It’s the End of the World! Franzen and Byatt

By now you’ve all probably laughed/wrung your hands/rolled your eyes over Jonathan Franzen’s supremely ill-considered remarks about how, as the Telegraph headline puts it, “e-books are damaging society.” What I wonder is, why would I read a book about contemporary middle-class Americans written by someone who seems to have so little understanding of their world?

But Franzen’s comment did make me think about what books I buy in digital form and what I still buy in paper. Do I treat some books as more impermanent than others? Almost all my romance reading is digital, and there are lots of good reasons for that: I buy and read a lot of them, and my house is already crammed with books; I became a regular romance reader after (OK, because) I got an e-reader; mass-market paperbacks aren’t all that nice or, pace Franzen, long-lasting. But I wonder if the ease of buying digital and the “invisibility” of those books in my files makes me treat them as more disposable. I read romances I love, but if I can’t see them on a shelf the way I can paper favorites, will I re-read them?

When I buy literary fiction, it’s usually in paper or even hardcover. Why? I’m no more likely to want to re-read these books than I am romance. I am more likely to know another reader to pass them on to. But I’m wondering now whether I see paper as a “superior” format, and see literary fiction as more “worthy” of paper than romance. Damn, more reading prejudices uncovered!

I bought A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: The End of the Gods in hardback as soon as it came out. And I don’t regret doing so. For one thing, like many of Byatt’s books, it’s a beautiful object: a red and gold dustjacket, good paper with those lovely ragged edges, a classic typeface (Van Dijck, apparently; I love notes on type in the back of books), wide margins, illustrations (annoyingly unattributed, but I suspect from the 19th-century Asgard and the Gods this book refers to).

Did my view that Byatt is a Really Good and Important writer affect my view that she’s worthy of hardback purchase? Yes, it probably did. (Are you thinking of the “sponge-worthy” Seinfeld episode now? I am.) But more significant is the fact that Byatt is Very Important to me. Possession is one of my favorite books, and the Frederica Quartet had a big impact on me as well.

I was glad of the format because Ragnarök is a book I read slowly, a bit at a time, interspersed with other books. It demanded my full attention, and I frequently found myself flipping back a few pages to re-read passages. That’s harder to do with an e-book (at least for me). The main interest of this book for me was Byatt’s prose style, and I read it the way I would poetry.

Ragnorök is an odd book. As the title suggests, it’s essentially a retelling of Norse myths about the end of the gods, woven through with autobiographical reflections on the impact Byatt’s childhood reading of those myths had on her. She says in the “Thoughts on Myths” at the end (which I could have done without; they’re interesting, but it’s as if she didn’t trust the book to speak for itself) that she didn’t want to treat these stories as allegories for the environmental destruction of our world, but that hangs over the book, and intentionally so, as a bibliography with a section headed “Warnings” makes clear.

This wasn’t the best Byatt book I ever read, by a long shot, and sometimes it bored me. But here’s what I loved:

1. The sheer voraciousness of the author’s intellect. Byatt loves dense, detailed descriptions; she seems fascinated by facts and ideas; she piles these things up in lists. Paragraph after paragraph in the early pages records the vibrant multiplicity of the life that will be destroyed in the end. There’s both the world created in the myths and the natural world of wartime England observed by the “thin child” (Byatt) reading them:

In the spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours, from rich purple to a white touched with mauve. Dandelion, dent-de-lion, lionstooth, her mother told her. Her mother liked words. There were vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley  . . .

You get the picture.

2. That “tangled bank” is an allusion to a famous passage at the end of Darwin’s Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Spotting that allusion made me feel clever (the passage is much anthologized, and I’ve used it in class). It also made me wonder what I was missing.

3. If Byatt has faith (in the religious sense) in anything, I think it’s in the grandeur and multiplicity of nature. She writes about how the Norse myths spoke to her childhood imagination in a way that the Christian story (presented as bland pictures of gentle Jesus surrounded by baby animals) did not. As a not-very-good-Christian (I sometimes describe church-going as a habit I have failed to break) who has done an even worse job conveying to my children that there might be something to my faith, I was provoked to consider how poorly, as a whole, Christians have done recently at telling their stories in a way that inspires children. I loved Narnia and still do, but even as a child I wondered about some of Lewis’ judgements (so if I like lipstick and boys I won’t get into heaven??). Madeleine L’Engle, too, had a profound influence on me. But as a writer and creator of worlds, I think Philip Pullman beats them both.

