Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble, eds.
Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real
Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. Pp. 240. $69.95

Reviewed by Lisa M. Fiander

A. S. Byatt is one of England's best-known writers, but even the English are more likely to have heard of her than they are to have read one of her novels all the way through. The intellectual prowess of her characters, and the fact that they tend to be more interested in debating philosophy and art than they are in sex, make her fiction a challenge for the casual reader. Her novel Possession (1991), an exciting literary thriller, won the Booker Prize and rapidly became a best-seller; Byatt has more or less acknowledged that she wrote that novel so that she could build a swimming pool at her second house in France (cf. "Why Byatt Possesses," Newsweek, 21 Jan. 1991: 61). Because the greater part of Byatt's fiction is intimidating even to professionals, she has attracted comparatively little critical attention. One greets with enthusiasm, therefore, this intriguing new volume of essays from Greenwood Press.

The editors make clear in the introduction the volume's focus on postmodernist readings of Byatt's work: "How, we had to ask ourselves, does one critique fictions that are always already critiquing themselves? How to 'discover' beyond the texts' own rich discoveries? The present volume is in large part the result of our own as well as the various contributors' retracing and probing of this familiar dilemma" (2). Given this focus on postmodernist interpretation, it is not surprising that the ambivalence and ambiguity of Byatt's fiction are dominant themes throughout the collection; the editors see fit to tell us twice in the introductionas if the syntax here were something to brag aboutthat "Byatt's fiction is, and inspires, not 'either-or' but emphatically 'both-and'" (11). By the end of the volume, some readers might well be wishing that someone here would take a standany kind of standon Byatt's work. It seems a shame, moreover, when Byatt's fiction has invited so little critical study, that the editors of this volume should see fit to include among their eleven essays two that will already be known to scholarly readers of her work. The timing of the collection is also regrettable, for it just misses Byatt's release of A Whistling Woman (2002), the fourth and concluding volume of the Frederica Potter series of novels that has dominated her career for the past twenty-five years.

There is much to praise in this volume. Alfer and Noble outline their aims in an introduction which in itself comprises a decent survey of Byatt's interests: "By seeking to explore, inhabit, and expand the fictive (and fictitiously critical) space that Byatt's work affords, this volume aspires to bring the reader, together with the multiple authors of this work, to a more comprehensive understanding of what is perhaps the more recurrent and idiomatic of Byatt's intellectual and aesthetic concerns: the nature of fiction as the proxy of thought and as an object of knowledge in its own right" (2). This expansive view of Byatt's work translates to the wide range of subjects covered by the essays. Only two center on Possession. Michael Worton's detailed examination of painting in Byatt's work focuses on her interest in Van Gogh, Matisse, and Velázquez. Judith Plotz writes sensitively about Frederica Potter's disturbed younger brother Marcus, strangely ignored by critics although an intriguing recurring character in Byatt's work. There is also a useful essay focusing on Byatt's difficult novel Babel Tower (1996), and two that examine her borrowing from fairy tales in her fictionanother subject neglected by critics but central to an understanding of Byatt's work. A contribution by Byatt herself, "True Stories and the Facts in Fiction," although it revisits ideas that she has presented elsewhere, adds significantly to the appeal of the volume.