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History, Herstory: How Writers Make the World

Review of A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 196 pp. ISBN: 0674008332 [ISBN-13: 978-0674008335]

Paul Hansom

A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories, cover image
Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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Byatt's seven essays are essentially re-treads of her Richard Ellmann memorial lectures at Emory, and her Finzi Contini lectures at Yale, focusing on post-1945 British and European literary historicism. They fit neatly into the category "good criticism," echoing the Leavis-Trilling hermeneutic, but without the intellectual urgency or moralizing. There's also a clear pedagogical strain at work. Byatt acknowledges these are a "writer's essays," (1) and she situates herself as both a practitioner and teacher of fiction. She's fully aware of her old-school approach (she is, in fact, old school), and lightly mocks some of her earnest excesses. Yet despite this, Byatt does offer intelligent and insightful judgment with refreshing straightforwardness, avoiding choking academic rigor and theoretical dead-weight. However, there are limitations to this approach and the collection in general; the most obvious is a lack of reach and conclusiveness. The most problematic is a creeping sense of redundancy.

Having said this, however, there is an admirable coherency at work in the first four essays, and Byatt's exploration offers a useful genealogy of the modern British novel and their tropes. Her ultimate aim is not to rescue British canonical works elbowed out by curricula modishness, but to expand inclusive possibilities. By focusing on the British Writer-in-Time, or writings about time and history, Byatt explores the strategies, advantages and problems concerning historicity in the novel. "Fathers," orients itself broadly around contemporary working writers like Anthony Burgess, Penelope Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, and Martin Amis, who take on their father's war by selecting, fabricating and erasing to produce a new "war story," a counter-point to traditionalists like Henry Green or Elizabeth Bowen. Where these writers offered a fluid ghost world out-of-time, without future or past, or reflected gleeful social collapse through satire, the new breed relies on a pastiche, couched in clichés, anti-heroes, and banal experience. In short, they make their own history.

Byatt's analysis is insightful, reminding us that during the Fifties, writing about the past was criticized as an escapist bow to the "heritage" industry, because it ignored the vital contemporary. Yet as she reveals, these post-war writers are far from simply nostalgists; rather, they approach epochal situations with a new self-consciousness, injecting themselves into the historical moment, constructing history as multivalent narrative possibilities occurring in imaginary dialogue, fragment and fantasism. And while her conclusions are solid, much of this has already been insightfully—even canonically!—explored in dozens of other studies on narrative, postmodernism, and subjectivity.

"Forefathers" and "Ancestors" literally takes us back to the Victorian period, and the constructions surrounding the distant past. The re-invention of a fictional tradition, or at least an attempt to revise the generic expectation, is nothing new, as the examples of Scott, Dickens, and Elliot show. The Nineteenth century was equally savvy at exploring their own notions of the historical. Yet as Byatt points out, there is something liberating in contemporary revisitations of the Victorian, mainly because they provide a language and a set of models with which to address contemporary developments. Writers like John Fowles, Peter Ackroyd, and even Simon Schama, engage in a sort of cultural ventriloquism, recreating historically specific voices, expanding the potential vocabularies of narrative form. But to what end, and with what consequences, Byatt remains frustratingly silent.

"Ancestors," focuses on the grand scientific narratives and the fictions of philosophy which themselves actually shattered earlier forms of story-telling. The Nineteenth century discovery of "Deep Time"—the intellectual awareness of the earth as incomprehensibly ancient—allowed for a reconfigured sense of nature and man. Darwin's natural selection could imaginably take place in such a time-line; the earth itself could take on infinite shapes; and, most importantly for writers, human beings weren't fixed entities. Byatt uses her own excellent novella Morphia Eugenia as a useful illustration, and wonders whether she simply ends up creating new gods and angels, returning to recurring ideas of redemption and salvation to suggest limits to paradigm possibility.

The remaining three essays fan out across a broader discussion of European folktales, and here they become less interesting, providing an awkward split in the collection. Rather than continuing her concern with the writer/historian, or factual-fictional problematics, Byatt pushes back down into the autobiographical, recuperating her own reading history of myths and fairy stories. One wonders if Byatt is simply celebrating her own role as a creative, intellectual Scheherazade, since they serve more as exercises in close-reading than anything else.

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About the Reviewer:

Paul Hansom is Visiting Professor of English at Ithaca College. He has written widely on cultural theory, photography, and Anglo-American modernism. His current research focuses on the narratives produced by Italian POW's in Britain during World War Two.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Hansom, Paul. "History, Herstory: How Writers Make the World." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. September 24, 2017 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/phansom/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Paul Hansom, History, Herstory: How Writers Make the World. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/phansom/index.php› (accessed September 24, 2017)

APA Style Citation:
Hansom, Paul. (2007, May). History, Herstory: How Writers Make the World. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/phansom/index.php


 



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