A.S. Byatt and The Hidden Rhythms of ChildhoodThomas Beller
I went to hear A.S. Byatt last night. She has a broad, handsome face, full lips, and her expression in repose projects both austerity and a voluptuous generosity. When she arrived at the podium she was mostly obscured (“I’m a short woman,” she said as she adjusted the microphones down) and the angle from which I saw her, from the auditorium’s second row, meant that all I could see was her head. After a while her head came to seem disembodied, which I mean as a compliment, because there was such a sculpted lucidity to her thoughts and such a deliberate pace of her speech that after a while I was only aware of a mind at work and felt like I was listening to a very intellectual lullaby.
After her reading someone asked her about the jumble of different forms that populate her books – fairy tales, poems, letters. She said that she realized she would have to write the poems that appear in her novel, Possession, and was surprised to discover she had more of a fascility for this than she had realized.
“I always read a lot of Browning as a child,” she said, “because my mother read Browning.” And then she paused in a curious way, her lips pursing a little. I couldn’t read the sentiment, if there was a hostility in this memory or if this was the way that emotion registered on her face. She continued, “And it turned out that that there was this Victorian rhythm inside me that I had never had a chance to express.”
And that phrase really jumped out at me. “Victorian Rhythm.” The phrase was itself pleasing, but what struck me was the idea that she had imbibed something as a little girl, it had lain dormant in her or a very long time, and then she had occasion to rediscover it, at which point it emerged.
I find myself vaguely aware, in various ways, of the long arc of consequences. The chaotic scrum of the days with little kids, my habits, my wife’s habits, the lessons we strive to impart, the various ways we undermine these lessons. There is the feeling of a blizzard of information and no real sense of how it will settle and what it will mean. That is why it is generally just as well not to think about it too much. You just have to go ahead and raise you kids and live. But hearing Byatt speak with such surprise and delight about these buried “Victorian Rhythms” reminded me that there will be something, and I don’t know what, some enthusiasm of ours, or the opposite, some petty hate, or perhaps just some banal habit which will lie submerged in our kids for decades and decades, and after a long time, probably after we are dead, emerge, and in so doing surprise them, as adults, and remind them of us, and of themselves when they were very little.
Byatt, who is rather regal –not in any pompous way but just by dint of accomplishment, bearing, Englishness– nevertheless had a twinkle in her eye as she recalled this discovery. It was a a lovely moment though also haunting, for some reason, like the sound of a music box slowing down.