The Matisse Stories

matisse storiesI 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.

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6 Responses to The Matisse Stories

  1. Eva says:

    I felt similarly about this one. I love Byatt, but this collection didn’t have nearly as much magic as some of her other works. I just read Elementals last month and it felt a lot closer to the stories in Djinn (well, after the first one). Just thought I’d let you know!

  2. adevotedreader says:

    I agree although the writing in this is as polished as ever, the only story that really worked for me was Medusa’s Ankles. I’m not fond of going to the hairdresser so I could relate!

  3. litlove says:

    I have this but have yet to read it. Generally I’m a Byatt fan, but I do think some of her narratives work better than others. I loved Still Life, but was slightly less enamoured with Angels and Insects. I must get around to reading more of her work. I love this site but it’s also terrible – makes me want to start reading a whole bunch of books right now! ;)

  4. Jenny says:

    Eva — I had been planning to read the Elementals next, so thank you so much for reassuring me. Off to the library!

    Devotedreader — I thought “Medusa’s Ankles” was only okay. In the end, I liked parts of all three stories very much, but would personally have either cut or reworked them. But then, who is the famous author, Byatt or me? :)

    Litlove — it sounds as if you and I have very similar tastes when it comes to Byatt, and also very similar troubles with each other’s blogs. I love yours, and I always come away with so many new books on my list!

  5. Nymeth says:

    I really enjoyed this book, but it’s probably my least favourite of her collections. I second the recommendation of Elementals! Especially for Cold, which is one of my favourite short stories ever.

  6. Jenny says:

    Nymeth — Thanks for the recommendation, I will especially look out for Cold. I know you’re a great short story expert!

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