I am extremely fond of the work of A.S. Byatt, both her novels and her short work. Most recently, I read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and was so enchanted by those five fables that I eagerly sought out another book of her short fiction. This time, I read The Matisse Stories, three stories linked only by their (sometimes brief) references to Matisse and their exuberant, generous use of color and texture in the description and language.
“Medusa’s Ankles,” the first story, reminded me in some ways of “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” It’s the tale of a middle-aged professor forced to play therapist to her hairdresser, and at the same time forced to confront the evidence of her own aging in the omnipresent mirrors. This woman, however, is not presented with a genie to pull her out of her own narrative, and the explosion at the end is more befitting a Gorgon than a princess (and I don’t say that disparagingly.)
“Art Work” is messier. It tells of an artistic family (the desperate wife, Debbie, does design for a magazine and the spoiled husband, Robin, is an artist) and their much-needed housekeeper, Mrs. Brown. I found this story rather predictable, and I was also a bit skeptical that it represented much of use about the way the art world works. What it did have to offer was some beautiful writing: tiny, gemlike, miniature paintings of things. The artwork described at the end also had a hallucinatory quality that reminded me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, in a good way. Overall, though, this was the weakest story of the three.
I liked and disliked “The Chinese Lobster” in about equal amounts. This is the story that makes the most open connection with Matisse and his work: it is about a distinguished art professor who has been accused of sexual harassment by a troubled graduate student, and the Dean of Women Students who must investigate the charge. Of course, the subject of the student’s thesis is Matisse. The story winds in and around the themes of seeing, love or hate for women, whether or not art can and should be shocking. But none of this is particularly enlightening. I was troubled that we were supposed to accept the aging professor’s word that he found the student unattractive and would therefore never have dreamed of touching her. (Sexual assault is usually not at all about attraction; in 1993, Byatt would have known that perfectly well.) I was troubled at the facile dismissal of the student’s difficulty “seeing” Matisse’s love for women (oh, she has anorexia, so she thinks he’s misogynist.) It was a troubling story, particularly from a feminist perspective.
Still, there is an encounter at the end that makes up for the whole thing: a twist that has nothing to do with Matisse or feminism or color, that doesn’t strain to fit the theme, that helped me understand those people better. It’s what I was expecting from Byatt, what I read for in the first place. In a book that could have been better, this story finally delivered the goods. This collection isn’t what I’d start with if I were recommending Byatt to someone, but it’s worth reading for this alone.