Oh, how I enjoyed it. This isn’t one of Byatt novels written almost exclusively for people who consider reading Spenser a restorative mental exercise (as the unbelievably dense and rewarding The Virgin in the Garden
is literary and vast, yet more palatable.
Byatt plays with the reader, making narrative curiosity - the powerful desire to learn “what happened next” - one of the recurring themes of the novel. The quest/ process of detection is carried out by a pair of scholars driven by the desire to uncover unknown facts from the lives of the two Victorian poets they study:
“I want to—to—follow the—path. I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. I thought you were mad, when you came to Lincoln with your piece of stolen letter. Now I feel the same. It isn't professional greed. It's something more primitive."
Byatt herself becomes “the great ventriloquist” (as Randolph Henry Ash, the author of dramatic monologues, came to be called), inlaying documents, letters, diaries, and poems within the body of the novel (I especially loved the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte, and the diary of Sabine de Kercoz) without disturbing the balance of the work.
I liked the criticism of the oversexed literary criticism of the eighties (I read some criticism from that period, and trust me, it’s every bit as steamy as she makes it), and the treatment of the women’s question – for Byatt’s female characters, in 19th and 20th century alike, need more than a room of their own - they openly speak of the solitude and freedom from claims of family life they need to work:
But we were to renounce the outside World—and the usual Female Hopes (and with them the usual Female Fears) in exchange for—dare I say Art—a daily duty of crafting—-from exquisite curtains to Mystical Paintings, from biscuits with sugar roses to the Epic of Melusina. It was a Sealed Pact— ay no more of that. It was a chosen way of life—in which, you must believe,I have been wondrously happy—and not alone in being so.
This book is also, as the title suggests, about having claims – on lovers, ideas, icons, texts – and the power authentic documents and memorabilia still exert over some people in the age of Xerox and transparencies:
"Look," he would say, "at the museum of the future. The Russians are already stocking their museums not with sculptures or ceramics, nor with copies in fibreglass or plaster, but with these constructions of light. Everything can be everywhere, our culture can be, is, worldwide. The original objects must be preserved where the air is best, where breath cannot harm them, as the cave-paintings at Lascaux have been damaged by those who came to marvel at them. With modern technology, mere possession of the relics of the past is of little importance. All that is of importance is that those entrusted with the care of these fragile and fading things should have the requisite skills—and resources—to prolong their life indefinitely, and to send their representations, fresh, vivid, even, as you have seen, more vivid than in the flesh, so to speak, journeying round the world."
At the end of his lecture, Cropper would take out Ash's large gold watch, and check with it his own perfect timing: 50 minutes 22 seconds, this time. He had given up his naive youthful practice of publicly claiming the watch, with a little joke about continuity, Ash's time and Cropper's. For although the watch had been purchased with his own funds, it was arguable that by his own arguments it should be stowed away safely in the Stant cabinets. He had wondered once about juxtaposing it in his, its owner's, hand, with a hologram of itself. But he saw that his emotions, which were violent, about Ash's watch, were private, not to be confused with his public appeals. For he believed the watch had come to him, that it had been meant to come to him, that he had and held something of R. H. Ash. It ticked near his heart. He would have liked to be a poet.”
Some scattered ideas on other things things I liked:
- the way preoccupations and interests of poets resurface in their work, in the rhetorical language they use;
- this quotation, which makes me think of what Barthes said about the nature of the “empty centre” in Japanese culture in Empire of Signs
He said that the Druid religion as he understood it had a mysticism of the centre—there was no linear time, no before and after—but a still centre—and the Happy Land of Sid—which their stone corridors imitated, pointed to.