Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: A family wreath


AS Byatt’s Angels and Insects is a collection of a loosely connected pair of novellas that centre around a shipwreck (which feels reminiscent of an incident of Bleak House). In the first tale, ‘Morpho Eugenia’, we are told about a survivor of this shipwreck and how he comes to enter a family that suspiciously feels very insect-like. The second tale, ‘The Conjugal Angel’, is focused around an odd group of friends that hold a séance, one that seems to elicit perhaps much more than they bargained for. Byatt’s project feels quirky, but it bound together quite firmly: echoes of themes, a dialogue between the two novellas, creates conversation on life and – perhaps above all – science in the Victorian age.

‘Morpho Eugenia’ is a slow, methodical story. Etymologist and perhaps slight anthopologist William Adamson was studying plant life in the Amazon, collecting specimens to study and to sell to scientists back in England. But the wreck of his ship he looses most of his specimens, and therefore his life is in disarray. Hoping to come back and live off the sales of his finds, he now finds solace under the Alabaster house, the patriarch taking him under his wing (for he too is an etymologist). William falls in love with one of his daughters, Eugenia, who has the name of one of the sole butterflies he was able to salvage from the wreck – one of the most beautiful butterflies at that: ‘A remarkable creation,’ his patriarch says. ‘How beautiful, how delicately designed, how wonderful that something so fragile should have come here, through such dangers, from the other end of the earth. And very rare. I have never seen one. I have never heard tell of anyone who has seen one. Morpho Eugenia. Well.’
William sets on winning Eugenia’s heart, and in order to do so, he creates a sea of butterflies that flutter around her: ‘the creatures came out of the foliage, down from the glassy dome, darting, floating, fluttering, tawny orange, dark and pale blue, brimstone yellow and clouded white, damask dark and peacock-eyed, and danced around her head and settled on her shoulders, and brushed her outstretched hands.’ She becomes enamoured and she becomes William’s. It’s just odd that this is where the fascination with Eugenia ends, and Williams sets his focus on his etymological work, and his erudite, Platonic relationship with his female research assistant.
I focus on this tale only because it has the bigger pay off (‘The Conjugal Angel’ feels a bit too heavily centred on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and, more so, Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam, AHH’, where it feels about a quarter of the novella is based). ‘Morpho Eugenia’ is interested in intertextuality – the blending of fictions composed by other writers as well as characters within the story itself, in addition to scientific texts and observations made by Darwin et al. Byatt is careful not to berate you terribly with obvious allusions and imagery; the epiphany / dénouement, which is somewhat wild, isn’t hitting you over the head too hard with the 2×4 of morality and symbolism. It’s a balanced tale, and an intriguing one if you can roll with the texts provided.


Kari said…

Sal, are you on an AS Byatt kick ever since you insulted her author photo? 😉

From both of your Byatt reviews, I get the impression that she is attempting to do a lot in her writing. It sounds like she has the ideas and creativity, but I have to wonder if she pulls it off.

Salvatore said…

I think that she definitely is trying to do a ton; it's just that she should realise that she doesn't have to do it all in one book. That's my opinion. It's almost as if she's trying to show off all her knowledge in one place.

But at times it's a good ride. This first story I think was defintiely something worth reading.