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A Writer Reviews Other Writers

ANTONIA SUSAN BYATT is the author (thus far) of five novels, a short- story collection, and two books of criticism (one on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the other on Iris Murdoch). A graduate of Cambridge University who has taught literature at University College, London, Byatt has also written numerous essays, articles, and book reviews, 21 of which form the contents of her latest book, "Passions of the Mind."

Byatt is a novelist whose imagination is steeped in literature. It might even be said that literature is a major theme of her fiction. Her most recent and best-known novel, "Possession," winner of the Booker Prize, tells the intertwining stories of a pair of modern-day academic researchers and the secret love affair of two 19th-century poets who are the subjects of their research: a Robert Browning-esque man and a Christina Rossetti-like woman.

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Byatt's 1978 novel, "The Virgin in the Garden," takes place in the England of the 1950s, the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II, but is replete with references to the England of Elizabeth I, the age of Spenser, Signey, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. In "Still Life," the sequel, Byatt (as she tells us in one essay) abandoned the emblematic and allusive style of the previous book for what she hoped would be a plainer, more direct picture of life and death shorn of mythological embellishments and religious c onsolations. It was a decision to move from the mythopoeic world of symbols and archetypes to a modern world of things as they are, or, as William Carlos Williams put it, "no ideas but in things." This, at any rate, is how Byatt describes her motives in the first essay of "Passions of the Mind." In "Still Life / Nature morte," she goes on to explain how the unadorned "things" took on significance and resonance almost in spite of themselves.

In her introduction to these essays, Byatt says her craft as a novelist has been influenced by her perceptions as a critic and as critic who draws upon her experience as a practicing novelist. "From my early childhood," she recalls, "reading and writing seemed to me to be points on a circle. Greedy reading made me want to write.... Writing made me want to read...." She claims to have solved the problem of undue literary influence by reading widely enough to prevent herself from being overwhelmed by any o ne writer or group of writers.

The first two essays discuss her own fiction and the ways in which she was influenced by literary critical ideas she studied as a student. Having grown up in an "intensely literary" Quaker family in which literature and art were deemed secondary in value only to "moral virtue and the Inner Light," Byatt continued to seek an art that would be inventive, imaginative, and formally satisfying, while at the same time being "true to life." The modern and postmodern notion that everything is a fiction, that tru th is beyond our ability to discover, is an idea she finds distasteful and dangerously trivializing.

In the second and third sections of her book "Victorians and Moderns," Byatt discusses some of the writers she values for their commitment to the idea that art should be a tool to lead us toward the truth. Among the Victorians, she praises Browning and George Eliot. The many masks and voices we hear in Browning's poems - the various charlatans, fanatics, visionaries, artists, and sinners - do not testify to moral relativism, she argues, but rather to Browning's sense of how very difficult - but not impos sible - it is to ferret out the truth. Byatt's appreciation for George Eliot is not only admiration for the author of "Adam Bede" and "Middlemarch," but also for the trenchant, funny, serious, and deeply unconventional essayist who addressed many central issues that emerged in the 19th century and still haunt us today.

Among modern writers, Byatt singles out Ford Madox Ford for his ability to write novels that were at once aesthetically "crystalline" in form (to borrow, as Byatt does, Iris Murdoch's terminology) and sprawlingly journalistic in their capacity to include massive and detailed chunks of reality. Ford's commitment to finding le mot juste - precisely the right word to denote or describe a fact, a thing, an action, or an impression - and his ability to render subjective states of mind with accuracy and acuity , strikes Byatt as an essential antidote to what she sees as the baleful current tendency to see "language as a system singing to itself ... closing us from the world it tells to us...."

Byatt's discussions of more recent writers are informed by similar concerns: Iris Murdoch, Anthony Powell, Doris Lessing, and Saul Bellow are among those she praises for avoiding the kind of gamesmanship she deplores as a tendency in Angus Wilson and John Fowles. As Byatt wades into contemporary controversies about experimental versus traditional fiction, one begins to feel that she loses her sense of direction and purpose as an essayist: She is merely "treading water." When she returns to the critical a rt of appreciation and interpretation, as she does in her essays on Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, and the long meditation on "Van Gogh, Death and Summer" that concludes the collection, her own lucidity and her prose style improve considerably.

The essays on Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen appear in a section called "The Female Voice?" which also includes a surprisingly indulgent and rather silly piece on historical novelist Georgette Heyer and an astonishingly irritable, obtuse, and mean-spirited attack on Barbara Pym (for being, of all things, trivial and malicious!).

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Judged as a literary critic (rather than as a novelist whose fiction is enriched by her literary-critical sensibility), Byatt proves an illuminating guide to writers she admires, but she seldom shines with the brilliance of a Simone de Beauvoir or a Mary McCarthy. Although not a literary theorist, she allows herself to become bogged down in the mire of theoretical controversy in a way that should serve as a warning to theoreticians - and practicing book reviewers.

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