The Books Interview, A S Byatt: Sun strokes and inner lights

Northern ice joins southern fire in A S Byatt's luminous tales. Boyd Tonkin meets a word-painter
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Call it synchronicity; or the spirit of the age; or just the way that two fine minds from opposite sides of the street sometimes collide on a patch of common ground. At any rate, Richard Dawkins made a splash a few weeks back when Unweaving the Rainbow took John Keats to task for his Romantic resentment at the power of science to put miracles to flight. Now A S Byatt in Elementals - her third collection of short stories in a decade - makes a crucial little fable pivot on the selfsame passage from Keats that gave Dawkins his title and his theme.

A scientifically-minded painter comes across a version of Keats's seductive serpent Lamia in his swimming-pool in the Cevennes - that rugged, strife- torn slice of southern France where Byatt has a summer home, and where her Booker winnings from Possession went to build a pool. Avid for a human destiny, the rather tarty monster of the deep transforms herself into a girl clad in see-through cheesecloth, with "large and thrusting breasts", for the delectation of the painter's laddish chum. As for the artist, he would prefer to watch and paint the glories of light refracted onto the serpent's iridescent scales. His solitary vigil makes him happy, "in one of the ways human beings have found to be happy".

Antonia Byatt, the artist in prose who takes to heart the scientific way of seeing, stands with Dawkins, not with Keats. "Science is now, and was even in Keats's day, revealing to us mysteries and miracles considerably greater on the whole than those invented by poets," she says. The rift betwen C P Snow's Two Cultures, and the hope of reconciling them, has exercised her ever since student days in 1950s Cambridge. There, F R Leavis frostily announced the greatness of a few whopping novels while, literally across the street, Crick and Watson's DNA overturned our view of life itself.

Yet, for Byatt, exact observation can help bridge the gap. Drenched in colour, spangled with optical effects, the yarns and parables in Elementals (Chatto & Windus, pounds 12) pay rapt attention to a world of light. "Painting has always interested me," Byatt explains, "because, unlike writing, it is a science as well as an art". The blazing shades of (mostly) semi-abstract canvases virtually ignite on every wall of her airy Putney home. Like the plots in Elementals, they drag what Byatt calls "the tremendous and terrifying clarity of the South" into the autumnal nuances of suburban England.

North and south, ice and fire, touch but never merge. The longest story takes as its backdrop the death-driven city of Nimes, resort of gladiators past and bullfighters present, which Byatt has visited since she was 17. Did she ever sample the bloody corrida? Just once: "I thought I might be secretly excited, and be interested in my secret excitement. But I was simply, purely, sickened - in a very English way".

Her passion for southern brightness began as a riposte to the bleached austerity of a Quaker childhood in Yorkshire, where nothing rated as more precious than "a shared silence in a bare room". Now her hunger for light has reached a kind of consummation with a new picture for the National Portrait Gallery by her favourite living artist, Patrick Heron. She sums it up as "a ghostly presence of me" framed in "a somewhat unmanageable blaze of light". Entry into the NPG pantheon "really mattered to me, in a curious way. Being in there means you're part of the culture".

Until the zippily erudite delights of Possession widened her fame, Antonia Byatt became part of the culture thanks to dogged northern virtues rather than the fire and flash of the Mediterranean spirit. That Quaker home, especially in the person of her mother ("who has haunted this conversation, as she haunts all my conversations"), both respected art and deemed it slightly suspect as a job. But for asthmatic Antonia, the thrill of reading far outran the dull collective pursuits valued at The Mount School, York. "I did begin with a profound Puritan feeling that perhaps there were much more important things than art - not for me, but in the world".

At Newnham, where the stringent standards of the Leavisites seemed to wipe out all chance of writing worthwhile fiction, she took a first. Three years later, her younger sister Margaret did the same - with a star. As Margaret's meteor streaked across the Sixties sky, Antonia married Ian Byatt (who later, as Water Regulator, brought news of drought into our homes), had two children, and divorced. She researched a thesis on 17th- century imagery; lectured in English; sought her own route into fiction.

Over the years, a plethora of know-all articles have done the sibling-rivalry motif to death. Byatt got there first,with her second novel The Game. When we meet, she warmly endorses her sister's provoking impatience with the novel of relationships: "She got into terrible trouble when she said `I don't want to read any more novels about people's feelings'. There was this frisson of wrath among young women journalists ... But I knew exactly what she meant."

