Transcript: A.S. Byatt | Apr 25, 1989

In animation, a marble entrance with two columns floating on misty mountains opens up to reveal a small bookshelf. Book covers from the collection flash by, including Cat’s eye by Margaret Atwood and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
The title of the show appears as a book cover with a picture of the marble entrance: “Authors at Harbourfront.”

The screen turns as if it were a book page and a male narrator speaks as clips of different authors speaking at Harbourfront flash by.

The narrator says THE FESTIVAL OF AUTHORS
AT TORONTO'S HARBOURFRONT
IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S
FOREMOST LITERARY EVENTS.
NOW ENTERING
ITS TENTH YEAR,
THE FESTIVAL ANNUALLY
ATTRACTS 50 OF THE WORLD'S
BEST AUTHORS TO THE STAGE
TO READ FROM THEIR WORKS
AND PARTICIPATE
IN INTERVIEWS
AND DISCUSSIONS
WITH THEIR PEERS.

Guitar music plays. A. S. Byatt appears on screen. She’s in her fifties and has short wavy dark hair. She wears a dress in a geometric pattern in shades of blue, brown and violet. She sits on a chair on stage and speaks to a microphone.

As A. S. Byatt appears on screen, the narrator says A.S. BYATT WAS
BORN IN SHEFFIELD
IN THE BRITISH MIDLANDS.
SHE'S THE ELDER SISTER OF
NOVELIST MARGARET DRABBLE.
SHE EARNED THE SILVER
PEN AWARD FOR “STILL LIFE.”
PUBLISHED IN 1985.

The covers of three books by A. S. Byatt appear on screen. The first one shows people standing on a corridor seen in perspective. In the forefront, a woman in a blue gown and a woman in a yellow blouse and grey skirt reading appear standing. In the background, three men appear standing and looking in different directions. In white letters, the title reads “Still Life.” The second book cover shows a colourful drawing with a black background. In the forefront, a woman in a long green and red dress with her hand on her chest looks to the right and gazes into the distance. In the background, children kneel down among the plants and pick up flowers under a star-studded sky. In white letters, the title reads “The Game.” The third book shows a man in a blue uniform and coat with a young woman in a pink dress to the left and a girl in a white dress to the right. In white letters, the title reads “SUGAR and Other Stories.” Finally, the three book covers appear together under an image of the author and the text “A. S. BYATT. U.K.”

The narrator continues IN THIS PROGRAM,
ANTONIA BYATT DISCUSSES
THE POLITICS OF GREAT
BRITAIN AND ITS INFLUENCE
ON THE EDUCATIONAL
SYSTEM, AND READS
FROM HER
SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL,
“SUGAR AND OTHER STORIES.”

A. S. Byatt says I DO GREATLY ADMIRE
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE.
I VERY MUCH ADMIRE
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
I THINK IF THE
CONSERVATIVE PARTY IN
OUR COUNTRY REALLY LOOKED
AS THOUGH IT AT ANY POINT
MIGHT TO BRINGING BACK
THE DEATH PENALTY,
I WOULD BE PROUD IF I
MANAGED ANYTHING
THAT FRIGHTENED THEM SO
MUCH THAT IT STOPPED THEM.
AS TO OTHER THINGS THAT
I CARE DEEPLY ABOUT,
LIKE FEMINISM, I DON'T
THINK I WANT TO BRING ABOUT
ANY MORE REVOLUTIONS.
I JUST WANT TO MAKE
PEOPLE KEEP THINKING
AND KEEP THINKING AND
KEEP SHIFTING A LITTLE.

Violin music plays. The screen shows a stage in darkness with a spotlight where a man in a white jacket and black trousers stands behind a lectern. He introduces A. S. Byatt, greets her as she walks up the steps up the stage and leaves. A. S. Byatt approaches the lectern, drinks water from a glass lying on a small table by the lectern and addresses the audience.

