Thursday, October 29, 2009
Last night, my friends PR, AM, and I had the great pleasure of going to a reading and book signing by one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, at the Strand Bookstore near Union Square. Byatt's new novel, The Children's Book, was released in the U.S. a few weeks ago, but it's been on sale in Europe since the summer and has gotten excellent reviews (I almost bought a copy in Rome this summer when I saw it there). Byatt is one of the leading voices in the neo-Victorian movement, recreating Victorian-like tales with a high-quality literary voice. She won the Booker prize for Possession (1990), my all-time favorite novel, and in 1999 was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. Here is the Strand's summary of her new book: "This spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, spans the Victorian era through the WWI years, and centers around a famous children's book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves." I have to admit, I'm half-tempted to stop doing homework and research in order to start reading it! After all, any book that puts Art Nouveau jewelry in the shape of a dragonfly on the cover must be decadently fantastic. Byatt read for about 10 minutes and then answered questions from the audience. In answer to one person, she spoke about her ability to modulate her literary voice, what is one of the reasons I have always loved her writing. In other words, her novels frequently have her characters write texts-within-texts (poems, stories), and she writes them truly as if they were lifted from 19th-century writers themselves. That takes great skill and shows her own academic training as a literary critic specializing in British and American authors from Wordsworth to Eliot. Byatt's great claim to fame, I believe, will be her resurgence of interest in fairy tales geared toward adults. That doesn't necessarily mean "naughty" tales, as they are often dark but always fantasy-oriented. For instance, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994) is about a professor who discovers a lamp with a genie in it who grants her three wishes. The Children's Book seems to converge many of the things she's become famous for, so it should be a great read for over the holidays. During the book signing, I told her how Possession changed my life, that not only was it my favorite novel but that as a PhD student it validated my own interest in Victorian art and my ongoing pursuit of the letters of Simeon Solomon. She must have been pleased to hear that because, in addition to personalizing and signing the book, she added an inscription: "Work well!"