Monday, November 30, 2009

The Children's Book

The Children's Book is one of those books that you read as an experience. It's not the sort of book that you read simply to have read; you read and it does interesting things to your mind, it gives you certain desires and changes the way you think in that moment. It made me want to create art and gave me the feeling that I had to do it right then, reading that passage, and not go on reading. I couldn't listen to any music with words when reading this. It's the only book (barring poetry), that I've every found this the case with. It just doesn't fit, there's too much nature in the book, it's too wild, for anything but instrumental music. So I went with film soundtracks, particularly Amelie. I should, really, have been listening to Wagner, but I'm not much of a fan.

The book is 675 pages long. It begins in 1895 and ends in 1919. It delves into pottery, the Fabian Society, German puppetry, socialism, the women's suffrage movement, children's fiction, fairy tales, museums, sex, art, war poetry. There are many central characters, but no one really develops into the main character. I kept expecting someone to; the blurb on the front flap makes it sound like Olive Wellwood is the main character, but she isn't. Family, and the intricate inner workings and secrets of families, are central to this book. We have the Wellwoods of Todefright, their rather fitting house--Olive and Humphrey, their children Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Florian, Robin, and Harry, Olive's sister Violet. The Wellwoods of Portman square, Humphrey's brother Basil, his wife Katharina, their children Charles and Griselda. The family of Purchase House, famous potter Benedict Fludd, his wife Seraphita, his children Geraint, Imogen, and Pomona, his apprentice Phillip Warren and Phillip's sister Elsie. Major Prosper Cain, Special Keepr of Precious Metals in the South Kensington Museum, and his children Julian and Florence. The Stern family in Munich. There are certainly others who flit along the periphery and are sometimes more important to the story than some of these people, but they are far too many to name.

I've been giving some thought to the book's title. This is in no way a book meant for children. It is split into four parts, Beginnings, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, and The Age of Lead, which in some ways I take to mean the growing up of children. The younger generation are all children when the book begins, no one, I think, older than fifteen, but all of them have grown up by the end. What does this say about adulthood? These ages also correspond to the illusions of comfort and perfection and truth some of the characters hold, and how these illusions fade and are broken, but I think the association with growing up is more important. The book says more than once that the best literature of the turn of the century was literature intended for children. J.M. Barrie, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit. The book also ends with the (now grown up) children, their parents faded into the background.

Of the 24 years the book covers, some are more in focus than others. The years in between are skated over in a historical context. The wider movements of history are related, events in the lives of historical personages are told. Events in the main, fictional characters lives during these years are mostly told only if they become a part of historical events.

This book is so full of bright ideas, bright both in the sense of intelligence and originality, and in the sense of colour and vividness. Bright images, too, and sometimes darker ones. This is the first (non-school) book I've ever post-it noted to such a degree as I did, for passages I simply liked the sound of, those I thought were clever, and those that made me think or that expressed something I've tried and failed to express for myself.
He sat down on the pebbles, which were warm, and ate the bread and cheese and apple he had brought. He though he must take a stone back with him. It is an ancient instinct to take a stone away from a stony place, to look at it, to give it a form and a life that connect the human being to the mass of inhuman stones. (152)
I've always thought that about stony places, and always liked beaches full of rocks better than sandy ones.
If you knew how somebody's mind worked, did it mean you liked them? (419)
I've thought that, too. Or at least, thought about knowing how people's minds work a lot.

That image, by the way, is the Gloucester Candlestick, which lives in the Victoria and Albert Museum (newly built during the time of The Children's Book). It sort of begins the book.

As with my previous experience of A.S. Byatt, in Possession, The Children's Book does not end as you expect it to, but this does not mean it ends unsatisfyingly. You don't have any expectation of its ending, so there's really no way to be disappointed. I felt there were some ends left loose, but that this was intentional, that it was lifelike, that the characters who were not touched on had simply faded into the background, had had their time and been left behind by the movement of the world. That's what you get from this book. It is infused with a sense of the movement of the world. Sometimes it reads like a (good) history book, and I'm sure it must have needed as much research as one, but like the best history books it also tells a story. And maybe that's what is wonderful about A.S. Byatt. She is writing the history book about characters and events that never happened--it is not a novel, though it lurks (looms, really) on the fiction shelves. It was, for sheer depth and breadth, and extremely satisfying experience.

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