4. There is some wonderful imagery here, like this at the very end of the end of the world: “All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples.” Those chessman gave me shivers.

5. I loved the moments when Byatt’s language echoed that of Norse sagas: “The Odin said he must ride there on eight-legged Sleipnir, swifest of horses, leader of the Wild Hunt, Odin’s own horse.”

This is a minor work in Byatt’s oeuvre but there’s still a lot to like.

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15 Responses to It’s the End of the World! Franzen and Byatt

  1. carolynjewel says:

    The fact that you know people to whom you might loan a certain kind of physical book says more about the people you are geographically close to that it does about the books you might lend, doesn’t it? If someone like @redrobinreader moved next door to you, might you not then feel there are romances you’d lend her? And probably many other books as well,

    • lizmc2 says:

      I am now filled with deep regret that when I was geographically close to Robin, we did not know each other well and neither of us, I think, was reading romance. In retrospect, what a wasted opportunity grad school was!

  2. sonomalass says:

    I find that I over-estimate how often I will loan books, and that it’s impossible to predict what I will re-read. I have shelves and shelves of paperbacks that “someone might want someday” and no one ever has; all the justifications make me sound like a hoarder.

    Before e-books, once I bought a book and didn’t hate it, it ended up on a shelf somewhere in my house. As I ran out of space, I began to feel guilty about buying books. I became a library reader, buying only the books of a few authors — the ones I feel about like you do about Byatt, and the ones both my partner and I read. Especially books in an ongoing series, because we would re-read before the next one came out.

    These days, I spend more on books than I have in years, but I don’t feel very guilty. We can afford it, I still get some books from the library, and I don’t add to my physical overload all that much. I still buy some print books because they are pretty objects, and I give and receive some as gifts. But the lion’s share of my reading is digital. I feel good about supporting authors by buying more again, and I love not having to worry about where to put all those additional paperbacks.

    As for what ends up in paper and what in digital, I find that’s the industry’s choice more than my own. Some books are deemed worthy of being made into pretty objects; on the rare occasion that those are books I want to own, or when it’s a book I know my partner will want to read (tortuously, as he’s a “chapter a night” reader), I buy them in print. Guy Gavriel Kay is an auto-buy in hardcover for us, but there isn’t a romance author on my auto-buy list who gets the hardcover treatment.

    • lizmc2 says:

      That is more or less my history. I have a lot of nostalgia/aspirational books on my shelves, things I can’t quite bring myself to admit are no longer part of my life. I should just accept that I could never really understand Lacan seminars in French, and I certainly am never going to.

  3. Merrian says:

    I was thinking as I read your post of reading as an experience and that we get different experiences from different mediums and that we want to add to or reinforce some of those experiences in an almost ritualistic way. Your description of the Byatt books sounds a lot like the discussions of having a church service with robes and processions versus a house service for example. Both are valid forms of communion and have an existential power that is equal even if the externals differ. If I had the space and could afford the price I would keep my SF and fantasy and romance paperbacks. I love the gaudy covers and I still remember buying my first books with pocket money and the books I buy now connect me back to that experience as well as offering me others but I don’t and I don’t have people to lend books too and when I have they wreck them – bending the covers back!! Battering the edges in handbags!! They don’t care like I do which brings me back to the individualness of our reading an book owning – it is what it is to us and no one should tell us what we should do or feel about it.

    Franzen is just being silly. My paper books are no more permanent that my ebooks and my ebooks are likely to be with me longer because I can store them more effectively. I read a trade paperback published in 2003 this past week and it had a 1.5cm of yellowing around the edges of the page – almost to the text block. I doubt the book will be readable in another 9 years.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Oh Merrian, I love that analogy, thank you! Especially since I have had profound (and banal) experiences at both kinds of services.

  4. Merrian says:

    I have been thinking about books that I own but don’t re-read and it is the book as object and carrier of memories not the book as story that I am holding on too.

