A. S. Byatt’s Quarrel with Biography

A.S Byatt, the famous British author of Possession: A Romance, visited Stockholm University in May 2007 to deliver an annual Adam Helm’s lecture, organized by the society of authors and Stockholm University.. I met her once over dinner and once when she addressed a mixed group of undergraduates and the English Department staff. The following is not an exact transcript of an interview, but a summary of Byatt’s thoughts on different topics brought up by teachers and students.

“I’m going to speak against biography,” A.S. Byatt says, and chuckles, when we meet over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Stockholm. She’s accompanied by two teacher representatives from Stockholm University and a few creative writing students. Byatt is spry, generous, and most entertaining.

One of the first questions is, “How do you wish to be addressed?”

“Just don’t call me Dame,” Byatt says and goes on to tell the amusing anecdote about registering on the Internet. There were all kinds of titles: Mr, Miss, Mrs, Prof, Dr, Sir, the lot, but not Dame. It’s as if Dames do not surf and shop on the net. “Only my local store sends me bills addressed to Dame Duffy, which is my husband’s surname.” Byatt insists that we call her by her first name, Antonia.

Byatt talks a great deal about her friendship with Iris Murdock, her disappointment at the biography by Murdock’s husband, which she means Murdock would hate. She tells about the autobiographical story about H.C. Andersen, which explained but also ruined her reading of her favourite Anderson passage. Some things should remain buried, like the letters of George Eliot, which are literally buried with her corpse. “Some academics believe it is their obligation to retrieve those letter, even if it means to excavate Eliot. I’d hate to see that happen.” Byatt used this as a marker against biography in Possession. She herself has arranged that her autobiography never hit any bookstores.

A cheeky comment comes from one of the teachers, “Maybe in a few years such meetings as this might engender a couple of unauthorized biographies.” Byatt winces, but then laughs.

I ask Byatt about her experience with the editors and she bridles, saying, “The American editors wanted to cut Possession. They said I was ruining a perfectly fine plot with an excess of text, especially poetry. They wanted to cut it even after it has won the Booker. They said it’d never sell.” Byatt tells us she was determined to publish the novel overseas with a small print rather than cut it.

I asked, “What about prizes, how did the Booker affect you? Are you going to flirt with the Nobel committee now that you’re here? Hemingway said it destroyed him.”

One of the teachers throws in a comment. “You can buy a lot of booze for that kind of money.”

Byatt laughs and says, “Nobel is a lottery. A great many good writers are overlooked. We used to nominate Graham Green every year, but he never got it. We went on advocating for Green anyway. I was so pleased to see my great friend Tony Morrison receive this award. Some people said she was not well known, but I was so pleased with the decision. Tony is such as wonderful writer.” She tells us an anecdote about Orhan Pamuk, whom she recommended for a prize in Spain. The trouble was, people did not want to hear about “obscure” Turkish writers, she says.

“What about postcolonial literature?” I asked.

Byatt says she likes some, specifically the writers she can “hear” as she puts it. She likes Zadie Smith because Smith loves Faulkner, which seems to shape her language. Abdulrazak Gurnah is a favourite too. Ben Okri, on the other hand, she says she has trouble hearing, because he is all about language, and he can talk for hours.

Later we speak about her writing process. Someone says, “What I appreciate in your fiction is the way you merge characters and settings. You don’t describe places and then put in characters but they flow beautifully into each other.”

“I never begin with a plot, or characters’ descriptions and then create a story.” She says she does not visualize immediately, instead beginning with the sound of a phrase for instance, and then moves from there, following the characters, trying to see where they are taking her. Only after the entire story is finished does she rewrite.

“What are you working on now?”

“It’s not good to talk about new projects,” Byatt says but she cannot refrain from telling us some bits and pieces from her new novel. Without revealing much of any kind of plot or conflict, she shares one detail a problem she encountered writing a story about five people whose lives started at the end of the 19th century. They would all become of age by the First World War. This brought about a dilemma. She asked her husband how many would realistically come out alive? He unequivocally replied, “Three.” “This means I have to kill two by the end. And what if I start to like those I decided should die?” Then Byatt points out a kind of necessity that writers can feel to conform to some form of reality. To her, fiction indeed tells the truth, not historical facts, but a form of truth about life. When one constructs a story there are numerous things one wants to check, especially if one is writing about a historical person. One feels constrained to conform to those pieces of information that are recorded, even though these hardly say anything of real importance, or truth about these people. She maintains she feels much more comfortable and truthful with made-up characters and worlds.

In the end, I ask about Sweden, and the two cities she is visiting, Stockholm and Uppsala. She has seen Linneaus gardens. Since it is the anniversary of his death, there is plenty exhibitions about his research. Byatt has written about Carl von Linné in The Biographer’s Tale. She laughs and says, “I finally got a chance to see the Linneaus gardens. I’ve written about them and now could see them for the first time.”

Here is a web site with more interviews with Byatt.

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