Culture & Conversation

A Lifetime Of Spinning Out Words

British novelist and essayist A.S. Byatt is used to distinctions. In 1999, she was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2003, she became a Chevalier of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Over a writing career spanning 45 years, she has won an impressive list of awards including the Booker, the Commonwealth Writers’ and the Aga Khan prizes for fiction. At 6 p.m. tonight, opening Montreal’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, she will take home another.

Winner of the 2009 Blue Met International Literary Grand Prize, she will be recognized for a lifetime of literary achievement. Past laureates include Canadian authors Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais and Michel Tremblay; American novelist Norman Mailer, and Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. Byatt is the first British writer to be chosen for the honour.

“Words have been all my life,” Byatt writes in her best-selling 1990 novel Possession: A Romance. She goes on to compare the writer to a spider, “who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out – the silk is her life, her home, her safety.”

Now in her seventies, Dame Byatt has certainly spun a vast oeuvre of words. Early works include her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun (1964), which recounts the struggles of a young girl growing up in the shadow of a powerful and domineering father, and The Game (1967), a fictional account of two sisters in their thirties, whose adult lives fail to measure up to the creative, Brontë-esque literary fantasy world they created together years before as children. For those not in the know, Byatt’s real-life sister is another distinguished British novelist, Dame Margaret Drabble.

Byatt continues the sibling theme in a quartet of novels (The Virgin in the Garden (1978); Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and, most recently, A Whistling Woman (2002)) that recounts the lives of the upper middle-class British Potter family, and specifically of two sisters, Frederica and Stephanie.

Considered by many an intellectual writer, Byatt’s interests range from biology (her novella Morpho Eugenia, which became the film Angels and Insects, examines the similarities between anthills and 19th century manor households) to history and philosophy (see her scholarly publications on philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch). In her fiction, however, she remains widely accessible, writing about issues and struggles that resonate with most people’s lives.

At the Blue Met opening ceremonies, not only will Byatt take home a prestigious prize, she will add a new title to her oeuvre. The Children’s Book, her new novel, will be launched, as will L’ombre du soleil, the French translation of her debut novel.

Despite its innocent-sounding title, The Children’s Book is a dark and complex work that takes an unsettling look at upper class British society just prior to World War I. At its centre is a famous children’s book author, who creates a private book for each of her seven children, bound in its own colour and placed for safekeeping on a shelf in their rambling country home. Years later, her adult son reclaims these books, uncovering long-hidden, disturbing truths about his family.

Montrealer Claire Holden Rothman’s latest fiction is The Heart Specialist, a novel inspired by one of Québec’s pioneer women doctors.

Fans of Byatt can see her at the Blue Metropolis Festival at two additional events – an onstage interview in French (5:30 p.m., Friday April 24th) and one in English (Saturday, April 25th at 2 p.m.). The Blue Metropolis Festival runs from April 22-26 at the Delta Hotel, 777 University, metro Place Victoria.

Photo montage: Byatt workspace and sketch.

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