  5. Re. Byatt,

    Her covers are often lovely and that’s a lot of why I own her books in paper. I own a lot of romance in paper too, and lend a fair amount of it, sometimes by mail. These days, for space saving reasons, I buy almost everything in electronic editions, except for cookbooks (I don’t like bringing my e-book reader into the kitchen). But it is certainly easier to read romance in public on e-reading devices, again because of the covers. I’m not in any way ashamed of being a romance reader, but I also don’t want to be teased about my choice of reading material.

    Re. Byatt, that description of the flowers that you quoted reminds me of one of my favorite scenes, the one from the very end of Possession, where the little girl (May) is playing in a flowery meadow. Byatt describes just about every kind of flower as well as beetles, and that description is such a feast, as well as so apropos and fitting to the themes of the book and the two characters in the scene. I love it to bits.

    Possession is one of my favorite books ever (and, in relationship to your previous post, a passionate book IMO) but I loved it so much that i am afraid to read much more Byatt. The next Byatt I read after Possession was Morpho Eugenia, the first novella in Angels & Insects, and it felt so much thinner in comparison that I was badly disappointed. I’ve been afraid to pick up her work ever since, because I don’t want to be disappointed in the same way. I have tried a short story or two, but that’s about it. The Biographer’s Tale has been in the TBR for ages, untouched. Which of her books would you recommend most after Possession?

    • lizmc2 says:

      One of the interesting things about Ragnarok was recognizing imagery from other books (a thrush breaking a snailshell recurs, too). It’s like a window into the formation of the artist’s imagination, because you realize those are scenes and stories of her childhood that she keeps revisiting.

      Byatt is always interesting for me, but Possession is far and away my favorite of hers. Romance, a quest/mystery plot, literary scholars, Victorian poets–it’s like someone wrote a book just for me! I expected to love The Children’s Book (late Victorian/Edwardian/WWI, children’s literature, Arts and Crafts movement–also just for me) but I got stuck a couple of hundred pages in and haven’t yet gone back to it. For me the details, though fascinating, overwhelmed the story and there were too many characters–it was too diffuse. It was anything but thin, though, and there was a lot of neat stuff in it. I do still plan to read it, when I have more patience for its structure.

      I did both admire and enjoy the Frederica books, especially the first two. They have autobiographical elements, and both follow Frederica’s coming of age and attempt capture the zeitgeist (for want of a better word) of the 50s/60s/70s in which it occurs. Kind of historical fiction but about the author’s own lifetime, if you see what I mean. The first, Virgin in the Garden, is partly about a production of a play about Queen Elizabeth. It felt quite rich to me. The Biographer’s Tale I remember as being a very weird and rather nasty book. I can’t say reading it was a pleasant experience (but I don’t really remember why).

      • Thanks Liz. Interesting observation about the effect of the number of characters in The Children’s Book on you. Possession has quite a few characters too — upwards of 20 — and I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons a lot of people can’t get into it. It took me at least a hundred or so pages to get fully caught up in the book, but once I did, it became such a sumptuous and fulfilling reading experience.

        I will keep Virgin in the Garden in mind as one to try.

  6. sonomalass says:

    I liked The Virgin in the Garden as well. But Possession is just one of those books that is unparalleled in my mind.

    • In my mind too, Sonomalass. It is interesting, in my experience people either love Possession to bits or else they are underwhelmed/dislike it. I don’t know many people who are in the middle.

      • sonomalass says:

        You’re right, Janine. I think everyone to whom I’ve suggested Possession has either really enjoyed it or has been unable to finish it. Not that I suggest it to many people; I hesitate to recommend books, because I don’t trust that others share my taste. Even in Liz’s earlier post, about books we feel passionate about, I felt conflicted because she said she would look at our replies as recommendations. I find myself saying, “I loved this book, but you might not like it” a lot.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I always take a recommendation as “I loved this book.” Usually I can get a feel from what someone says about it whether I would like it too. And sometimes I like to try something just because someone else loved it, and it might expand my ideas about books I can love/admire/enjoy. For me, too, Possession has something special, and I feel differently about it than I do about other Byatt books I’ve liked.

      • Yeah, I agree with Liz here. I always take recs as meaning that the person who recommended loved it, and not necessarily that I will too. But I’m also glad when people recommend the books they enjoy. I was really glad to discover Miranda Neville’s The Dangerous Viscount through the review on your blog, SonomaLass, so I hope you continue making recommendations.

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