I finished these two novellas by A. S. Byatt last week, and I am still reeling in a state of amazement and not-knowing what to say-ment. Both Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel are gorgeous and sinister. Like every single Byatt book I’ve read, I can barely breathe when I read them; I’m in a constant state of awe. I have to include a definition:
Awe: A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might.
Yeah. That’s it entirely.
I’ll start backwards, with the Conjugial Angel first because I do believe at least 95% of it went right over my head. The novella is interwoven with the work of Tennyson who I am barely familiar with, and Swedenborg, who I am not familiar with at all.
If I had to capture the novella in one word, it would be AMBIGUOUS. What is going on with the seances and automatic writing? What are they seeing, really? What kind of relationship does Tennyson have with Arthur Hallam? What hold does/should the dead have on the living — is dead and living an arbitrary distinction emotionally? Byatt explores, hints, complicates, and layers.
It’s also about art, and beauty. The most memorable idea I took from the novella is that of the sensuous:
“He knew,” he said “the energetic principle of love for the beautiful. I remember. I restored a word to life, for him. Sensuous. My word. Not sensual. Sensuous . . . Poems are the ghosts of sensations.” (291)
Again – another definition:
The words sensual and sensuous are often used interchangeably, but careful writers would do well to think before using one or the other.
The terms share the root sens-, which means to arouse the senses. Sensual has referred to gratifying carnal, especially sexual, senses since before 1425. Sensuous is believed to have been created by John Milton in 1641 to mean relating to the senses instead of the intellect without the sexual connotation. Let’s look at some examples that use our pair strictly:
Designer Zac Posen sent out sensual cancan girls straight out of a vintage Paris revue.
Every once in awhile Pauline will recreate one of the sensuous feasts she and Luciano used to serve to guests seated around a shared table.
Today, though, many writers will use the words interchangeably:
Heat and dust Delhi’s sensual overload tests tourists, athletes
The way she gazes into his face, we are privileged to get a glimpse of a subtle and sensuous erotica.
It’s a shame to lose these shades of meaning. When you use sensuous, do you mean to include sexual undertones? Are those undertones absent when you use sensual? Your readers will only know if you choose your words wisely.
…and I think we can crown Byatt the Queen of Choosing Words Wisely (and I think she’d like not only the aptness but the the fairy tale flavor of that title!)!
I’ll end my half (quarter?) baked thoughts on the Conjugial Angel because what I really need to do is immerse myself in some Tennyson, Keats, and Shelley, find out some basic stuff about Swedenborg’s philosophy, then reread this novella. Byatt — you got me good on this one, you genius.
Now, Morpho Eugenia. Somehow Byatt manages to get a complicated metaphor about Victorian society, a religious debate, a fairy tale, gender politics, the most stunning use of language, a natural history of ants, butterflies, moths, and the Amazon, my new favorite smart amazing scary/intense female character (MATTY CROMPTON!), the most erotic/frightening wooing scene I’ve ever read, AND the freaking twist of all twists (that twist and twist some more), in 183 pages. Awe, I tell you, Awe!
Two related asides:
1. The copy of my book that I got from Paperback Swap is signed by A. S. Byatt. I’m not one to collect autographs or anything, and I never wait in line at readings to get a book signed, but every time I look at it, I do say “She touched this book!”
2. I went out to one of the raised beds in my yard to clear it of a few grassy weeds before I planted fall kale, and I noticed many, many ants. When I watered the seeds I planted thousands of ants started running out of the bed with tiny white things which I knew were eggs from reading Morpho Eugenia — ants will relocate their colony if “under attack” and save the eggs. The life-imitiating-literature was too much of a coincidence not to mention.
(butterfly illustration from The Graphics Fairy. If you love vintage images, get ready to hunt for treasure!)