Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The Children's Book": Byatt Surveys a Bygone Era

It's been three weeks since I finished reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and I've been putting off blogging about it because I'm worried about how to do it justice. At nearly 900 pages long in the paperback edition, the novel offers a lot to wrestle with, and it might take more time/energy than I have right now to come to a complete understanding of every thread of the book, and write an all-encompassing review.

Nonetheless, I am a huge fan of A.S. Byatt, so I want to write about her latest novel. As readers of this blog know, I think Possession is brilliant, and The Virgin in the Garden (and the character of Frederica Potter) is very personally meaningful to me. Therefore I looked forward to reading The Children's Book more than I had to any novel in years. A big, huge Byatt novel dealing with one of my favorite periods of British history--the late Victorian era through the Great War--and particularly with the artistic and cultural movements of that time? Sign me up! (Byatt has been quoted as saying she prefers the mid-Victorians of Possession to the late-Victorians of The Children's Book, but I'm the opposite.)

The big theme of The Children's Book is the loss of innocence. When the book begins in 1895, the principal characters are children, growing up in a "golden age"--their parents, many of whom subscribe to liberal ideas like Fabian socialism, indulge them, throw costume parties, give them wonderful children's literature to read, etc. But as the years pass, the various characters are forced to face the darker sides of life: incest, unwanted pregnancy, hazing, revolutionary violence, sexism, betrayal, and finally World War I.

All the same, and despite the book's length, I thought this theme could have been more effectively dramatized: more emphasis placed on just how delightful it was to be a (wealthy, indulged) child in 1895, so that the later tragedies would be even more moving. Indeed, despite the title, The Children's Book is not really about childhood--it's more about adolescence and young adulthood. I very much enjoyed a section in the middle of the book that follows three young women--aspiring doctor Dorothy Wellwood, her cousin Griselda, and their friend Florence--as they struggle to educate themselves and figure out their place in the world as "New Women."

Educated women, smart women, people who think too much--these are some of Byatt's favorite themes, found in nearly all of her fiction. Other trademark Byatt motifs also run through The Children's Book: preoccupations with group dynamics, fairy tales, the seacoast of England, and sex in hotel rooms. And a desire to show off her research. Lots and lots of research. A large chunk of the novel takes place at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, and it's full of descriptions of the amazing Art Nouveau artworks that the characters witness at the Exposition. But the plot barely moves forward--nothing much actually happens to the characters while they are in Paris.

There are so many characters in The Children's Book that, as The Complete Review notes, it is "one of those books that either should have concentrated more closely on fewer characters, or been expanded into a much larger work." I can't decide whether it's too long and should have had some of its characters/plots eliminated, or whether it should be a 1400-page trilogy instead of a 900-page novel. With such an overstuffed book, it is inevitable that certain plot threads will be dropped or unsatisfactorily wrapped up. In fact, it's lucky for Byatt that World War I comes along and allows her to kill off several of her characters, or else she would really have had a hard time ending the novel.

And yet, even though we haven't necessarily gotten to know the characters as well as we would have liked, the World War I scenes are very affecting. Byatt devotes only about 50 pages to the war and its aftermath (the same number of pages as she uses to describe the Paris Exposition), so the litany of deaths and other horrors is swift and brutal. Tears filled my eyes on at least three separate occasions as I read these last 50 pages--and I hardly ever cry at novels.

There were definitely parts of The Children's Book that didn't grab me, that moved too slowly or else glossed over what would seem to be important moments, or narrated history rather than dramatizing it. But then I remember Byatt's brilliance at writing about what it feels like to be a cerebral person (particularly a woman), her ability to synthesize history and draw parallels, and the power of the World War I scenes. And, though this novel takes place 100+ years ago, the characters feel like recognizable people. In 1895, there were wealthy, faddish Fabian socialists who indulged their children, fetishized fresh vegetables and beautiful handicrafts, and threw fancy-dress parties. In 2010, particularly in the Bay Area, there are wealthy, faddish limousine liberals who behave like "helicopter parents," patronize farmers' markets and local artisans, and go to Burning Man. Not all that different, eh?


Dr.J said...

Hi, Marissa! Remenber my first comment was about The Virgin in the garden and Atonement? Well, I am stuck in the middle of The Children´s Book (it is only 700 pages in my volume) happily I got it in english for just 11.5€ but the vocabulary is very tricky: all those words about plastic arts, plants, animals and ornaments are a nightmare. I notice a tinge of disillusion in your review, remember the lady is now 75 and, yes, she indulges in showing off her research and brilliancy.
May I suggest the WWI scenes also remind of McEwan Atonement WWII?

Marissa said...

Yes, I can imagine that The Children's Book would be very difficult to read if English is not your first language! Do you know if there are any plans to translate it into Spanish?

How would you know whether the WWI scenes are reminiscent of the WWII scenes in Atonement? You haven't reached that part of the book yet!

isaac butler said...

I'm glad to know someone else who has read this book, which I found alternately fascinating and maddening. I think ultimately I found the book an interesting story that I wish a better, less condescending and sex-phobic writer had told. But man is the WWI section brilliant.

Marissa said...

Isaac, it sounds like we both had decidedly mixed feelings about this novel. I just went back and reread the blog post you wrote this summer about it (http://parabasis.typepad.com/blog/2010/07/the-neofolklorists.html). What you said about the parallels between the time Byatt is writing about, and our own time, is kind of what I was trying to get at in my last paragraph here.

Dr.J said...

The spanish translation was available Before I bought the original one. It is much more expensive (you have to pay for the translation and promotion I guess). As the Potter tetralogy doesn´t seem to be published in English I wanted to read Byatt´s own words.
If you don´t mind my being personal: do you think, as a woman, that Byatt´s son death could mark her writing about children and sex?
By the way, sometimes I cheat and read the final pages before (I look at crossword solutions too)

Marissa said...

I don't know what my being a woman has to do with it--I think that any writer, male or female, who has lost a child, is likely to be more drawn to that theme... and to write about it more powerfully. Related themes like the loss of innocence, too.

Well, since you have read the WWI section, I didn't think it was much like the WWII section of "Atonement." The war section of "The Children's Book" is a series of short, brutal vignettes involving several of the major characters. The war section of "Atonement" is told entirely through Robbie's eyes, and covers much less time in much greater detail.

Dr.J said...

Well, at last I finsihed the d..d thing, truly and word by word. I find it a Magnificent failure.
I would say, unlike you, that its theme is the possibility of story telling by itself, in a kind of vacuum, not very far away from Flaubert desire to write a story about nothing.
But I just cannot get rid of personal intrusions: the master touch of Possession or The virgin in the garden is nowhere to be seem and I wonder if it is just that she is too old now; traumas like giving birth, losing children and writing for the stage are too heavy for the story to fly away.
Worst of all is that I couldn´t stop thinking about another books and not about the characters as people: from Dickens lengthy "Our mutual friend" to James (complete).
The little tricks like calling every time! Charles/Karl got on my nerves. Someone said something like "the worst sin of a story teller is telling everything"
Still waiting for the spanish version of Babel Tower, though.

Marissa said...

"Magnificent failure," yes. And I agree that a good author knows what to leave out as well as what to put in. The World War I section was beautifully stripped down and all the more moving for it, but many other sections of the novel just had too much going on and not enough importance attached to any of it.