My friend Ann Charney and I had an interesting exchange about historical novels recently. She’s not that keen on them—“if you want to write about an historical period, why don’t you write non-fiction?” she asks--while I sometimes find them a wonderful window onto both human nature and the past.
But I must admit I was terribly disappointed by A.S. Byatt’s newest novel, The Children’s Book. Byatt is a writer who can catch the moment gloriously—some of her short stories are wonderful in the way they describe sensations so vividly that they stay with you months afterward. Her novel Possession is a masterful combination of such luminous descriptors of incident and of a story that encompasses decades. But I have found it a chore to read her four Frederica novels—The Shadow of the Sun, The Virgin in the Garden, A Whistling Woman (which I threw aside) and Babel Tower (by far the best.) The books tell me far more than I want to know about the world of her characters. All would have profited from editors who were not afraid to perform a savage pruning.
Byatt won the Blue Metropolis International Literary Prize earlier this year, which meant that she was in town this spring, and gave several readings and interviews. I did not hear her, but apparently she was riveting, and more than one acquaintance bought her new book on the strength of that.
Therefore I was more than ready to give her the benefit of the doubt with this new book. It is filled with vivd descriptions (particularly about pots and pantomime costumes), but once again I found myself growing cross with the way she tried to pour the history of the world from 1895 to 1920 into 600 pages. Everything is there, including an ending in the trenches of World War I. Why didn’t Byatt allow herself to be edited, to cut out much of the background information so our eyes are focused on her characters and their singular accomplishments? As Ann might say, if I wanted to know about the the period I would have read history, perhaps Barbara Tuchman's excellent The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War.
I read the novel in a couple of days--there is much that is engaging, some moments are brilliant—but what I would give for reading the same book with 100 pages cut from it! That would be something for the ages.