Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Whistling Woman

I am re-reading A.S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman, because it’s one of my favourites, I’m on holidays, and I can. It’s not really a food book, it’s an ideas book, but food is one of the ideas. In fact all of A.S. Byatt’s work seems to be about ideas, which is why I enjoy her writing her so much. She is an author I can re-read annually, or browse through when I’m just relaxing, I’m sick, or I can’t decide on any one particular new book to read, and choose to put it off. Byatt is comfort reading, and a good exercise too, like a crossword puzzle of ideas.

A Whistling Woman is the fourth in the Frederica Potter series, following her and her family and friends in England through the 50s and 60s. If I were summing up the primary themes of these novels (and it would be about as correct as any stereotype), I would call them: Acting, Painting, Language and Genetics. A Whistling Woman is “Genetics”, but covers so many other ideas too, ranging everywhere: mathematics, communications, imagery, narration, history, sociology, etc. etc. which is why it’s so much fun. The characters are so alive and thinking, it’s fabulous.

One of my favourite passages is when a geneticist invites the woman (another scientist) he is in love with to his home for the weekend. He notices that he is acting like a bird, decorating his nest for his mate, but at the same time, he can’t help it, he becomes more obsessed with trying to make everything perfect for her. Except it doesn’t work out that way- there’s not enough emotional substance to support it. Here is part of the dinner scene I’ve been academically drooling over. The safe subject referred to in the first line is egg-recognition and mate-recognition.

Later, Luk was to wish he had not introduced this apparently safe subject. He went round to offer Jacqueline more meat on the point of his stainless steel fork, and saw himself suddenly as a male gull, clattering his beak against the female, proffering a propitiatory fish. Jacqueline declined the meat. She had enough. She said it was delicious. Luk-cleared away- he would not let her move- and replaced meat with cheese, and cheese with lemon tarts he had made himself….He offered Jacqueline a dish of apples, and thought of the bower-bird who specialized in feathers from a bird of paradise known as the King of Saxony. The feathers are rare (they don’t grow before the bird is four years old) and brilliant blue, with square pennants on fine stems, several times longer than the bird, and sprouting from the brow. Male bower-birds fight for these rarities, which they weave into their paradise gardens of ferns and twigs. He began to see all his movements as ritualised gestures. He should have been able to share his joke with Jacqueline. But because she was now ritually defined as the audience for his mopping and mowing, he couldn’t speak.
(A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman.; Vintage, London. Pgs.175-176)

This is like what I might imagine a contemporary version of Austen might be, as far as my literary love-metre is concerned. I love what she does with the social dynamics in this book, and the imagery is delicious. If you’re in need of a good read, pick it up. It’s great if you can read the preceding books in the series, but you don’t have to. A Whistling Woman is that good that it can stand by itself.

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