Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt is the latest in the Canongate myths series, which has had myths re-imagined by contemporary authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood (whose retelling of the Odyssey as The Penelopiad is highly recommended). As you can probably tell from the title, Byatt has chosen the Norse myths, from creation through to Ragnarök - the end of the world. It is much more a literal retelling of the myth than the freewheeling interpretations other books in the series make. She does however include a framing device of a young girl, called only the thin child, living in World War Two Britain. We read the myth through her eyes, a device that is only moderately successful.

Much of Ragnarok is Byatt’s version of the Norse myths. Instead of following modern conventions of character, she writes them in a style more akin to their original forms. The gods are archetypal, and their behaviour is symbolic of the world around us, rather than a psychological portrayal. The prose is, as expected, beautifully written. The imagery she conjures up of Ginnungagap (the void before creation), of Jörmungandr (the serpent who circles the world), and the final awful silence after Ragnarök, is vivid and engaging. I’ve read a reasonable amount of classical epic poetry, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with this form of storytelling. I wonder though whether some readers will struggle to engage.

Byatt intends the thin child to be our window into this mythical world, and uses her to make two thematic links between our world and myth, which I’ll get onto in a bit. I don’t think this device really works. Partly this is because the thin child herself is a passive interpreter, and is as characterless as the archetypal gods. Rather than giving us insight to the Norse myths, I found her an interruption to the narrative flow of myth, and felt the explanatory role she played in interpreting the stories she is reading was unnecessary.

Byatt was herself a young girl during World War Two, and the child is a thinly veiled self portrayal; apparently Byatt even read the Norse myths at this age. In this child’s mind the destruction of Midgard and the wartime threat of impending doom become inextricably linked. Humans, like the gods of Asgard, are trapped in never-ending cycles of violence. The people who originally told these myths may have disappeared, but the truths the myths portray are as valid as ever.

The child is also a device to explore our modern natural world; as she walks to school, or plays, we are told of the plants and birds she sees - an ode to the British countryside. Over the course of the novel, as the myths move from creation to the destruction of the world, Byatt slowly draws a parallel to the state of our environment. The countryside Byatt describes is disappearing, and the same thing is happening all over the world. The world as we know it is in peril because of human behaviour. The Norse gods continue their drinking, brawling and general cavorting while they wait for Ragnarök. As do we.

Of the two thematic points I think the second is more effective. It is more subtly handled. I wondered if I was reading too much in it until I neared the end of the novel and decided it was intended. Weirdly the book contains what is clearly an afterword (not that it is labelled as one) in which Byatt explicitly explains her intentions in writing in mythic style, and her themes. The fact that it was felt necessary, I think, shows what is problematic about this book. I enjoyed it, but at times I felt I enjoyed it at an intellectual level, rather than being drawn into the story. Whenever I felt the story was getting underway, the thin child popped up to explain the myth, or a purely thematic passage appeared. It is a small book, but I felt it would have benefited from less being attempted; the combination of her themes, the myths themselves and the secondary story in wartime Britain is just a bit much being crammed in.

Byatt is a compelling writer - both Possession and The Children’s Book are fantastic novels. While Ragnarok has its faults it is an interesting addition to the Myths Series. Her depiction of the mythic world is beautiful. She captures both the joy of life and creation, and the cruelty in the stories, and Ragnarök itself is vivid, yet unsentimental.
The wolves tore the throats out of the horses and turned to the drivers of the chariots, sun-woman, night-mother, moon-boy and the boy in the bright chariot of day. Somewhere in the middle air, as the chariots rolled in their fall, the wolves tore apart sun and moon, day and night, drank their blood and swallowed them.
It isn’t a book for everyone, but I did like it. Just, perhaps not as much as I would have liked.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of the most loved, but also misunderstood, novelists. Her wonderful romances, more widely known to many now through television, have earned her a reputation as a girl meets rich guy, girl marries rich guy writer. This ignores the fact that many of her ideas were quite revolutionary for the time. For those who are interested I highly recommend Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen; it is a fascinating account of Austen’s family and society, and the difficulties she faced as a female writer. It changed how I viewed her novels; it made me love them that little bit more, especially this, the most revolutionary of all her novels - Persuasion.

Eight years before the beginning of this novel Anne Eliot, middle daughter to a baronet, was persuaded to break off an engagement to young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, largely because her family believed him to be beneath her in social standing. It would also have been an imprudent engagement as he did not have the income to support a wife, and no guarantee of ever doing so. He has now returned to the neighbourhood a Captain in the Royal Navy, and rich. Charming and charismatic, he is seen as quite the catch and the local girls all determine to fall in love with him. Anne is now 27, past the prime age for marrying(!). Overlooked and unappreciated by her own family she deeply regrets her refusal. Due to the social conventions of the time, it is impossible for her to communicate this to Captain Wentworth. She can only watch, and hope.

Of course, there is the inevitable happy ending. But in a way, this is what makes the novel so remarkable. Anne is the daughter of a Baronet (a hereditary knighthood, the closest thing to being noble other than being noble). She marries a man who is not even a member of the gentry. While he is rich, he is a self-made man, having earned his fortune and title through his career in the navy. Austen is so often criticised for being stuck in the class system of her day, but to me this heralds the massive social changes of the 19th century - the beginning of the decline of the aristocracy in the face of ambition. Of course Austen had no way of knowing what was to come, but her reflection of society is quite cutting edge.

In a world where to be mistress of a house was the greatest degree of autonomy most women could achieve, the desire of Austen’s heroines to marry for love, not necessity, is a bold choice. Marriage was generally arranged by parents, and in the absence of a large dowry, being very beautiful was the surest way to marry well. Her heroines do not settle for a mediocre marriage; they aim for the best in life and take the gamble. While it works out for them all, Austen understood well the difficulties in being a spinster. She, her sister, and widowed mother were eventually dependent on their brothers to arrange even basic things for them. Is it so bad that in her novels she is living the dream? Persuasion is the ultimate example - Anne is aging, and her father has squandered his money to the extent her dowry is in doubt. Nonetheless she gets a second chance. Her loyalty and good character are enough to bring about her marriage to the man she loves. Austen, in her early forties, ill and near death, writes a happy ending that she and her sister never got. Every time I read Persuasion I find it beautifully poignant.

One of Austen’s greatest qualities as a writer is her wit. She lays bare the hypocrisy of her society, where merit is too often based on wealth, not quality of character. She can be scathing, yet is also very funny. Persuasion is perhaps less humorous when compared to the sparkling Emma, for example, but it finds a gentle sense of humour in Anne’s family - the hypochondriac Mary, or her snobbish father who is so vain as to have filled the house with mirrors, which was an expensive habit for the time. While it lacks the humour of her more grotesque characters, what this novel does have is a lot of heart. Austen was a ferociously intelligent woman, at a time when female intelligence wasn’t appreciated. Persuasion was written at a time when she had received some recognition for her novels, and a small income had given her some independence. It is a more mature, well rounded work - perhaps some of that anger had abated.

Classic novels seem to be a love or loathe thing, those who loathe them finding them wordy or difficult to relate to. While the style of writing is indeed different, the craft behind it is impeccable. Society has changed in the two hundred years since Jane Austen sat at her little table and wrote this novel, but people haven’t. Pompous Sir Elliots, manipulative Mrs Clays, and faithful Annes, still exist. It isn’t a story about marrying a rich man; it is a story about marrying someone who loves and values you. Austen has inspired women with this dream for centuries; no wonder we love her so much.