Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

I procrastinate everything. Since Byatt's Ragnarok is short, I thought starting it the Friday night before a Tuesday Slaves of Golconda discussion deadline would be ample time. Unfortunately, I ran into that Byatt thing that sometimes trips me up, where she's obsessively going on and on listing, categorizing, something that doesn't line up with my own items-worth-obssessing-over criteria. Remember the marbles in The Biographer's Tale? You have to be in the right mood for that kind of thing. (It's why I hold the opinion that while Byatt at her best is a better writer than her sister Margaret Drabble, Drabble is a more consistently interesting storyteller--for me, at any rate.)

And so when I reached Byatt's Midgard serpent-long list of creatures that live in the sea, with subcategories for all the kinds of sharks and crabs, and her lengthy list of every type of animal, vegetable, mineral, disease, etc., that cried for Baldur to be released from the underworld, I was ready to put this title on my own mental list of Byatts That Don't Work for Me (unlike the more lengthy list of ones I love--The Children's Book's in the number one position there). I couldn't keep from zoning out.

And I hated that. I have such a shallow background in Norse mythology and I'd bought this book the moment it was released in the UK in order to remedy that. Surely the fault was all mine.

So Monday night I started rereading the book that failed to hold my attention on Friday night. I was more focused than I'd been over the weekend, plus in the meantime I'd done some dipping into The Prose Edda and Norwegian Mythology, which I conveniently had--unread-- on my shelves. (I definitely want to read The Prose Edda after this quick dip.)

I was much happier with it the second time round. I even appreciated the lyrical nature of the ineluctable listing of things.

What I, here in the Bible Belt, found most interesting first time through and what I continued to marvel at on the second was the young Byatt's ability to reject Christianity at such an early age. She finds the Old Testament and New Testament gods numbing: neither "the sweet,cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one. . .. made her want to write, or fed her imagination."

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian's burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there had once been people who brought 'belief' to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories, Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks, and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hyrdra and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn't live in her, and she didn't live in them.


The idea of eternity bored her. A string of days "going nowhere" bored her. She prefers the "stories that ended, instead of going in circles and cycles," finding them "grimly satisfactory." The Norse gods who know Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods and the end of the world, is coming, but are too stupid or too resigned to letting the story they find themselves in play out, are the ones she returns to.


Before Ragnarok, I knew of Byatt and Drabble's mother primarily through Drabble's writings, a portrayal that Byatt's taken issue with. Drabble wrote The Peppered Moth in an attempt to better understand her mother, claiming in the novel's afterward she "went down into the underworld" looking for her, mentioning a myth in which a woman rubbed herself with dead rat water in order to gain admittance to the underworld so that she could search for her loved one there. Drabble said writing about her mother left her unable to get rid of the smell of dead rat and mentions feeling biased in favor of her father. Her experience of the mother was one of a manipulative, intellectually frustrated depressive prone to outbursts of rage. Nonetheless, Byatt has stated that Drabble was the mother's favorite.

In Ragnarok, Byatt's describing the time when the same woman was actually happy. She was a highly intelligent woman, "gallant and resourceful in wartime," permitted to teach,  shoehorned back into the life of a housewife, suffering "a fall into the quotidian," once her husband returns. "Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'."

Despite the war, the nights spent behind blackout curtains, worrying about the Germans "dealing death out of the night sky," the young Byatt finds these years a kind of paradise. If her family had not evacuated from the city, her asthma may have killed her. The bleak Norse myths hum in her head while she's walking through a countryside covered with flowers. When the family returns to urban life, her father takes an axe to a wild ash tree that's rooted itself on the sill of the garden shed in their walled garden. For a child who's loved the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, the removal of the tree closes a gate in her head. She's now on the quotidian side of life.

Please feel free to join the discussion of Ragnarok over at the Slaves of Golconda, or in our discussion forum

4 comments:

Stefanie said...

Glad the list didn't defeat you! I very much enjoyed the book, found it sort of melancholy but in a good way. And I definitely want to do more reading of Norse mythology.

Elizabeth M. said...

I read it in galley form so I didn't have a lot of context for it at the time, but ended up really enjoying it. The Norse myths are so hauntingly sad, and Byatt captures that.

Mad Housewife said...

For some reason I haven't taken to this publishers' series of retold myths, but I do like Byatt. Like you, I don't have the background in Norse myth. One of these days. I will have to read it, though, because I am a fan of Byatt.

Girl Detective said...

I went to the D'Aulaire book of Norse myths after reading Chabon's essay in Maps and Legends. It was a good entry into the mythos. There's a lot of Norse myth in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and in his children's book Odd and the Frost Giants.