The man in the white jacket says I ASK YOU TO WELCOME NOW
FROM THE U.K., A.S. BYATT.
[applause]

A. S. Byatt says I'M GOING TO READ THIS
EVENING FROM THE TITLE
STORY OF THE COLLECTION
OF STORIES CALLED
SUGAR.
THIS STORY IS VERY
TIGHTLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL,
BUT I REFER TO ITS
HEROINE AS THE NARRATOR
AND NOT AS MYSELF.
I SHALL READ THE BEGINNING
AND THEN I SHALL READ
THE END OF IT, AND
LEAVE OUT THE MIDDLE.
THIS MEANS THAT YOU NEED
TO KNOW WHEN YOU REACH
THE LAST SENTENCE, WHICH
IS A LIST OF OBJECTS,
WHAT THESE OBJECTS ARE, SO
I SHALL NOW PRE-WARN YOU
AND TELL YOU IN ADVANCE.
THEY ARE, THE TEAPOT;
THIS WAS THE TEAPOT
WHICH THE GRANDMOTHER
OF THE NARRATOR HAD TO GO
HOME 20 MILES TO POUR OUT
FOR THE GRANDFATHER
WHO WAS UNABLE TO POUR
HIS OWN TEA BEING
A PATRIARCH.
[laughter]
THE HORSE TROUGH IS A
STONE DRINKING-TROUGH
FOR HORSES IN WHICH THE
NARRATOR'S FATHER WAS LEFT
BY ACCIDENT BY TWO
OF HIS SISTERS
WHEN HE WAS A SMALL BABY.
REAL APPLES AND PLUMS ARE
WHAT THE NARRATOR'S
FATHER SAID THERE WERE
IN HIS CHILDHOOD,
AS OPPOSED TO THE KIND OF
COTTON WOOL WE GET NOW.
A WHITE ANKLE IS THE ANKLE
OF THE FATHER WHO IS DYING.
THE COAL SCUTTLE IS THE
CONTAINER FOR COAL INTO
WHICH THE NARRATOR WAS
TOLD HER FATHER FAINTED
WHEN HE WAS A
YOUNG MAN.
TWO DOLLS IN CELLOPHANE
ARE A PRESENT GIVEN
TO THE NARRATOR BY ONE
OF HER VERY MAD AUNTS.
THE GAS OVEN IS THE
INSTRUMENT OF THE SUICIDE
OF ANOTHER
EQUALLY MAD AUNT.
THE BLACK-AND-WHITE DOG IS
WHAT THE NARRATOR INHERITED.
IT WAS A TOY DOG SHE
INHERITED FROM THE CHILD
OF THE SUICIDE AUNT.
THE OTHER TWO
THINGS, I THINK,
ARE SELF-EXPLANATORY.
MY MOTHER HAD A
RESPECT FOR TRUTH,
BUT SHE WAS NOT
A TRUTHFUL WOMAN.
SHE ONCE SAID TO ME,
HER LIP TREMBLING,
HER EYES SHARP TO
DETECT MY OPINION,
“YOUR FATHER SAYS I
AM A TERRIBLE LIAR.
BUT I'M NOT A
LIAR, AM I?
I'M NOT.”
OF COURSE SHE WAS
NOT, I AGREED,
COLLUDING, AS WE
ALL ALWAYS DID,
FOR THE SAKE OF PEACE
AND FOR SOMETHING ELSE,
A HALF-DESIRE TO HELP
HER, FOR THINGS
TO BE AS SHE
SAID THEY WERE.
BUT SHE WAS.
SHE LIED IN SMALL MATTERS,
TO TIDY UP EMBARRASSMENTS,
AND IN LARGER MATTERS, TO
AVOID UNPALATABLE TRUTHS.
SHE LIED FLORIDLY
AND BEAUTIFULLY,
IN HER RARE MOMENTS
OF RELAXATION,
TO MAKE A STORY BETTER.
SHE WAS A BREATHLESS AND
BREATHTAKING RACONTEUR,
NOT OFTEN, AND SOMETIMES
OVERINSISTENTLY,
BUT AT HER BEST
REDUCING HER AUDIENCE
TO TEARS OF
HELPLESS LAUGHTER.
SHE ALSO TOLD OTHER
KINDS OF STORY,
ALL THE TIME LATTERLY,
ALL THE TIME WE IN
HER COMPANY, MONOTONOUS,
MALEVOLENT,
UNSTRUCTURED PLAINTS, FULL
OF INCREASINGLY FABRICATED
EVIDENCE OF NON-EXISTENT
WICKEDNESS.
BUT THAT IS
ANOTHER MATTER.
I DID NOT SET OUT
TO WRITE ABOUT THAT.

