Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2022

Medusa’s Ankles, Selected Stories by A S Byatt

Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate.  And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, hoped-for-or-lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard.  And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness.  The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.

Gerda Himmelblau is back in the knot of quiet terror which has grown in her private self like a cancer over the last few years.  (from ‘The Chinese Lobster’, in Medusa’s Ankles, p.149)

I keep telling you, my readers, that I tend not to read short stories, and that is because so few of those that come my way pique my interest in characterisation.  But there are exceptions, and A S Byatt’s short stories in this new collection are so satisfying, her topics so thought-provoking, and her writing (as you can see from that excerpt) is so superb that I have no hesitation in describing these stories as exemplars of the craft.

‘The Chinese Lobster’, is one of a number of stories as cunningly titled as the titular ‘Medusa’s Ankles.’  Like many of those in the collection, it shows Byatt unafraid to tackle awkward issues.

Dr Himmelblau, Dean of Women Students, chooses the restaurant for her meeting with Professor Perry Diss because it’s convenient to their workplace in Bloomsbury. Possibly infringing university procedures, she has elected to have an informal meeting to discuss a student’s complaint about the behaviour of Professor Diss.  She shares the student’s badly spelt and incoherent tirade with the professor, who responds with his version of events. She should be failed and sent on her way, he says, and her accusations are a fantasy.  The disputed truth of events is not the issue.  It becomes the mental health of the student, and whether supporting her should take precedence over her unsatisfactory dissertation (which is meant to be a feminist critique of the way Matisse used the female body, though the student, it seems, knows nothing about Matisse). The excerpt above brings depth to the characterisation of these two professionals for whom academic integrity matters. Their internal baggage, mutually inferred, brings the reader to a reassessment of all the characters in this exquisite, profound short story.

Another that struck a chord is ‘Heavenly Bodies’.  An obscenely wealthy man with nothing better to spend his money on, sends his fantasy of a woman into the sky.  Our sky.

She sailed into the sky without annunciation, around the winter solstice.  She had been assembled in space, like a pontoon bridge, from a series of tiny satellites, carrying light-emitting polymers and mirrors, and when she was ready, she was unfurled over forty or so kilometres, twinkling and glittering. She went into a non-geostationary orbit, riding calmly round the earth seven and a half times in twenty-four hours, and could be clearly seen with the naked eye to be a reclining woman, full-breasted, narrow-waisted with a cloud of shimmering hair and shapely legs. She appeared to be as large as a jumbo jet on its descent. (p.325)

Seriously.  Can you imagine this, and the affront you would feel?

Remember those BBC adaptations of 19th century novels where the local farm workers object to the arrival of the railway? The way this story is so cleverly constructed reminded me of the tropes that offset that fear and loathing: admiration for the progress that the noise and smell of the train represents; respect for the technological innovation imposed on quiet pastures; and mildly patronising responses to the uneducated lower orders who recognise that not only can this intrusion on their world not be ignored, but also that they are powerless to be rid of it.  A 21st century reader must infer their resentment that rich people can do things that impact on others without any repercussions. 19th century novelists barely recognise the inchoate anger that being contemptuously ignored amounts to being silenced.  Byatt lays it bare.

She describes the marketing of this assault on the senses that obliterates the night sky.

Although there had been no publicity before her appearance, an orchestrated stream of information appeared in all the media immediately after it.  Her name, it was revealed, was Lucy Furnix, which was also the name of a singer who was associated with Brad Macmamman, the tycoon, one of the few people powerful and rich enough to assemble a skywoman without fear of international complaints about light pollution, or advertising controls. (p.325)

In the wake of a recent celebrity death overseas, we here in Australia are witnessing saturation coverage of a similarly orchestrated campaign to foster acceptance of a new order of things over which we have no control. Lucy in the Sky with a diamond in her navel comes with sentimental stories and assertions of usefulness.  In the story, most people responded with indulgence, and cultural studies pundits talked about a new age of feminine values.  

But after a time her rapidly reiterated appearances began to be greeted with indifference, and then with irritation, and then with increasing distaste and loathing. (p.327)

Graffiti appears.  Governments and the UN are impotent: dismantling the steadily smiling object was found to be impossibly expensive or dangerous. 

*sigh*. ‘Heavenly Bodies’ was written in 1998, and I find myself wondering what triggered this accidentally prescient story.

There is such wisdom, perspicacity and compassion in these stories! But what I really like is the way she sprinkles myth, literature and art through the stories, adding that frisson of delight in her allusions.   ‘Dragon’s Breath’, for example, tells the tale of three young people in a village bound to its traditional ways.  They are beset by boredom and briefly excited by the existential threat of dragons which emerge from the mountains above and all but destroy the village, as dragons do.  It was written in 1994 but it made me think of intransigence to the perils of climate change, which are now upon us because the world refused to act in time.

