Sunday 16 March 2008

Message in a bottle

A.S. Byatt and I have a strange relationship. I've generally enjoyed those of her books I've committed myself to (besides The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, which I've just finished, I've read Possession and The Virgin in the Garden but absolutely could not get past page 10 of Babel Tower); at the same time, I often find myself feeling weighed down by her learnedness and even her shorter books feel like they'll take years to complete.

Not that there's anything wrong with being learned, oh no: it's just that sometimes, Byatt's fiction reads as though she's forgotten she's writing fiction, and instead of telling a story she strenuously and not very gracefully puts her learning on display. So, I respect her, yes, but she also makes me want to tear my hear, rend my cheeks, and gnash my teeth a little too.

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is a collection of fairy tales which includes 4 short stories and 1 novella. The first story, "The Glass Coffin," was just fine but I found myself concluding that Byatt just can't write a modern fairy tale the way that goddess Angela Carter could.

However, I had to revise that unforgiving opinion with the following 3 stories, "Gode's Story," "The Story of the Eldest Princess," and especially "Dragons' Breath" - I thought they were really fantastic, with "Dragons' Breath" truly approaching narrative brilliance. I loved them. I wanted more of the same.

Alas, that unfortunate addiction to academic self-display took over in the collection's longest piece, the titular "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye." As the main character - an aging and newly single professor of narratology - ruminated on story-telling and her increasingly large ass, I seriously thought about giving up. As said professor explored museums and cultural artifacts in Turkey and analyzed, and analyzed, and analyzed, I thought about giving up and then writing Byatt a strongly worded letter. But I did not give up and I was rewarded, for the last piece in the collection turned into a true fairy story and the mundane and the obtuse led fairly smoothly into the magical and the beautiful.

That said, I'm not in a huge hurry to read more of Byatt's work. I like to keep the academic world and my reading for pleasure separate. I want tales, I want yarns when I read for non-work related purposes - and Byatt just doesn't want to let me keep the two distinct.

Okay, enough of Byatt. The first year anniversary of this blog is quickly approaching - I believe I have approximately 10 days left before I must restart my numbering system at 1. If you're new to this blog you may not know that I started posting online only to find out how many books I read in a year, as many people had been asking and I knew of no other way to keep a reading list that I wouldn't lose. The question is, what do I read next? I feel a strange pressure to choose something somehow significant but can't imagine what kind of significance I should be aiming for. Perhaps I'll just read another Wodehouse and leave it at that.

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