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22 November 2023

AS Byatt’s hard truths

The novelist, who died last week aged 87, clung fast to realism during a time of faddish post-structuralists.

By Charlotte Stroud

AS Byatt, who died last week at the age of 87, had a penchant for Sellotape. She always brought it with her to public talks. At intervals, usually when she was trying to mentally unearth a particularly recalcitrant idea, she would pick at it, peeling the sepia plastic back onto itself so that it eventually formed a mound. “I think with my fingers, with my whole body,” Byatt explained when I asked her once about the Sellotape. Like George Eliot, the novelist whom Byatt most revered, she was an “embodied mind”, hugely cerebral, yet always “wrought back to the directness of sense”.

Byatt’s belief that writing involved the whole body was what led her to defend realism in the 1960s – when she was just starting out as a novelist, and when it was highly unfashionable to write a realist novel of the kind she wrote. Post-structuralist theory had blown apart what was described as the naive assumption made by realist writers that words directly corresponded with things. Writers were to stop being so wet behind the ears, to wake up and smell the post-structuralist coffee. Language was an arbitrary system of signs, nothing more. It told us only about the shape and pattern of our own minds. Better (and less stuffily bourgeois) to indulge in playful word games, introspection and, ultimately, to give up trying to describe an independent reality altogether.

For Byatt, though, a realist outlier, the post-structuralist idea that reality is a “bounded world bearing only the shape of our imagination” was to be strongly resisted. Like her friend, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, Byatt feared that that path would lead to solipsism (we need only look at the ceaseless tide of contemporary autofiction to see how right she was). Realism, or what Byatt called “self-conscious realism”, was to be defended, she wrote in her book of essays Passions of the Mind (1991), “not because I believe that it has any privileged relationship to truth… but because it leaves space for thinking minds as well as feeling bodies”. It is, in short, the only form capacious enough to include the reality both inside and outside of our heads.

To be a realist was, for Byatt, as it was for Eliot and Murdoch, ultimately an ethical position. If post-structuralist language games were a cul-de-sac of solipsism, realism at least strove for truth, however inevitably partial its success might be. In keeping faith with the adequacy of language to describe reality, the realist writer attempts to move beyond our natural inclination for solipsism, or, as Eliot put it in Middlemarch, our “well-wadded stupidity”, and towards the very difficult recognition that not only does a lot of reality escape our comprehension, that it transcends us, but that other people exist. The acknowledgement of this “hard truth”, Murdoch wrote, was at the heart of the realist project, which is other-centred, as opposed to self-centred.

Byatt, who was a sharp critic as well as a novelist, has written of feeling “electrified” by Murdoch’s “hard idea of truth”, against which was pitted the “facile idea of sincerity”, or truth to oneself. It is a phrase, she wrote, that persuades with a metaphor – “truth is like stone, sincerity is slippery like butter”. If Byatt can be said to have any guiding philosophy in her work, it is this. Each book represents a fresh commitment to hard – as in difficult, but also hard as in terra firma – truth. The Sellotape, in this sense, is not merely a talking point, or Byatt’s equivalent of a cigarette, but a symbol of her whole approach to writing. Like a stone, it anchors her to the world outside her head.

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[See also: Bill Gates is bad for humanity]

Such a patient commitment to truth is what gives us, I would argue, the greatest account of childbirth ever written. It comes in the second book of Byatt’s tetralogy (sometimes known as the Frederica Quartet) Still Life (1985). With this book, Byatt set herself a challenge; she wanted to prove that it was possible to write “a bare precise novel, telling things (birth, marriage, death)” but without metaphor or analogy. It was to be her novel of the thing-in-itself. It proved, unsurprisingly, impossible.

While we may not have a novel without metaphor, however, we are left with a depiction of childbirth that comes so close to the real thing that, having read it, and unlike most first-time mothers, I absolutely understood what I was in for when I felt that first contraction. It is worth quoting at length:

“The desire to ‘bear down’, when it came, proved to be unlike any sensation she had experienced, and immediately recognisable for what it was. It had the appalling uncontrollable nature of severe diarrhoea pains but was otherwise different, in that nothing knotted. Something heavy and hard and huge inside her opened her out like a battering ram and the pain was no longer defined and separate from her but total, grasping, heating, bursting the whole of her, head, chest, wrought and pounded belly, so that animal sounds broke from it, grunts, incoherent grinding clamour, panting sighs… Her vision filled with nasturtium pale scarlet, and then with a curtain of blood.”

It was the modernist writer Elizabeth Bowen who was interrupted at her writing desk and found to have beads of perspiration rolling down her forehead, so hard was she exerting herself to find the right word, but it could easily have been Byatt, writing this scene. Each word is laid down with the precision, the flawless nerve, of a tightrope walker suspended above the abyss. The stakes are that high, such is Byatt’s commitment to depicting the world beyond words.

But if this birth scene exemplifies Byatt’s terra firma approach to truth-telling, in all its bodily glory, then later in the chapter, when the protagonist Stephanie meets her baby for the first time, we see Byatt confront the most difficult hard-truth of all, the newly separate existence of a minutes-old child:

“There was her body, quiet, used, resting: there was her mind, free, clear, shining: there was the boy and his eyes, seeing what? And ecstasy. Things would hurt when this light dimmed. The boy would change. But now in the sun she recognised him, and recognised that she did not know, and had never seen him, and loved him, in the bright new air with a simplicity she had never expected to know. ‘You,’ she said to him, skin for the first time on skin in the outside air, which was warm and shining, ‘you.’”

We don’t need a precis of the philosophical underpinnings of Byatt’s work to understand, reading this, that Byatt became her characters, inhabited them, made them real, so that we too would believe in their existence. To read her is to become, if only temporarily, other-centred too. She possessed the ability, found only among the greatest of novelists, to make us better, less selfish, people for reading her books.

When Byatt died last week, she left an oeuvre of work, including the Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990), that should be more than enough to cement her place as one of the greatest novelists of our time. She is, without doubt, the only female novelist to have come close to the polymathic intelligence of George Eliot, and could easily have become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist had she not chosen writing instead. And yet, Byatt is consistently left out of books surveying contemporary British fiction. She is, as far as my own experience teaching at universities has shown me, notably absent from reading lists.

If, as I suspect, this has anything to do with the post-structuralist hangover that still haunts English literature departments across this country, which so often leads them to reject a realist novel in favour of more consciously postmodern writing, then they are all the poorer for it. Like all the greats, however, Byatt won’t need the endorsement of a few fleeting academics; time will prove her worth.

[See also: The lessons of Osama bin Laden’s viral “Letter to America”]

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