Matisse is as good a conduit for a story as any, and better than most. In The Matisse Stories, A.S. Byatt brings her prodigious eye for the telling detail and her finely tuned ear for nuance to three tales about ordinary people at moments of transformation. The transformation is deep change but not necessarily welcome, beneficent or divine. Each, however, takes place in the dusty, messy detritus of the quotidian and the very ordinariness of the characters and their settings makes what happens believable.
In Medusa’s Ankles, a middle-aged woman in a long term relationship with a hip hair salon is drawn to the Matisse poster over the coat rack – and drawn into the untidy personal life of the salon owner who cuts her hair. The shifting décor of the salon mirrors the banal disintegration of the status quo with its rosy, comforting hues frozen in time. Events spiral into ugly, trendy color schemes, a recognition that the clock keeps ticking in the background and that superficial relationships generally signal superficial, selfish people. Medusa of the serpentine hair is heading toward a mean pair of kankles as she explodes in rage and wrecks the vision around her. But the aftermath of unleashing all that emotion is that she is finally seen. And perhaps learns to see what was in front of her all along.
Art Work is a more vibrant piece, as colorful as full-blown Matisse with his color box wide open. Just as a painting may be more, or less, than it seems, a domestic scene is bound to be hiding roiling ambition, envy, competition, life hungry for more, brighter, bigger beneath its tranquil surface. The madman in the attic is just a pedestrian artist who hides behind his limited vision and churns out failed piece after failed piece while his wife supports the family. She is a design editor juggling kids, household and the help with a demanding job and a longing to return to the art making of her youth. The help is a wacky Mrs. Brown who is far more vivid than her name, scavenging cast-offs from which she makes clashing, crazy outfits, half-knitted, half-assembled. A visit from a gallery owner is the catalyst that spills a paint box over this daily sameness, upending all delusions and suppositions and washing events in vermillion, chartreuse, magenta, teal. The canvas is ripped, mended and re-imagined and a new picture emerges. Maybe a better one but always with the pentimento of choices and consequences lurking underneath.
The Chinese Lobster is as exquisitely rendered as a brush painting. The live seafood slowly dying in the waterless tank, the delectable Chinese food, the fastidious professors, passions and pasts cloaked by respectable facades that are as real as what they screen from view, all captured in words. Byatt is brilliant at that. But depressing, too.
I devoured Possession, her best selling Booker Prize-winning novel about poetry, romance, mystery and the living pulse of Victorian language. I appreciated Still Life and The Virgin in the Garden but was less taken with the experience of living in those books. I attributed that to something superficial and shallow in my nature – a well-educated scholar, a superior intelligence would be just as thrilled with less “commercial” books, I thought. Nevertheless, I don’t enjoy escape into drabness and the wisdom of accepting limitations.
The Chinese Lobster tackles the fate of a troubled college art student, hanging in the balance over lunch as two university teachers review her obsession with and rejection of Matisse. What we see is an unappealing, possibly mentally-ill student, and the motivations and limitations of two adult characters, each articulate, thoughtful and desperate to keep their own demons under wraps. As they circle around the crisis of the student and weave logic over their hidden terrors and affronted sensibilities, they come to accept that they will choose survival over the grand gesture. Matisse, going blind and training himself to paint the depths of blackness, possessed the rare genius to make accommodation into art. No one in this story attempts to fill the tank with water. It would be hopeless – where would seawater come from, how would a creature too far gone to save survive, why upset the practical logic of a modest restaurant in which lobsters exist to be eaten, not painted or set free or even admired?
The Matisse Stories A.S. Byatt | Vintage Books 1996