Elementals: Stories of Ice and Fire

elementalsThis book of short stories by A.S. Byatt has been on my TBR list for almost six years. Byatt is a favorite author of mine, and I’ve read most of her novels and short stories now. But each time I thought of reading this book, something else came first: The Children’s Book, for one, and Ragnarok, for another. As those books do, the short stories in Elementals mix fantasy and reality, myth and truth, strange beasts and very human beings.

As the title suggests, the stories are all linked by their settings: extreme heat or cold. The first, “Crocodile Tears,” tells the story of a woman whose husband dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. Instead of staying to see to his affairs, to bury him, and to mourn him, she leaves on the instant, with no destination in mind, and eventually finds herself in the southern French town of Nîmes, in the scorching heat of summer. The story traces her journey back to herself, finding her tethers again, in that crocodile-haunted city.

Several of the stories edge into the fantastic. “A Lamia in the Cévennes” gives us Bernard, an artist living in the south of France, who finds a lamia (a snake-daemon who will turn into a seductive woman if you kiss her — you remember Keats) in his gorgeous swimming pool. Bernard isn’t interested in women, he’s interested in colors:

Against the green hump the blue sky was one blue, and against the bald stone another, even when for a brief few hours it was uniformly blue overhead, that rich blue, that cobalt, deep-washed blue of the South, which fought all the blues of the pool, all the green-tinged, duck-egg-tinged blues of the shifting water.

So instead of kissing her, he asks her to pose for a portrait. The lamia gets more and more impatient, waiting to seduce Bernard; Bernard only wants to paint the beautiful colors of the snakeskin. How Bernard and the lamia both get their way is wryly funny and satisfying to read.

I had two favorite stories. The first was “Cold,” which is a straight-up fairy tale, a story about an ice princess who marries a prince from the burning desert. Byatt describes the princess’s understanding of herself as an icewoman in a warm culture, and her independence from the family that doesn’t understand her. Then come the courtship and love of a man from far away, and her desperate bid for survival in a scorching country under a glaring sun. (Blown glass is ironically their only art: it resembles frozen water, but is made of sand and fire.) Can the lovers find a way to be together, or will the ice princess melt into formlessness and nothing?

My other favorite was “Jael,” a very short story revolving around the Biblical tale of Jael and Sisera.

Now I think about it, it’s a story about the breaking of all the primitive laws of hospitality, and kindness, laws we learn even from fairy-stories. Jael was not Sisera’s enemy; she enticed him in, and gratuitously betrayed him.

The story, about another gratuitous betrayal that may or may not have happened and spread itself through the narrator’s entire life, is tightly-knit, complex, and unexpected. It rewards re-reading, and that’s possible because it is so short.

I am very fond of Byatt’s short stories in general. I think The Little Black Book of Stories is my favorite collection of hers, but this one was wonderful: a feast of fire and ice, color and story.

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3 Responses to Elementals: Stories of Ice and Fire

  1. I too have read most of A. S. Byatt that’s in print, and I agree with you about the quality and beauty. In fact, I think she is the foremost writer of fiction writing in the late 20th century-early 21st century. I’m waiting to read something new by her, but haven’t heard of anything recently.

    • Jenny says:

      I certainly think she’s in the top few authors of her kind. At the moment, I would probably rank Marilynne Robinson as the top American author, and I think Hilary Mantel probably deserves a spot here — all of them for the interest, beauty, quality, and moral weight of the things they write. But I have not read extensively enough in this field to say for sure; most of what I read is really 20th century, not 21st.

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