The last book I reviewed for this blog was The Virgin in the Garden, the first in a quartet about Frederica Potter. Now, I have finished the second, Still Life. I didn't mean for this blog to become a Byatt-blog, but here we are. I find I cannot put down Byatt's doorstoppers; I compulsively read, to the detriment of my relationship with my girlfriend, almost. So what of Still Life? Does it match the brilliance and size of the previous volume? Let's take a look.
Starting pretty much where the last one finished off, Still Life examines the intellectual and social development of England during the last half of the Fifties, using the scholarly and bookish Potter family as symbols. Frederica is at Cambridge, jumping in and out of various lovers' beds; Stephanie is pregnant and stifled by domesticity; Marcus slowly approaches the real world, one not of abstract geometry or life inside his head. Alexander, the playwright of the last book, is composing a drama in verse about the final years of Vincent Van Gogh. The famous painter plays a subtle role in all of the main characters' lives.
Just like in her other books, the title plays a massive part in the successful interpretation of Byatt's texts. With this one, Still Life seems to refer to Van Gogh's paintings and to each of the main characters' stagnant and stilted existence. On a grander scale, the novel seems to imply the same about the English during this time.
There's a lot to talk about with this novel. The same compliments I lavished upon the last book apply here: the exquisite and exact prose, the level of detail, the immediate characters, and the proliferation of idea after idea after idea.
This time, George Eliot's influence becomes more apparent: Byatt's narrator takes a much stronger stance and directly refers to itself. The narrator is omniscient and godlike in this book, but with a definite Fowlesian postmodern outlook. The future, possible futures, seem visible to this narrator. This isn't a negative aspect, considering Byatt's seeming intent to create a sprawling nineteenth century novel of characters and society. In fact, it's apropos.
Spoiler alert for the novel's climax....
Stephanie becomes the victim of a tragic accident at the end of the novel. Her death lets the novel look at a myriad of different topics. Prominently, the social aspect of grief. Like The Virgin the Garden, Byatt is examining English-ness, like the tendency to overlook the more embarrassing of emotions. The narrator explicitly tells us that novels often skip ahead. Instead, the novel bears down on this idea, and looks at grief, specifically Daniel, Stephanie bereaved husband. Daniel muses on death, and interpretations of it. King Lear figures once again into the life of Daniel. The narrator details different critical approaches to the death at the end of King Lear, that it is a moral lesson, at a high cost, taught to Lear.
It seems to me, that Byatt is obliquely doing the same to Daniel and the rest of the cast. They are stagnant and unmoving. They are still. Change must happen, and the novel kills off a cast member to affect change. Instead of a moral lesson on hubris, etc, Still Life's lesson is of personal growth. Stephanie neglects her intellectual pursuits due to domestic duties, and she pays a mental cost for it. The novels asks us to consider this, in an implied way. The intellectual development must continue.
Another interesting thing that I've been mulling, and might look at when I finish the next volume, is Byatt's use of literary motifs. She associates characters with works of great literature, like the aforementioned connection of King Lear and Daniel. I hadn't really thought of it until I finished this novel. Byatt's interest in intertextuality is almost worth examining in an academic work, if it hasn't already been done. Like Possession and letters, etc, like The Children's Book and - well - children's books, the Frederica Quartet seems to have tons of intertextuality play. For Byatt, and I think she's said this in interviews, the world of the mind is made of works of art, all connected. It is the human subconscious desire for order that makes the a-ha experience so rewarding. It's like Byatt's novels are all about making a-ha connections. This idea is even discussed within Still Life.
Just like the last book, I adored Still Life. It's verbose, heavy, physically and with meaning, and it's not for everybody. I absolutely loved this book and I cannot wait to read the next book, called Babel Tower. However, I just got from the library The Children's Book, so I will be starting that immediately. I highly recommend Still Life to fans of big Victorian novels, and to fans of books about ideas, for this surely is both.