Seven essays by novelist Byatt (The Biographer’s Tale, 2000, etc.), all ostensibly linked by the motifs of writing and reading fiction set in the past.
Byatt is at her best in the three opening essays (“Fathers,” “Forefathers,” and “Ancestors”), originally given as concurrent lectures. Taking Salmon Rushdie to task for his oft-quoted assertion that the British novel after WWII was moribund and in desperate need of infusions of vigor from its former colonies, Byatt adamantly refutes the image of the postwar UK novel as terminally cozy, unambitious, and genteel—making the case for a lively, postwar British canon with such authors as Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Jeanette Winterson at its center. Subsequent chapters broaden the discussion to include the works of European writers, a few Americans, and the now properly chastised ex-colonial Rushdie. An essay on literary scholarship and Byatt’s own Angels and Insects (1993) has some further relevance here; another, on images of ice and glass in poetry and prose, does not. Wrapping it all up is a perfunctory quickie on storytelling in general and A Thousand and One Nights in particular. The tone throughout these pieces remains consistent: eager, polite, informed, rushed. Not the least of the pleasures provided is that of having a respected writer reel off the names of some books she quite fancies (followed by a cursory description and a brief sentence or two of lavish praise)—a service that ultimately offers more to a reader looking for something new to pick up than to one wishing for either critical insight or the coherent investigation of the literary trends and strategies (as the title would seem to promise).
The overall effect is somewhat slight and rather disjointed, but not without attraction.