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Dancing in the Light

ELEMENTALS: Stories of Fire and Ice;\o7 By A.S. Byatt; (Random House: 230 pp., $21.95)\f7

April 11, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

"What I dream of, is an art of balance, of purity, of quietness, without any disturbing subjects, without worry, which may be, for everyone who works with the mind, for the businessman as much as for the literary artist, something soothing, something to calm the brain, something analogous to a good armchair which relaxes him from his bodily weariness." So wrote Henri Matisse in his latter years, tongue in cheek, perhaps, as much as duff on cushion.

Up until now, I have enjoyed A.S. Byatt's work, from the massive leather-upholstered "Possession" to the leaner Eames rockers of "The Matisse Stories" (in which she quotes and worries over Matisse and his furniture). Byatt's intelligent heroes and heroines and the intellectual rigor of her prose have always provided a comfortable cushion, a well-adjusted reading light, a cut-glass tumbler filled with a judicious measure of your favorite tipple just within reach.

But Byatt's newest creation, the five stories of "Elementals," harnesses a brilliant new power that makes laissez faire reading impossible. Much as Matisse, in his last years, turned to the explosive simplicity of color and cut-out, Byatt has reached back to legend and fairy tale, elements of storytelling as basic and combustive as fire and ice. Her solitary souls have put away their books and ventured, like virgin Scheherazades, into the dangerous world of fantasy.

Thus it is that Bernard, in "A Lamia in the Cevennes," a middle-aged British painter, fleeing "Thatcher's Britain . . . a land of dog-eat-dog, lung-corroding ozone and floating money," finds himself in a small stone house in the deep Grimm hillsides of France's Cevennes. Like many of Byatt's friends, he is engaged in tackling a particularly thorny problem of aesthetics--in this case, a question of color, and particularly the color blue, "a blue he needed to know and fight." In the hot summer, the most natural medium of research is the swimming pool. And it is in the pool one night that Bernard comes upon the solution to his dilemma in the form of a giant snake sometimes coiled below him in the pool, sometimes swimming beside him, always changing colors. "Between the night sky and the breathing, dissolving eyes and moons in the depths, the colour of the water was solved, dissolved, it became a medium to contain a darkness spangled with living colours."

There's only one hitch: The snake speaks. Not only that, she wants something: to be kissed. For the snake is Lamia, the enchanted spirit of the poem by John Keats (as Bernard remembers after his first nocturnal conversation), who will bestow immortality of the soul upon the fortunate painter for the price of a single snog. Bernard is intrigued, but the snake is impatient; the kiss will return her to human form. Yet Bernard needs more time to solve his color problem.

"I am so sad, Bernard. I want to be a woman."

"You've had thousands of years already. Give me a few more days."

"You see how kind I am, when I am in pain."

In the opening story, "Crocodile Tears," it is an Arctic myth that comes to the rescue of the widowed Mrs. Nimmo, who has run from England and her husband's death to the fiery summer of the French bullfighting town of Ni^mes and a mysterious Scandinavian. In "Jael," the story of the Israelite heroine Jael, who saved her people by betraying her lover, Byatt returns to the memory of a woman, recreating in all its horror a terrible school days betrayal. In "Cold," Byatt paints her own splendid Arabian night, a legend of the young princess Fiammarosa, a pale and silvery ice maiden, who comes to life only on cold winter nights when she can dance naked across the ice-encrusted snow. And yet it is Fiammarosa's fate to fall in love with a prince of the desert, Sasan, whose miraculous sculptures of blown glass speak to her soul and whose radiant kisses scorch her body. With the genius and abandon of a world-class artisan--not unlike the 17th century master who fashioned the Venetian goblet that illustrates the story--Byatt crafts a solution to her lovers' dilemma that is a delicate and fine monument to the power of imagination.

For in "Elementals," Byatt has descended beneath the surface of her intellectuals to quarry the myths below poetry and painting, to mine the classical and biblical sources of the Keats and Matisse and religious studies courses that have hitherto engaged her characters. But not to worry--Byatt hasn't gone all Marquez-y on us. The heroes and heroines are the stuff of their very particular (and often very British) dreams, the bits of imaginative detritus that fly within their worlds but just beyond their grasp.

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