Friday, July 20, 2007

Byatt on aging as "noticing one's body more"

One of the books I read on vacation was AS Byatt's Sugar and Other Stories (Vintage International 1992), in part because I find there's great luxury in reading a book of short stories one after the other, like eating a whole can of Pringles (without the crumbs). Byatt's a bit chilly and grim for the heart of summer, for the Bay of Naples, but it's a slim volume and it's been on my TBR shelf for a while.

Quite a number of these stories are about women and aging--a theme found elsewhere in Byatt's short stories (see, for example, "A Stone Woman" and "The Pink Ribbon," in Little Black Book of Stories Vintage International 2003). Here, perhaps the most haunting portrayal of aging women's bodies is "In the Air," where we find this description of the main character:
Mrs. Sugden had become a walking barometer. Her hip joints knew when the temperature or the pressure was about to drop. Her sinuses ached was the clouds closed, before the clouds closed. A kind of lightning-conductor ran down her thickened neck into the pads of her shoulders and down her upper arms. I have my health, that's the main thing, she told people[...]. But having one's health didn't mean that one didn't daily notice one's body more, as a nuisance, that was, as an impediment, not as the springing thing it had once been. There were things between it and the outer world, like the horny doors she had observed in childhood on hibernating snails. She didn't see so far or focus so fast. She noticed her hips, on the Common, and had to make a real moral effort to see the hooded crow, or the hovering kestrel. (162)
Mrs. Sugden feels vulnerable in her aging body as she takes daily walks with her dog--she thinks through the various scenarios of a possible (inevitable, she supposes) attack upon her. One day, she walks with a blind woman who has a guide dog, and briefly feels the safety in that companionship, but only briefly. (The blind character, Mrs. Tillotson, explains about the "terrible, very frightening" adjustment period when she gets a new guide dog, and the way she uses routine to manage independently. She chides a character who says he "admires her." Still, her character seems to function mainly as confirmation that Mrs. Sugden's media-hyped fears about a lone woman's safety are justified, whether or not a woman can see the warning signs.)

The taut sense of fear in this story has been noted elsewhere, but it's the detailed description of Mrs. Sugden's physical experience of aging that I found most striking. (This story is also discussed in Jane Campbell, AS Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination [Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2004]: 95-96. Gotta love Google Books some days.)


Ruth said...

Very often older people seek my company out for conversations about their aging bodies since I've been visibly disabled. The conversations are sometimes one sided - where I just listen to them about their health and afterwards they look visibly relieved of a great burden! So we basically both feel better.

I'm definitely interested in checking out these short stories - thanks!

Anonymous said...

Byatt is another of my favorite authors, so I have tried not to read this too closely, and not to read what you linked to at all so as not to spoil it. However, after I have worked my way to both these slender collections through my own "TBR shelf," I shall revisit this. Thank you.

Another book of short stories by Byatt that I loved was Matisse Stories, in which each story is inspired by and features a painting by, of course, Matisse. Highly recommended. Also, for another great British writer who speaks brilliantly and very literately about aging among other things, I recommend Penelope Lively if you haven't already devoured her. (Love those Booker Prize winners. Mmmm, yummy.) Since I am only squinting at this and not reading deeply, I am not sure either of these recommendations is at all relevant to this post, but I hope you enjoy or have enjoyed them anyway!

Meanwhile, in spite of my resolve to not investigate too deeply at this time, I can't help but wonder what is meant by "heliotropic imagination."