, several of which are very good indeed. The basics of family life are as compelling as any high-class soap opera, the reader becoming absorbed into who is marrying whom, whom Y is boinking on the side or why X has drowned himself in the river. The Children’s Book is good at evoking a world where infant mortality was a much greater feature of ordinary life—and in particular, at evoking the family psychodynamic of living with such bereavements, where (pace Wordsworth’s ‘I Am Seven’) the dead children are still regarded members of the family. But overall the book was a disappointment, a lump rather than a coherent whole. It lacks, I think, gracefulness; or (despite its repeated return to the potent charm of the well-told tale) magic.
One rather-too-obviously worked trope is that of puppetry. Early in the book the children are entertained by Anselm Stern, a brilliant puppetmaster: and the little marionette plays are described in exhaustive detail; and puppets in various forms appear and reappear throughout the book. But it seems to me that taking puppetmasters seriously is no longer possible—I mean after Being John Malkovich ... in the same way that we can no longer hear Abba’s splendid ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ without adding a ghostly Alan-Partridge ‘a-ha!’ I mean, has Byatt never seen Being John Malkovich? Is she even aware of it? Or is she like a High Court Judge, loftily ignorant of those developments in culture at large that have rendered features of her world-view passé. And maybe that’s symptomatic of a larger problem—this is a weirdly po-faced, humourless novel. It takes itself terribly terribly seriously, and the reader who isn’t prepared to conform to Byatt’s earnestness will find the novel lies very heavily on the metaphorical stomach indeed.
I thought the same as you, and I hated it. I only finished it because I was in England at the time and this was the only book I brought to read on trains etc. It did add a very slight something to the great enjoyment I found in spending a very long time in the V&A. If you want to start a colleciton of nitpicks, she mentions some characters dancing a quadrille at ome point, obviously under the impression that it’s a dance for four people rather than four couples.