Byatt believes in the passions of the mind (the title her friend and editor Jenny Uglow gave to her collected essays) as well as the heart. Take the moral growth of her heroine Frederica Potter, who appears as a precocious northern teenager in The Virgin in the Garden and passes through marriage, motherhood, career and divorce in Still Life and Babel Tower. Around her emotional progress, Byatt weaves a filigree web of running metaphors, of social history, of scientific and philosophical ideas. People matter, but so does every shining facet of their setting. Byatt refers back to George Eliot, her lifelong touchstone: "She noticed human behaviour, but she always spreads it out into the whole world. She will compare your habits to the way a snail builds its shell, coil by coil in a spiral. This doesn't detract from the humanity of her characters; it adds to it." The same point crops up in relation to Vermeer. When he captures the glint of sunlight on a servant pouring milk, "the milk is as interesting as the woman. This isn't cold; this is wonder".

Elementals echoes to the praise of good work, and precise observation, done in solitude. "In my life, which has not been solitary in any way, it has been the one thing that I go mad if I don't have," Byatt says. "You can only really relate well to people if you exist when you're alone." With a hint of asperity, she notices the world around her "has become more populist, more communal, more full of human warmth".

Unsurprisingly, her dissent from the Church of Fulfilling Relationships reached its apogee in the aftermath of Diana's death. She found fellow- heretics among friends, "mostly middle-aged women. We rang each other up rather cautiously and said, `This is very absurd, isn't it?' And a small outburst at the absurdity of it all would happen". Yet the tide of media grief ebbed. The heretic cheered up to discover that "we are still a grown-up society with qualities that I really care about - like scepticism, like irony, like the capacity to be detached".

Plainly, a twice-married mother of three adult children could hardly endorse some sort of Garbo-style sulk as a model for a writer's life. Rather, it has to do with what she calls "a series of endless, delicate little adjustments" between the needs of self and others. Yet her insistence on "a space for passion that isn't personal" can still disturb. She talks about her former fear that marriage can thwart a woman's energies, but mentions that "I shock my children terribly when I say this. They stare at me as if I therefore didn't love them". She frets that a review of her essay on the Song of Solomon (for the Pocket Canons) called it "lofty" and worries that some (younger, female) profile-writer might want to dismiss her as "cold, incomplete, not human".

Untrue, unjust. Yet you sense that this nagging doubt stems not from an impatience with today's "ideology of therapy" (which Byatt briskly scorns) but from a long way farther back. The Quaker ideal of service would brand the sensuously vigilant artist as a lesser - and, yes, a colder - being than the "good social worker" Antonia Drabble failed to become. Instead, she matured into one of those endlessly alert, endlessly industrious observers who (as she once wrote about Van Gogh) "keep in touch with the hard world outside them".

The hardness of that world - and the toil it takes to get it right - will save their vocation from frivolity. "I have never, ever allowed anyone to use the word `creative' about anything I do," she says. "This is, if you like, a religious superstition. I have never talked about `creative writing'. I use the metaphor we began with, which is work. Work is understanding, work is representing, work is making an object which allows you to consider - as in a microscope - the world from a different angle".

Elementals closes with the credo of the young Velzquez, who (in "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary") paints the slash of light across some eggshells with a passion he denies to the figure of Jesus: "The world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it". Both Richard Dawkins, and George Eliot, could say their own kind of amen to that.

A S Byatt, a biography

Antonia Susan Byatt was born in 1936, the daughter of a circuit judge, and elder sister of Margaret Drabble. Educated in Sheffield, York and at Cambridge, she taught English at the Central School of Art and University College London. Her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, appeared in 1964. The Virgin in the Garden, the first volume in a tetralogy, was published in 1978, followed by Still Life (1985) and Babel Tower (1996). In 1990, Possession won the Booker Prize and Byatt received the CBE. As well as four volumes of stories, she has written the novellas Angels & Insects and a study of Iris Murdoch. Married in 1959 to the economist Ian Byatt, she had a daughter and a son (who died in 1972); after their divorce, she married Peter Duffy and had two daughters.