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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London