There are eighteen stories in this collection, all previously published in magazines and journals.  They include early works from the 1980s and then the1990s, and seven published in the 21st century.  My favourite is ‘Medusa’s Ankles’ even though I dislike its conclusion, that the rage of older women treated with contempt can be spectacularly explosive… and then things go back to the way they were before.

A S Byatt was born in 1936.  I wonder if there is a chance we shall see another novel?  In 2011 Ragnarok, the end of the gods was published, but her last novel was The Children’s Book (2009) which (as you can tell from my review) was IMHO her best novel ever.  (And I’ve read nearly all of them.)

Author: A S Byatt
Title: Medusa’s Ankles, Selected Stories
Cover design and painting by Anabeth Bostrup
Publisher: Vintage International, Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9780593466858, pbk., 444 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House, with thanks to Demetris Papadimitropoulos, Associate Publicist at Alfred A. Knopf.


Responses

  1. Many including myself consider ‘Possession’ including A. S. Byatt’s best novel, but I see you consider ‘The Children’s Book’ her best. And I also do like her short fiction. Somehow I will need to read A. S. Byatt again.

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    • I have them all on my shelf, waiting for a re-read. I did love Possession, but I read it and all the others long ago, whereas The Children’s Book I read recently, nurtured by all my years of other reading, and my self-taught knowledge of art informed by my travels to Europe, and so I was a different, more observant reader when I read it and loved it so.
      Often, I find, it’s not the book, it’s the reader who comes to it…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I too read Possession a long time ago, and also several later novels and short stories. I agree it would be good to go back to the stuff I haven’t read yet, and to reread what I have.

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    • It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? To re-read a book you might not have done justice to, or read something highly recommended by fellow-readers, or to live dangerously and read the latest shiny new book…

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  3. I’ve been saving these stories for when I have the time to savour each one properly – your lovely review has confirmed this desire. The Children’s Book is also my favourite Byatt to date.

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    • Good move. It took longer for me to read this than for a book of equivalent pages, for the same reason.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a superb collection Lisa – and you make me wonder why I haven’t read Byatt yet…

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    • Oh, do, I feel confident that you would like almost anything she wrote!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love A.S. Byatt, so thanks for the review!

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    • There are so many good stories, I’ve only scratched the surface.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Possession remains my favourite–all tied into memories and the past and a magical time in my life!

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        • That makes perfect sense to me. For me, it’s tied up with a memory of being at a jazz festival in 1989 with The Not-Yet-Spouse, and one of his friends reading Solomon Gursky Was Here and telling me about the Booker Prize. which I’d never heard of. The following year I read Possession and my life as a reader was reinvigorated!

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          • Yeah, it’s all tied to up the magic of letter-correspondence I did back then and The Cure and a lot of serendipity/synchronicity back then! It’s funny we both had a live-music association with the book!

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            • Indeed it is! I love the way I can look at the books on my shelves and remember the associations they have with whatever else was happening in my life.
              One of the bookshelves in my house was built for me by my father. It fits snugly into space that would otherwise be unusable, and the shelves were made to fit the Penguins I was reading at that time. So all the books in that shelf come from round about that time in my life. Shelved alphabetically by author like a good librarian, all the same!

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              • Custom bookshelves are always awesome! I have some from a family member’s office back in the 70s…I think they made them, and they’re easy to set up, utilitarian, and adjustable as to height. So, I really get this, for sure!

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                • When we renovated our house, there was nothing that wasn’t changed. Every door was moved, every window was replaced, our entire kitchen was moved to somewhere else. But two things were left untouched: Daddy’s shelves, and the doggy door!

                  Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not a big short story fan but I think I would read hers! “We here in Australia are witnessing saturation coverage of a similarly orchestrated campaign to foster acceptance of a new order of things over which we have no control.” – well, yes, indeed, we here in the UK, too (and I say this as someone who has wept at the loss of someone who gave her life to public service, but who certainly doesn’t think it’s “not the time” to talk about continuing that kind of order of things!).

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    • You know who I feel really sorry for? People in aged care homes. Because staff, bless their overworked hearts, will assume they are conservatives because they’re old. They will have put on the TVs in the rooms as they usually do because for so many, that’s all the company they get. And people like my dad, who never mastered the remote, not even the on/off switch, would be stuck with hour after hour of it. He was a mild-mannered man, but not being able to escape it would have enraged him. He was a staunch republican ever since the Dismissal in 1975 when QE2’s representative sacked our democratically elected government. I’ll bet there are others in those homes, bored, lonely and utterly fed up…

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