Violin music plays. The screen now shows A. S. Byatt as she sits on stage and speaks to a microphone. A caption appears on screen. It reads “A. S. BYATT.”

A. S. Byatt says WE HAD INTRODUCED IN
THE '60s COMPREHENSIVE
SCHOOLING, WHICH WAS
A MARVELLOUS THING.
IT GOT AWAY SOCIAL
DISCRIMINATION BETWEEN -
IT GOT AWAY EXAMINING
CHILDREN AT THE AGE OF 11.
BUT THERE CAME IN WITH
IT ALL KINDS OF VERY
PASSIONATELY HELD
IDEOLOGICAL THEORIES ABOUT
EGALITARIANISM, WHICH
CARRIED WITH THEM ALL SORTS
OF OTHER THEORIES,
SUCH AS THAT YOU SHOULDN'T
TEACH THE NARROW PAST
CULTURE OF BRITAIN.
YOU SHOULDN'T TEACH
DEAD LANGUAGES.
IF YOU HAD A CLASS THAT
COULDN'T LEARN THE GRAMMAR
OF A FOREIGN LANGUAGE,
THEN IT WAS BETTER JUST
TO TEACH THEM BY EAR WHAT
ALL OF THEM COULD PICK UP,
AND THIS IS A VERY
COMPLICATED MINEFIELD
AND IT'S VERY DIFFICULT
NOT TO FIND ONE'S SELF
STANDING IN THE
WRONG PLACE.
BUT WHEN I SEE, FOR
INSTANCE, A SPORTS TEACHER
ON OUR TELEVISION SAYING,
I HAVE A CLASS OF 25 CHILDREN
OF WHOM 5 ARE REALLY
GOOD AT GYMNASTICS,
SO NATURALLY I TEACH
THE OTHER 20, HE SAID.
I FEEL THIS IS
VERY HARD.
THIS IS IDEOLOGICAL.
OF COURSE HE SHOULD
TEACH ALL 25,
BUT HE WAS ACTUALLY
EXCLUDING THE 5
WHO WERE GOOD AT IT
AND CARED ABOUT IT.
I DO MIND.
I AM A CULTURAL
CONSERVATIVE.
I DON'T WANT MY CHILDREN
TO LEARN ONLY MODERN LITERATURE.
I WANT THEM TO LEARN
ABOUT THE PAST.
THERE ARE TEACHERS IN OUR
SYSTEM WHO BELIEVE THAT
CAUSING ANYBODY TO LEARN
POETRY BY HEART OR EVEN
ASKING THEM TO DO THAT
IS A FORM OF OPPRESSION.
THERE ARE TEACHERS WHO
BELIEVE IT'S A FORM
OF OPPRESSION TO ASK A CHILD
TO LEARN THE ALPHABET
BECAUSE YOU'RE
CONSTRAINING IT IN SOME WAY.
I FIND THIS
VERY OFFENSIVE.

