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On Histories And Stories


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Vivid, profound and full of original insights, On Histories and Stories redraws the map of the boundaries of fiction today

About the Author

Educated at York and Newnham College, Cambridge, she taught at the Central School of Art and Design, and was Senior Lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999.


In these seven essays, the British novelist Byatt examines many themes: the historical novel as created by 20th-century English writers, the relations between scholarship and the creation of fiction, the modern European novel and its debt to mythology, and how fairy tales have influenced her and other modern authors. The three chapters on serious historical literature are from the 1999 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature that she gave at Emory University, while the section on the European novel is an expanded version of Byatt's Finzi-Contini lecture given at Yale in 1999. For Byatt fans, the best essay is "True Stories and the Facts in Fiction," which outlines how scholarly serendipity inspired her novellas Angels and Insects. Plot summaries and extensive quotations from the selected texts will give readers an appetite to read the many novels discussed in these pieces, though the general reader may feel overwhelmed by the virtuosity of Byatt's complex insights and multiple interests. Recommended for larger academic library collections. Morris Hounion, New York City Technical Coll. Lib., Brooklyn Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

"Going from reference to reference in these glittering pages provides you with an essential reading-list for life" * The Times *
"Invigorating criticism" * Independent on Sunday *
"Biographers, as well as novelists, will find much to celebrate in a collection of essays that is so lavish with quotations from philosophers, essayists and historians... An elegant and thoughtful collection" * Literary Review *
"Reminds us definitively that she is not only one of our best living novelists, but one of our most astute readers, too. We are lucky to have her" * New Statesman *
"A rare and perhaps unique figure; a critic whose insights are full of a sympathetic, creative and re-creative imagination...The mind that produced splendid, strange fictions is also a first-rate critical intelligence... A writer of remarkable, broad sympathies" * Observer *

Expanding on lectures originally given at Yale and Emory universities, as well as on essays written for an anthology and the New York Times Magazine, British novelist Byatt weaves this disparate material together into a coherent artistic credo. Unlike her sister, Margaret Drabble, a fervent defender of classic social realism, Byatt is more of a postmodernist, fond of narrative games like those employed in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow or Graham Swift's Waterland. The two opening chapters make a reasonably persuasive defense of historical fiction, such as Byatt's own Possession, but the book really gets going with "Ancestors," a fascinating examination of the ways in which the natural sciences, particularly Darwinian ideas about evolution and time, have affected both the techniques and themes of writers as different as John Fowles and Penelope Fitzgerald. The bravura closing sections claim myths and fairy tales as the principal inspiration for modern fabulists like Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso who are seeking, as is Byatt herself, "quickness and lightness of narrative." "The Greatest Story Ever Told" is not, to Byatt, the Bible, but the Thousand and One Nights, preeminent among those "shape-shifting" story collections that remind us "narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood." Throughout this cogently argued book, Byatt maintains a pleasingly direct tone, using the first person to state her reactions to particular books but always sticking to the point and seldom falling into self-aggrandizement. (However, the examples from her own work, though relevant, could have been elucidated more briefly.) Even readers who don't share her fondness for elaborately embroidered narratives will be struck by Byatt's well-argued contention that "European storytelling derives great energy from artifice, constraints and patterning." (Mar.) Forecast: Byatt the novelist reaches a broad audience, but this title features Byatt the literary critic, and is directed at serious students of literature. It won't enjoy the numbers that the novels garner. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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