Medusa’s Ankles.

I just devoured  A. S. Byatt’s latest book of short stories, Medusa’s Ankles. I’m having to go back to hard copy books as so many of my favourite authors aren’t digitized.  And I’m tired of e-books by glib young writers seeking to push the boundaries of the form without having mastered it to begin with.
The introduction to Byatt’s book is written by one of my favourite writers, David Mitchell. He describes A.S. Byatt as an art historian and says her scholarly knowledge of art informs her prose. He goes on to say that her characters act as conduits for ideas about making art, looking at art and art’s centrality to the mind and the world. For instance she incorporates ideas from John Ruskin “…from whom art lecturers claim professional descent“.   Few writers, Mitchell says,  embed theory in their fiction with Byatt’s boldness and success, with theories of art illustrated by the stories that house them. He uses the word “Ekphrasis” which describes a work of visual art used as a literary device. I’m delighted by the revelation that there is a word for an area I’ve been trying to talk about in the halting prose of a non-writer.  But Byatt’s prose “bestows dignity upon art in all its manifestations.”

In the short story, Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary, she has the character Valasquez say, “the world is full of light and life and the true crime is not to be interested in it“.  It’s an interesting idea, that artists are simply those people interested enough in light and life to devote their lives to translating it into a visual, literary or some other communicable form.
One of the collection’s outstanding stories  is “A Lamia in the Cevennes” in which an artist with a bit of a block falls in love, not with a mythological seductress but with art itself.  As in all her stories this one is in constant dialogue with the readers asking “What is art?“ and “Why do we need it?“ and “What does it do for us?“ and “Why make the damn stuff?” The artist, Bernard, asks himself: “Why bother? Why does this matter so much? What difference does it make to anything if I solve this blue and just start again? I could just sit down and drink wine. I could go and be useful in a cholera camp in Columbia or Ethiopia. Why bother to render the transparency in solid paint on a bit of board? I could just stop.” He could not. “Art is a mercurial lover” says Mitchell in the Introduction. “The artists can no more ignore their art than a character can change the story they appear in, or a Greek hero outwit the fates. “

This is why I read, to hear another artist, albeit speaking in typescript on paper, insist that art is not a waste of time, that we are not merely fiddling while Rome burns.  Now that I live  in the middle of a largish Island but with limited cultural opportunities, I am relying more and more on books, on writers, to provide the assurance that other people in the world are making art. This place is one of natural beauty, is visually inspiring and has recharged my desire to paint and draw and make art. But I can find no one to share this with and feel somewhat isolated from others with mercurial lovers and tetchy muses. So far I have met those who are interested in life & light but do not feel the need to try to capture & communicate their interest. Nor have I discovered any kind of artists’ community. So it is with gratitude that I read authors like A. S. Byatt who is so unashamedly a master; who excels in her discipline and can  confidently push its boundaries into unsanctified areas. An artist who unapologetically defends making art for its own sake because it is so important. Thanks Antonia .

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