Saturday, 17 December 2016

AS Byatt: Beatrix Potter and the beginnings of my need to be a writer

Storytelling is part of most people’s lives, almost from the moment we can understand language at all. Family tales, fairy stories, popular history, news and gossip are integral parts of human life. When I taught literature at University College London I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in the Senior Common Room bar with the artists from the Slade School of Art. I started to think about the fact that they worked with concrete materials – clay, stone, paint, film – whereas what I work with is the language we also use to conduct our daily lives.

In Amsterdam recently I had the great pleasure of talking with Edmund de Waal about how – and how early in his life – he understood that clay was what he would work with. Why do some of us need to make works of art? How do we choose what we work with? What effect does the shift from dailiness to art have on us as writers and readers?

I remember first noticing that the written word had a form that needed to be understood and thought about. Many of my generation of British children will have grown up with the series of school reading books, The Radiant Way, in which there is the unforgettable sequence of words: “Pat can sing. Pat sing to Mother. Sing to Mother Pat. Mother sing to Pat.” And so on. We discover the “th”, the “ng” which are not part of the sounded out phrases we are first taught. We discover the written word as opposed to the spoken word.

I think some writers become writers because they need stories, characters, other worlds. But there are those – and I have very slowly come to see that I am one of them – who think about words as painters think about paint. (Most writers have elements of both of course.) And yet, words retain their doubleness – their dailiness, their utilitarian ordinariness, and their work in poems and other works of art.

It is interesting to read what writers have written about the inability to write. One of the most startling and imaginative descriptions of this state is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s story, “The Letter of Lord Chandos”, written in 1902. In this story the imaginary Lord Chandos writes to his friend Francis Bacon to say that he has completely lost the ability to put ideas into written language. Chandos tells Bacon that he can no longer grasp the ideas of a tract he wrote at the age of 23 “as a familiar image made up of connected words, but now I can comprehend it only word by word … ” Nevertheless he is able to tell Bacon of his experience of having given orders for rat poison to be strewn in the milk cellar of one of his farms. He can describe the “sharp sweet smell” of the poison, the screams and struggles of the rats, when he has lost the capacity to generalise – he does not use this word or write of it in this way. It is an extraordinary essay, making its readers rethink the very nature of the relation between language and the world of things.

Ernst Gombrich, in his essay “Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art” touches on the gap between words and things from a different angle. He writes of paintings and sculptures where the artist has deliberately made a distance between words and things – Magritte, for instance, in The Key to Dreams, captioning a handbag as “le ciel” (sky), a leaf as “la table” (table), a pocket knife as “l’oiseau” (bird) and then, as Gombrich points out, dismissing us with laughter by simply calling a sponge “l’éponge” (sponge). We can and do think without language – with simple or tough images or with feelings and passions – but the normal run of our consciousness is linguistic, and we almost automatically translate passion into words.

What goes on in our minds when we think about using language? When we use language to write? I find I increasingly notice the language I am using as well as what I am trying to say or describe. Iris Murdoch spoke of the space between looking out of a window at the sky and the light and looking, at the same time, at the window itself, glass, dust, frame. When writing I switch from the emotion of the imagined world – curiosity, smells and sounds, spaces – to the forms of the words themselves.

As a child, like many of my generation of British children, I read Beatrix Potter after having had her tales read to me. The stories were full of life – the puddle duck looking for somewhere to lay her eggs, the badger snoring and pretending to sleep, the little dog unintentionally ingesting a pie made of mouse. It may be that they are now out of date. When I looked up Potter on Google I found, somewhat to my bemusement, a series of letters condemning her for cruelty and unpleasantness. As a child, and as a parent, I found her matter of fact sense of how things are, and pain, difficulty, fear and satisfaction, exciting and satisfying. I was a child in a war, in a world of danger and death, but her stories revealed cruelty and fear in a storytelling context. One of the glories of reading Potter – of having her books read to me – was the discovering of unexpected and unknown words. I think my favourite was and is “soporific” from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies – in which the author informs the reader that lettuce is “soporific”. Anyone who will want to be a writer will be excited by the juxtaposition of the words soporific and flopsy. There were sentences such as “Mr Drake Puddleduck advanced in a slow sideways manner and picked up the various articles” or ‘“I am affronted,” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchett.’ “Affronted” is a wonderful word to learn. I think that the shift in my childish attention from the story to the language may have been a beginning of my need to be a writer. Though that may be a story I retrospectively tell myself.

As I have suggested, writers may come only gradually and slowly to think about the medium in which they work. Words and language are the medium of our daily communication. Perhaps fortunately I only came gradually to be aware of, and to think about, the difficulty and the glory of the gap between words and things, the shifts we have to make as readers and writers between thinking about words and things and taking pleasure in the gap between them.

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