A. S. Byatt appears standing behind the lectern on stage again.

She says I SET OUT TO WRITE
ABOUT MY GRANDFATHER,
ABOUT MY PATERNAL
GRANDFATHER,
WHOM I HARDLY KNEW, AND
ABOUT WHOM I KNOW VERY LITTLE.
WHEN MY FATHER WAS DYING,
I CAME INTO HIS HOSPITAL
ROOM ONCE, AND HE SAT UP
AGAINST HIS PILLOWS
AND LOOKED AT ME OUT
OF HIS FATHER'S FACE.
I HAD NEVER THOUGHT OF
THEM AS BEING ALIKE.
MY FATHER WAS
A HANDSOME MAN,
IN A VERY ENGLISH WAY,
BLUE-EYED, FAIR-SKINNED,
WITH FINE RED-GOLD HAIR
THAT VERY SLOWLY LOST
ITS FIRE AND TURNED
RUSTY AND THEN WHITE.
HE HAD QUITE A LOT OF IT
STILL LEFT WHEN HE DIED,
VERY LIVELY SILVERY
HAIR, FLOATING.
HE HAD A WIDE, STRAIGHT,
DECISIVE MOUTH.
NONE OF THESE
WORDS RECALL HIM.
HIS FATHER, MY
GRANDFATHER,
NEVER HAD ANY HAIR
THAT I CAN REMEMBER,
AND HAD HEAVY
CHEEKS AND A FULLER,
MORE PETULANT MOUTH.
IT OCCURRED TO ME
FOR THE FIRST TIME,
SEEING HIS FACE
IN MY FATHER'S,
TO WONDER IF HIS
HAIR HAD BEEN RED.
HE HAD HAD SIX CHILDREN,
OF WHOM MY FATHER
WAS THE YOUNGEST, ALL OF
WHOM HAD THE FIERY HAIR.
MY GRANDMOTHER,
I AM FAIRLY SURE,
WAS DARK BROWN.
I DID NOT TELL MY FATHER THAT
I HAD SEEN THIS SEMBLANCE,
PARTLY BECAUSE IT
VANISHED WHEN HE SPOKE,
PARTLY BECAUSE I THOUGHT
OF IT AS UNFLATTERING,
HAVING AS A SMALL CHILD
SEEN MY GRANDFATHER
AS SOMEONE OFF-PUTTING,
STOUT AND OLD.
MY FATHER NEVER CAME TO
SEEM OLD AS MY GRANDFATHER WAS,
THOUGH HE WAS
SEVENTY-SEVEN WHEN HE DIED.
AT THE TIME WHEN I SAW
MY GRANDFATHER IN HIM
HE MUST HAVE HAD ABOUT
THREE MONTHS LEFT TO LIVE.
HE WAS, BY ACCIDENT, IN
A HOSPITAL IN AMSTERDAM.
IT WAS A SPOTLESS AND
CIVILIZED HOSPITAL,
FULL OF SERIOUSLY GENTLE
DOCTORS AND NURSES
ALL OF WHOM SPOKE AN
ENGLISH MORE PERFECT
THAN MIGHT HAVE BEEN FOUND
IN ANY HOSPITAL AT HOME.
MY FATHER DISLIKED HIS
DEPENDENCE AND THEY MADE
IT DECOROUS FOR HIM.
WHILST HE WAS THERE, WHICH
WAS SEVERAL WEEKS, WE ALL,
MY SISTERS AND BROTHER
AND I, VISITED HIM.
THE VISITING
HOURS WERE LONG,
MOST OF THE AFTERNOON
AND EVENING,
AND FOR MOST OF THIS TIME
ON MOST OF THESE DAYS,
HE TALKED TO US.
ALL MY LIFE, I HAD
HELD IT AGAINST HIM
THAT HE NEVER
TALKED TO US.
HE WORKED WITH STEADY
CONCENTRATION,
LONG, LONG HOURS, AND WAS
OFTEN AWAY ON CIRCUIT.
HE WAS A JUDGE.
WHEN I SAY THAT OF HIM,
I DO NOT THINK OF HIM
AS SITTING IN JUDGMENT.
I THINK OF HIM AS A
MAN WITH AN UNWAVERING
INSTILLED RESPECT FOR
EVIDENCE, FOR TRUTH,
FOR JUSTICE.

Now the screen shows A. S. Byatt from behind. The faces of the people in the audience can be made out in the dark auditorium.

