Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 96-98
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On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. By A. S. Byatt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. 196 pp. $14.95 (paper). ISBN 0-674-00833-2.
Not a book so much about libraries as a library unto itself, A. S. Byatt's collection of essays draws the reader into her journey through a mostly British and occasionally European literary history to examine, among other things, historical fiction and the art of storytelling. Throughout, she enthusiastically chronicles and celebrates fiction's transgressive capacity to dip into the fissures, ostensible and not, separating fact from fiction. In seven interrelated essays, she interweaves the relationships among storytelling and history, art and culture, research and invention. These relationships and her discussion of them hinge on, generate, and reveal a network or mosaic of texts, all sharing the imaginative energy and impulse to tell stories, to retell histories. This network of texts, then, serves as Byatt's own library of sorts (or at least the few hundred books she would most [End Page 96] like to discuss at the moment) and encapsulates, capsizes, and recapitulates a literary canon that is "not immutable" and is "what other writers have wanted to keep alive, to go on reading, over time" (2).
From the perspective of a novelist and critic and lover of books who knows and feels these relationships firsthand, hers is a lively conversation with the reader over literature, focusing on authors, their interpretations of "history" (however variously configured), and the narrative forms they use to reconstruct or "reform" these histories. Employing everything from the novel to the fairy tale, everyone from Chaucer and Borges to the Brothers Grimm and Italo Calvino, Byatt offers a continuum—what might be called a genealogy—of "storytelling." Revealed is the interwoven tapestry of storytelling's histories and lives, its many forms and performances. Alongside storytelling, Byatt also brings together seemingly disparate elements such as war, myth, natural science, and postmodernism to define (and perhaps deconstruct) "history."
Originally written for the 1999 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, the first three essays—"Fathers," "Forefathers," and "Ancestors"—all concern themselves with British novels about or integrating history: the recent past, the distant past, and natural history, respectively. In "Fathers," the author examines how novelists of different generations represent the Second World War. Here "interested in the slippage between personal histories and social or national histories" (12), Byatt develops a spectrum of works ranging from the comically ironic narratives of many soldiers and survivors to the strangely nostalgic and often parodic narratives of some postwar writers. "Forefathers," as the title suggests, goes farther back, examining "the extraordinary variety of distant pasts British writers are inventing, and the extraordinary variety of forms in which those pasts have been constructed" (36). While going as far back as the origins of species, "Ancestors" examines narratives concerned with "deep time" and a Darwinian perspective of history: novels, for example, whose narrators are woodworms, eels, and herrings; works that manage to uncover in our fascination with science and natural history very human concerns such as death, faith, and love.
In the essay "True Stories and the Facts in Fiction," Byatt shifts gears a bit and takes for the subject of her analysis her own Angels and Insects, examining "the relations of precise scholarship and fiction" and the "problems of accuracy and invention of the writing" process (92). She traces how, through discovery, deliberation, and serendipity, her simultaneously "wayward and precise" research and readings coalesced into grander narratives, fictions grounded in facts, just bordering or not on truth (114). In "Old Tales, New Forms" Byatt expands out from British preoccupations with historical fiction into European obsessions with storytelling. Here she explores storytelling about storytelling. This fiction includes stories that, through merged formal and historical elements, metamorphose into new stories; stories that reveal the connections between the past and present, that fill the seeming gaps in history; stories that revel in the endless permutations these stories and histories generate—in short, stories that celebrate and renew the history and art of storytelling. In "The Greatest...