Wednesday, January 05, 2005

This is the first paragraph to A.S. Byatt's story "On the Day that E.M. Forster Died," from the collection Sugar and Other Stories.

This is a story about writing. It is a story about a writer who believed, among other things, that time for writing about writing was past. "Our art", said T.S. Eliot, "is a substitute for religion and so is our religion." The writer in question, who, on the summer day in 1970 when this story takes place, was a middle-aged married woman with three small children, had been brought up on art about art which saw art also as salvation. Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Death in Venice, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Or, more English and moral, more didactic, D.H. Lawrence. "The novel is the highest form of human expression yet attained." "The novel is the one bright book of life." Mrs Smith was afraid of these books, and was also naturally sceptical. She did not believe that life aspired to the condition of art, or that art could save the world from most of the things that threatened it, endemically or at moments of crisis. She had written three brief and elegant black comedies about folly and misunderstanding in sexual relationships, she had sparred with and loved her husband, who was deeply interested in international politics and the world economy, and only intermittently interested in novels. She had three children, who were interested in the television, small animals, model armies, other small children, the sky, death and occasional narratives and paintings. She had a cleaning lady, who was interested in wife-battery and diabetes and had that morning opened a button-through dress to display to Mrs Smith a purple and chocolate and gold series of lumps and swellings across her breasts and belly. Mrs Smith's own life made no sense to her without art, but she was disinclined to believe in it as a cure, or a duty, or a general necessity. Nor did she see the achievement of the work of art as a paradigm for the struggle for life, or virtue. She had somehow been inoculated with it, in the form of the novel, before she as a moral being had had anything to say to it. It was an addiction. The bright books of life were the shots in the arm, the warm tots of whisky which kept her alive and conscious and lively. Life itself was related in complicated ways to this addiction. She often asked herself, without receiving any satisfactory answer, why she needed it, and why this form of it? Her answers would have appeared to Joyce, or Mann, or Proust to be frivolous. It was because she had become sensuously excited in early childhood by Beatrix Potter's sentence structure, or Kipling's adjectives. It was because she was a voyeur and liked looking in through other people's windows on warmer, brighter worlds. It was because she was secretly deprived of power, and liked to construct other worlds in which things would be as she chose, lovely or horrid. When she took her art most seriously it was because it focused her curiosity about things that were not art; society, education, science, death. She did a lot of research for her little books, most of which never got written into them, but it satisfied her somehow. It gave a temporary coherence to her perception of things.

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