BOOK REVIEW / Death, decay and hairdos: 'The Matisse Stories' - A S Byatt: Chatto, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
'WHAT I dream of, is an art of balance, of purity, of quietness, without any disturbing subjects, without worry, which may be, for everyone who works with the mind, for the businessman as much as for the literary artist, something soothing, something to calm the brain, something analogous to a good armchair which relaxes him from his bodily weariness . . .' The words are Matisse's, to be found in 'The Chinese Lobster', the best of the three stories in A S Byatt's new collection. They are quoted by a politically incorrect art historian, Perry Diss, who has been accused of assault by the anorexic peggi nollett (sic), 'woman and student', confectioner of artworks involving the daubing of Matisse prints of nudes with her own bodily wastes.

Dr Gerda Himmelblau, Dean of Women Students, also an art historian, is sharing a Chinese meal with Diss. Nearby, dying crustaceans due for the pot are 'hissing their difficult air'. She answers 'It would be perfectly honourable to argue that that was a very limited view - .' Diss replies: 'Honourable but impercipient. Who is it that understands pleasure, Dr Himmelblau? . . Pleasure is life, Dr Himmelblau, and most of us don't have it, or not much, or mess it up, and when we see it in those blues, those roses, those oranges, that vermilion, we should fall down and worship - for it is the thing itself.'

What kind of short story can contain such talk without falling in on itself? Such conversations assuredly happen, but not unaccompanied by tracts of more pottering chat. Yet A S Byatt carries off her naked intellectuality by giving equal rein to her intense visual recall and a response to colour that is as powerful as her moral sense. The subject implicit in all three stories is mortality, recalled again and again by unceasing minute changes in what is alive and bound for death.

The beauty and puissance of surface and its unforgiving declaration of old time are finely expressed in 'Medusa's Ankles', the sharp story of a woman who is having her hair done before she is to appear on television: 'The cameras search jowl and eye-pocket, expose brush-stroke and cracks in shadow and gloss. So interesting are their revelations that words, mere words, go for nothing, fly by whilst the memory of a chipped tooth, a strayed red dot, an inappropriate hair, persists and persists.' This image of infinitesimal disintegration is set against the woman's memory of making love all through a hot afternoon in Italy. When she sees in the hairdresser's mirror that she looks like what she after all superficially is, a middle-aged woman with a hairdo, she begins to throw bottles against mirrors until the whole frail place is smashed, and at least one cruel manifestation of her decline, her reflection, is reduced to shards. Even the hairdresser is momentarily relieved to be sprung from the trap of appearances.

A S Byatt is a writer whose crowding abilities sometimes occlude one another. Her strong marshalling intelligence is accompanied by a sensitivity to the physical that the highly cerebral often lack. However, sometimes that intelligence comes between her senses and their articulation; she cannot resist giving information, as Colette, say, might not. The third story, 'Art Work', is full of circumstantial garrulity. A S Byatt is caught on the familiar cusp of the highly conscious: how do you ratiocinate your way towards spontaneity? This leads to the question of art's own necessary artificiality, which is sometimes rather obtrusively paraded in her work. In two of these three stories, she has allowed her sensuous self to define her serious purpose. Within their pleasing surface lies the memorable sharpness of an imagination thoroughly attuned to pain.