THE MATISSE STORIES.
By A.S. Byatt.
ADMIRERS of Possession, A. S. Byatt’s award-winning “romance” about passionate poets and nosy scholars, need only open her slim new book, The Matisse Stories, to find themselves in familiar territory. For despite the vast difference in scale and form, this elegant collection shares her novel’s preoccupation with the role of art and with the heart’s mysteries. And in this book, too, Ms. Byatt deftly juggles an impatience with feminist ideology and a sharp insight into female sensibilities.
Each of the three stories features a sophisticated professional Englishwoman in her middle years who interacts with a rather effele, self-absorbed man. Other women figure significantly, and so, in various ways, does the work of Henri Matisse, whose love of women and genius for depicting light, color and human (especially female) corporeality make him an appropriate presiding spirit for these luminous studies in artistic disappointment and physical decline.
Matisse enters the opening story, “Medusa’s Ankles,” in the form of a print that Susannah, a linguist, spots in a beauty parlor window. Its image of a rosy nude draws her into the shop, where she becomes a regular customer. We don’t know much about Susannah except that she is growing old and is not happy about it. We know more about Lucian, her hairdresser, who blathers on about his inability to choose between his aging wife and his gorgeous young girlfriend. He wants “more,” he explains. “I must have beauty.”
In conrast with Lucian, Susannah seems eminently mature and responsible. Yet beneath her civilized demeanor, she struggles with woes and longings that are at least as fierce as his — and that don’t surface until Lucian, afier redecorating the shop and removing ihe Matisse, complains about his wife’s thick ankles and abandons Susannah to an assistant. At this point Susannah reveals, in stunning fashion, just how tormented she is, shaking the reader’s comfortable identification with her and eliciting a surprising response from Lucian that belies his supposed callousness.
The characters in “Art Work” also have their hidden sides. Once an aspiring artist, Debbie Dennison now supports her prissy, spoiled painter husband, Robin, and her two children by working as the design editor for a popular women’s magazine. Debbie’s closest ally, she thinks, is her longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Brown. Yet Dehbie knows almost nothing about her, and doesn’t really care to. This changes dramatically after a gallery owner visits the Dennisons’ home to peruse Robin’s accomplished but unsexy canvases. The ensuing events, which open up Mrs. Brown’s secret life to the Dennisons even as they are motivated to act on their own long-suppressed ambitions, are predictable but effectively handled. At the story’s end, Mrs. Brown amicably resigns and introduces her replacement, saying, “No one’s unique.” But Ms. Byatt’s point is precisely the opposite: everyone is unique.
THE concluding story, “The Chinese Lobster,” takes place in a London restaurant. Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, an aging, unmarried art professor who is also her university’s dean of women, has lunch there with her colleague Perry Diss, an elderly artist serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor. They discuss Pcggi Nollett, an unstable graduate student whose fanatically feminist, estheticaily illiterate dissertation on Matisse he has just rejected. Nollett has, in turn, written to Dr. Himmelblau accusing Diss of sexual harassment. Though the charge is dubious, Dr. Himmelblau worries that a public airing would mostly harm the suicidal Nollett. Dr. Himmelblau faces a difficult decision: should she, out of devotion to art scholarship and beauty generally, uphold Diss’s decision? Or should she safeguard the young woman’s emotional health by reassigning her to a feminist adviser?
This tension between human and esthetic values echoes conflicts in the other stories. Should the tacky sweathers Mrs. Brown makes for Debbie’s children be worn or returned? Ms. Byatt’s stories suggest that in a wolrd full of beauty and suffering, art matters enormously — but kindness may matter even more. The stories also remind us that even artists can doubt art’s value. Robin’s painting, we’re told, seeks to answer the question “Why bother, why make representations of anything at all?” Peggi Nollett writes: “I try to live for my work but I am very easily discouraged…Why bother I say to myself.” Perry Diss answers this question with a ringing affirmation. It can be a struggle to truly see a great artwork, he says, but “how full of pure power” art is, once one manages to do so. The result is “not consolation,” he declares, but “life and power.”
For all their thematic elaboration, Ms. Byatt’s stories do not feel contrived or didactic. On the contrary, her characters are credible, their encounters authentically complex, their environments vividly delineated. Indeed, these stories are unusually painterly in their particulars of form, color and shadow. Perry Diss believes that language is “as sensuous as paint,” and certainly this is true of Ms. Byatt’s fastidious, understated, yet richly resonant prose, which evokes the look and feel of bodies and paintings, even the taste of a Chinese lunch: “a little hot name of chili here, a ghostly fragrant sweetness of litchi there, the slaty tang of black beans, the elemental earthy crispness of bean sprouts.”
Leaving the restaurant, Dr. Himmelblau sees a lobster and some crabs dying in a tank and “experiences, in a way, the pain of alien fish-flesh contracting inside an exo-skeleton.” Animating alll these stories is a recognition that such sympathetic responsiveness plays an essential part in both the living of a virtuous life and the creation of monumental art. Ultimately, these stories are all about human beings: about how little we can know (or may care to know) about the people with whom we spend our lives, and how tragic the results of that ignorance (or indifference) can be.
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW