A.S. Byatt

The author of "Possession" on the dark side of utopia, the chains of literary feminism and the albatross of sex

Published June 17, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

A.S. Byatt could be the patron saint of bookworms. She describes her often-bedridden child self as having been "kept alive by fictions" -- mostly the novels of Dickens, Austen and Scott. Among the first women admitted to Cambridge, she has always been a "greedy reader," who weaves her many interests -- biology, history, philosophy among them -- into her work. The results are novels with, as she has often stated, "the whole world in them," books that teem with characters and ideas, books in which reading and writing usually prove a matter of life, death and freedom.
Already a formidable literary figure in England, Byatt achieved best-seller status in America with her 1990 novel, "Possession: A Romance," a compulsively readable story about a clandestine love affair between two Victorian writers and the two modern-day academics who unearth their secret. Her novella "Morpho Eugenia," in which she examines the similarities between anthills and 19th century manor households, was made into the film "Angels and Insects" last year.
Byatt is currently touring the United States to promote "Babel Tower," the third novel in a series that follows Frederica Potter, a bookish, Cambridge-educated young woman like Byatt, through the volatile terrain of mid-20th century England. "Babel Tower" takes place in the 1960s, and concerns two trials: an obscenity prosecution against Frederica's employer (for publishing "Babbletower," an overripe fairy tale of a utopia gone bad) and the heroine's own battle for custody of her son. She spoke with Salon in San Francisco.

Was it difficult to write about the cultural milieu of the '60s three decades later?

It was quite interesting because I had to research it. I lived through it, which is one thing. But in order to write the novel, I read all the books that at the time I had skimmed through, not read properly or almost rejected, like Frederica, who didn't feel that what was happening was really what she wanted. She didn't rush into it wholeheartedly and take off her shoes and join a commune and smoke pot and freak out. She's not like that any more than I am. I started reading things like Jeff Nuttall's "Bomb Culture," which is a very intelligent argument for subverting the society he felt had created the bomb, by violence of an equal power in the other direction. And he really believed there was a war between the young and the old. Having read him, I have much more respect for him than I had in the '60s. I still think he was wrong. I also think he was extraordinarily stupid not to realize that young people get old and still have to exist. It never seemed to occur to any of those pro-youth people in the '60s that they would become old.

That didn't seem real to me -- growing up in a later time -- either.

I think if you lived through the Second World War, it had to seem real. I remember the end of the war, and I had a very clear image of what the life was like that my parents lived before the war -- which was an English, civilized world with cream for tea and oranges and all the things we didn't get during the war. My generation saw the images of what came out of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. And I think if you really saw all that, this business of being young forever was just rubbish, it was ridiculous. At any moment somebody could put you in Auschwitz. You needed to be vigilant against that. Actually rushing up and down in very short skirts and freaking out is not the way to (prevent) Auschwitz at all. You need a bit of intelligence. I was baffled by (the '60s) really. It was very exciting and very pointless.

I think there is a huge gulf between people for whom the war was the formative experience and people who came after. I lived all of my childhood with my father somewhere in an airplane fighting in the Algerian landings and my mother afraid that my father wouldn't come back -- and because she was a very intelligent, well-informed woman, quite reasonably afraid that we were about to be overrun by the Nazis, forever. You sense that, even if she's trying to protect you from it.

"Babbletower," the novel within your new novel, has a distinctive, very disturbing voice that seems to express the dark side of utopianism. How did you create that voice?

It came partly from reading Sade and (the utopian social philosopher) Fourier. I used to know a lot about Fourier because I taught American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Blithedale Romance" and those 19th century American idealistic communities based on Fourier's theories. They were going to make these perfect communes where every single human passion was indulged to its full and then everybody would be balanced and the sea would turn into limeade and there would be immense galloping tigers to take you from place to place like butlers because aggression would have been got rid of.

Then I read -- which is not an agreeable experience -- "The 120 Days of Sodom." I got excited about it because, like "Babbletower," it starts with these people going off to an isolated tower and cutting the bridge and then they can do what they like. The French say that the other side of Fourier is Sade -- if you let the passions go what you will get is not everybody making little cakes and people dressed as fairies. You get the guillotine, which is what did happen in France during the Terror. You get the Marquis de Sade, who was let out of the Bastille when that tower fell -- all these rich and lovely towers.

I read Michelet, who grew up in the revolution in Paris. He records how the streets of Paris stank of blood. There were places when he was a little boy where if you put your foot down, blood came up from under the stones. That is what comes out of revolutions and freedom. I lived through a time when the word "revolution" was just a good word to a whole generation. If it was a revolution, it was good. I don't think so. I think you proceed cautiously and you change things bit by bit. I don't like the automatic admiration of the word "subversive," either. Sometimes to be subversive is wonderful. Sometimes it's just destructive.

Are you ever perplexed by your own inventions?

Things just sort of rise up into your consciousness and then after a bit you can go back and see where they came from. Dickens holds his books together with things that I'm sure just arose spontaneously because he was writing so fast and publishing in installments. Nevertheless, you get very tight metaphors hurtling their way through whole books. I find myself noticing that something has worked after it's worked.

Although you're clearly a feminist, you have strong differences with contemporary feminist theories. You were particularly hard on Monique Wittig's "The Lesbian Body," which has some similarity to the utopian "Babbletower."

I'd forgotten that, but I did cannibalize "The Lesbian Body" for my new book. It fits into all the Norman O. Brown theories of polymorphous perversity being the true and proper and right form of sex. What I don't like is people with very strong beliefs that cause them not to look. I'm a political feminist. I think women's lives need quite a lot of improving, some of which has now happened. I'm interested in feminist themes, women's freedom. Literary feminism is a much more dubious thing. I meet a lot of people who have spent so much of their time being educated by women about women's writing. They don't notice perfectly obvious things because they've not looked at anything else that might have contributed to this woman's life or writing other than women. In England, not in America or France, there's been a kind of myth constructed that women writers were always persecuted, despised and put down.

We do have that theory here.

Yes, but possibly here it may have been true, you see. In England it wasn't. That's the difference. In England, right from the beginning of the novel there were always great women novelists. They were always recognized to be great by both men and women. The only generation in which there are not obviously great women novelists is this generation of post-literary feminism, which has produced a wonderful crop of male novelists in England. In my gloomier moments, I think this is not an accident. The women are writing about women's themes for women in what they think are female styles. You wouldn't catch men writing about male themes in male styles, or if you did it would be seen to be a sub-form.

Like Westerns?

Yes. Why limit people? It's because I'm a feminist that I can't stand women limiting other women's imaginations. It really makes me angry. But I'm angry because I'm a feminist. I can't stand the thought of really good women students being taught courses on very minor 18th century women writers, who didn't write very well, only because they were women. They could have been reading Dickens and Tennyson and Proust. That's absurd. If you want to teach women to be great writers, you should show them the best, and the best was often done by men. It was more often done by men than by women, if we're going to be truthful. Women should be truthful and then it will be more often done by women, or as often done by women.

You can hardly expect to be doing great work if you aren't willing to be truthful to begin with.

Exactly. A woman I greatly respect, a wonderful writer called Michelle Roberts -- who is a committed feminist and grew up on feminist studies and the great women's liberation movement -- reviewed my "Matisse Stories," enthusiastically and intelligently, until she came to the story "The Chinese Lobster." It has a woman in it who is dean of Women Students and whose whole life is centered on the fact that she only loved one person, another woman, who killed herself. My best friend, in fact, killed herself, so I know about this.

There's also the potential suicide of a very disturbed student who has accused a male teacher of sexual harassment.

I wanted to say that the two older people actually knew about death and suicide. You don't know which way the woman student is going, but she was certainly enjoying all the hooha she was creating. But you see it's very hard for rigorous, believing feminists to believe that I have any right to depict an anorexic, feminist, bad artist accusing somebody of sexual harassment and being on the whole slightly more in the wrong than he is. They want a straight message. I had a lot of letters from women saying "You really shouldn't have done this. Sexual harassment is a very serious matter. You should have made it perfectly clear that he was bad and she was good." Well, I'm not in the business of Bible thumping. The lives of women are very complicated.

Michelle was so annoyed with this story because it seemed not to fit her pattern. She said that you expect at any moment that there will come a moment of warmth between two women, but it doesn't at all. There comes a certain rapprochement with the rather foolish man. She misread it because she was looking for a particular feminist message and missed the feminist message that was there, which was this woman's inconsolable grief for another woman. She is an extremely subtle writer and a terribly good critic. It was feminism that caused her to misread this story in my view.

Perhaps she was less interested in you telling the truth than in you advancing a political cause.
That's right. But I grew up with the idea that fiction went in the places where political belief can't go and looked at both sides of the issues which straight political beliefs take sides upon. There are things I take sides about, like capital punishment, which it seems to me there is only one side about: it is evil. But there are two or three sides to sexual harassment and the moment you get into particular cases there is injustice in every conceivable direction. It's a mess.

You've written that, like your heroine Frederica, you grew up in a literary household.

I grew up in a household full of books with parents who both read for pleasure. This was much more usual in my generation because there was no television. Reading was the only way you got at narrative. We went to the movies very rarely, as a huge treat. I read quite difficult things quite young. Nobody told me I couldn't. I worked my way through Dickens and Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson and Jane Austen when I was little. Then I read them again when I was older and was surprised how different they appeared! To me it seemed self-evident and exciting that one would live much more intensely in these complicated worlds of adventure and excitement and passion than one would in one's daily life of getting up and having one's little breakfast and being trotted off to one's school where you were frightened of the other kids in the playground. It seemed to me that that was normal, but now I think that now perhaps it isn't.

There are people who had childhoods like that and people who didn't.

And people who didn't become rather hostile to people who did because they feel that people who did had something rich. They try to say, "You weren't spontaneous, you weren't human, you only lived in your head and didn't have any relationships." That is sometimes true and sometimes not. And anyway, it often makes for better relationships when you're older because you actually learn a lot about life from books. You learn a lot about love before you ever get there. You learn at least as much about love from books as you do from watching your parents.

Often, in your fiction, sexuality is at cross-purposes with someone's best interests as a human being. Frederica marries completely the wrong man out of lust, and the hero in "Morpho Eugenia" makes the same mistake.

It's probably true for both men and women. I was drawn to Queen Elizabeth I when I was making my personal iconography. There was Mary Queen of Scots who was driven by sex and made a lot of very silly choices. She finally got her head cut off because she married twice for sex and caused her second husband to kill her first husband. This caused Elizabeth I to cut her head off. Elizabeth obviously was torn, too. She wanted to marry. She flirted with every single man in her environment, but she knew she could only survive by not letting sex or marriage get the better of her. And she survived triumphantly, really. She reigned for a very long time.

And she was the boss.

She was the boss and she wrote beautiful prose! It's a worse concern for women than for men. Realistically, however much men help with children, children are the problem of women, at least when they're little. Children emotionally disrupt ambitious women. Having had four children and written all these books I think I can say that it is manageable -- but what it takes out of you! And the constant adjustments you have to make -- from minute to minute, let alone from day to day. You just get a brilliant sentence and your child falls over in the playground and comes in covered with blood and you have to clean him. If what you want to do as a woman is something that requires you to appear in court or be in a lab until an experiment has come to its end, it's much worse. Writing is one of the few things that women have been able to juggle with a sex life that led to children.

I think women can learn to behave like what we thought men were like when I was a girl, which is keep their sex in one compartment and their life in another -- until children, but children are a product of sex, for most women. I was talking to a gay friend the other day about this. He said his heterosexual friends were getting married and were closing off. I said, well sex for heterosexual women is so interesting because it always has the possibility of children, a portal to this other kind of love, which has to be so much longer lasting than sexual love need be. He said, "Of course what we have that is so much easier is friendship. We can live in great groups of friends who may or may not have sex in a way that's harder for people like you."

What Frederica tries to do is to have men friends in the way a gay man might. She does partly try to be androgynous. When the men won't stay where she's put them and try to be lovers instead of friends, she gets really rattled. Which is something I know about. And of course, the other happens. Secretly, suddenly you see one of your friends as a potential lover or father of the children you're always thinking about. Unless you're not. It's very much nicer being over 50 from that point of view because you know where you are at least. You become single-minded. Dame Rebecca West once said that it is every woman's secret that after the age of 50 she is really a man. I like that because then as far as that particular problem goes, women and men are equal.

Your female characters often complain that men don't see them.

Matty (in "Morpho Eugenia") says that. Matty, like Frederica, would like to be seen as a thinking being, but at the moment when she says that, it's the sexual Matty, who's been completely repressed, suddenly rushing to the surface and shouting "There is this other side to me! We have been friends and colleagues and worked together throughout the whole of this novel and suddenly I now require you to see me as a sexual being." But quite often it's the other way around. My women are saying to the men, "All you want to do is take my clothes off. I want you to see that you could have a conversation with me just as interesting as one you'd have with your best male friend."

I feel very like Frederica there. I learned survival by dividing everything off -- friends from lovers, conversations from sex. You didn't try to get it all in one place. There is this mythical desire for wholeness where you'd have your mind and body and the other person's mind and body completely meeting. The only marriages in which I have seen that happen are childless marriages. It can happen, but the precarious balance is broken by the arrival of children, even with the best will in the world. That's quite interesting. That's given me an idea for a short story -- I'll remember it if I say it: I shall write a short story about a childless marriage that has been going like that for a long time and then a child suddenly arrives.

A tragedy?
No, no! It could be a comedy. It's quite a good plan.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books