Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Matisse Stories - AS Byatt

At the outset, apologies if the writing is bad – I haven’t written much in a while and am rusty.

It has been a while since I reviewed anything here. I have been reading though, and some of the books I read have been pretty good. I adored Nick Hornby. I enjoyed, but was less impressed by, Stieg Larsson. I thought briefly about reviewing the trilogy here, but figured there were enough opinions out there about it. To the OPEN reviewer who stated it was better than Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, I would like to say: NOT!

I’ve finally felt like setting down my thoughts on a book after reading AS Byatt’s The Matisse Stories. While I consider myself slightly knowledgeable about art, (I can at least tell a Monet from a Manet) beyond knowing that Henri Matisse was a 20th century painter, I knew nothing about him. I guess that helped because it helped me approach these stories with no preconceived notions whatsoever.

The Matisse Stories is a collection of 3 short stories, Medusa’s Ankles, Art Work and The Chinese Lobster. Matisse is a motif in all these stories. In the first, a salon owner hangs a Matisse painting in his shop, because it goes with his d├ęcor. In the second, a struggling artist venerates Matisse and celebrates colour just as the Frenchman does, and in the third an art professor is horrified by a feminist student’s misunderstanding and desecration of Matisse’s works.

This, of course is oversimplification on my part. I really don’t know what Byatt intended, but these very readable stories are also studies of people in various stages of quiet desperation, of what a wearying business life really is. In two of the stories (Medusa’s Ankles, The Chinese Lobster) aging is a subtext, while both Art Work and The Chinese Lobster deal with loss of brilliance, of promising futures unrealised. Matisse’s importance in the book increases with each subsequent story: he is just a presence in the first story, an inspiration in the second, and the reason in the third.

Medusa’s Ankles has a middle aged lady drawn to a salon because it features “Rosy Nude” – she becomes a regular there over the years, striking up a sort of comfortable relationship with the owner with his easy patter and hairdressing skills. He talks, she listens, until one day one of his remarks triggers an unexpected outburst from her.

Art Work, the second story, has particular meaning for me, and will for all of us who think of ourselves as creative. (I may be a commercial writer, but I do see advertising as a creative art!). Debbie, the protagonist, is the wife of a struggling artist whose ‘big opportunity’ seems increasingly unlikely to come to pass. Debbie good humouredly runs the home with help from the capable Mrs Brown, pays the bills and manages the show, setting aside her own dreams so that her husband, ostensibly the more creative, can have his space and freedom to work well. It is the kind of sacrifice a hundred women make, and there is no hint of the martyr in Debbie, because quite simply, she ‘loves Robin’. Robin, on the other hand is, while not unsympathetically drawn, not a particularly attractive character - rather querulous and indulged. He is undeniably talented but his career never takes off. Everyone admits he ‘has something’ but it is perhaps not enough. Robin’s work is the kind not everyone will ‘get’ but nor is it the kind of genius that can be understood only in retrospect, like Van Gogh’s. It reminded me that talent is no guarantee for success really. I know so many ambitious and deserving people who somehow never seem to make it, and turn bitter in the process. It also made me think of how men are so much more ill-equipped to deal with failure and “smallness”. I will be the first to admit that men have an ability to see the larger picture in a way women sometimes don’t. On the other hand, women are so much better at the art of living – of learning to make-do, to adjust, to juggle, to accept, to go with the flow, what have you… and Byatt has captured that beautifully here. I loved the story, even without the nice little twist at the end.

The third story, The Chinese Lantern is perhaps the easiest read of the three, motivations up front and quite crystal clear. Two academics meet at a Chinese Restaurant to discuss the fate of a student, and the meeting gives insights into the personality of both. I wonder how much of Byatt herself is there is in the female character, Gerda Himmelblau.

Readers of this blog (yes, the two of you) will know how much I adored AS Byatt’s Possession. The Game, while enjoyable, was just not in the same league. But The Matisse Stories is a nice little collection, a gift box of exotic truffles, each with a nice squishy flavoured filling. Easily devoured, but not so easily forgotten.