Still Life by Antonia Byatt (Scribner's: $16.95)
The French--who understand such things--call the still life nature morte, or dead nature. It is this sensuous contradiction that lives at the heart of Antonia Byatt's masterful novel.
It is simply national negligence that Byatt is not better known in this country. In England she is well-regarded as novelist and literary critic. "Still Life" is the second volume in a proposed series of novels centering around an English family made up of teachers and curates, madmen and artists.
"Still Life" works entirely on its own terms and readers unfamiliar with "The Virgin in the Garden" (1978)--in which Byatt introduced the Potter family--will have no trouble acclimating themselves.
Frederica Potter, the middle child of a quick-tempered school master and his menopausal wife, is brilliant and sexual, volatile and greedy for life. Her sentimental education takes place against the shifting backdrops of luminescent Provence and the harsher, more artificial, lights of Cambridge.
Darkly Lit Past
Frederica's brother Marcus is a neurasthenic with a darkly lit past. Marcus totters between madness and vision, reason and chaos, solipsism and love. Finally, it is in love that he retrieves his way, though not before helping to effect the novel's central tragedy.
Stephanie, the "good sister," describes herself as "sunk in biology." A gifted Wordsworth scholar, she has given up the life of the mind for the life of the species. When she tells her husband Daniel, a curate plagued by agnosticism, that she has lost her connection to language, he makes love to her so furiously she is tamed back into oblivion; maternal, bestial forgetfulness.
The birth of Stephanie's first child gives us some of the best moments in an altogether splendidly written book. Especially subtle and radiant with truth is the author's expression of first motherhood, its ardent territoriality:
"After a day's visiting William's heat was wrong; he was sweaty with other people's sweat, damp in nappies other people had clutched. . . . His smell was obscured by others, someone's sweet lily of the valley, someone else's cigarette smoke. One day he had a sticky lipstick kiss, cerise on the small plane of his brow."
This is a novel about creation. And most of the time Byatt avoids the familiar pitfalls of post-modern fiction, though once in a while she strikes an obtrusive note: "I had the idea that this novel could be written innocently. . . ." Despite these occasional lapses into narrative self-consciousness, this is a nearly perfect novel. The sheer poetry of Byatt's language makes the world new to us. Generation, regeneration and the progress of life toward death all become real on the page.