She continues WHEN HE DELIVERED
MORAL OPINIONS,
YOU COULD SEE THAT HE
WAS OF HIS GENERATION,
TIME AND PLACE, A GOOD
MAN, A YORKSHIREMAN,
AMBITIOUS TO BETTER
HIMSELF, AWARE,
LARGELY FROM OUTSIDE, OF
SOCIAL DISCRIMINATIONS
AND NICETIES OF CLASS, A
LATE-CONVINCED QUAKER,
A SOCIALIST TURNED
SOCIAL DEMOCRAT.
I RESPECTED HIS
MORAL OPINIONS,
I SHARE MOST OF
THEM; I AM HIS CHILD.
BUT MORE THAN THESE
OPINIONS I RESPECT IN HIM
HIS WISH TO BE EXACT, A
KIND OF ABSTRACT NEED
WHICH IS SOMEHOW THE
ESSENCE OF VIRTUE.

Violin music plays. A. S. Byatt appears on screen as she sits on a chair on stage and speaks to a microphone. Her image is briefly surrounded by a marble-like frame.

She says AS FAR AS WRITING GOES,
I HAVE LIVED RECENTLY
THROUGH A PERIOD WHERE
ALMOST ALL WRITERS
WITH ANY INFLUENCE, AND
CERTAINLY ALL CRITICAL
THINKERS WITH
ANY INFLUENCE,
ARE EXTREMELY
LEFT-WING.
THERE IS A VERY
POWERFUL LEFT-WING,
CULTURAL ORTHODOXY
IN MY OWN COUNTRY.
WE HAVE A RIGHT-WING
GOVERNMENT.
THE INTELLIGENT
PRESS IS LEFT-WING.
ANY WRITER WHO APPEARS ON
TELEVISION IS LEFT-WING -
IS VERY CRITICAL
OF CONSERVATISM,
AND FURTHERMORE, THE
EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
IS RUN BY PERSONS WHO GREW
UP WITH VERY STARRY-EYED,
LEFT-WING, IDEAS IN THE
1960s AND THE 1970s.
THIS MEANS THAT YOU
HAVE, AS IT WERE,
TWO ESTABLISHMENTS.
I WAS AT A ROUNDTABLE OF
RUSSIAN AND ENGLISH WRITERS
AT WHICH FAY WELDON
SAID TO THE RUSSIANS,
OF COURSE, THE
ESSENTIAL NATURE OF
ALL WRITERS IS TO
BE SUBVERSIVE.
I MEAN, I WOULD ASK
EVERYBODY ELSE,
IF YOU'RE GOING
TO SUBVERT,
WHICH ESTABLISHMENT
DO YOU SUBVERT?
I BEGAN ON THE LEFT.
I AM A PERSON NATURALLY
BORN INTO THE GOOD RIGHT
OF THE LEFT-WING.
SOLID, RESPONSIBLE, SOCIAL
DEMOCRAT, I GREW UP.
WHAT I QUESTION HARDEST
IS THOSE CLOSEST TO ME.
I GET MUCH MORE WORRIED BY
LEFT-WING AUTHORITARIANISM
IN WORLDS IN WHICH I MOVE
THAN I DO BY RIGHT-WING
GOVERNMENTS, WHICH SEEM
TO ME TO BE OBVIOUSLY
TO BE CRITICIZED
ON CERTAIN FRONTS.

Now A. S. Byatt appears standing behind the lectern on stage again.

She says YOU MIGHT SAY, LOVE IS
THE ESSENCE OF VIRTUE.
WE WERE VERY
INHIBITED PEOPLE.
EVEN MY MOTHER, WITH HER
INDISCIPLINED RUSH
OF SPEECH, FANTASY,
EMBARRASSING CANDOR,
ENDLESS BARBED OUTRAGE,
EVEN MY MOTHER WAS
ESSENTIALLY INHIBITED
IN THAT SENSE.
WE DIDN'T KNOW HOW
TO TALK ABOUT LOVE.
BUT TRUTHFULNESS, YES.
ALL THOSE WEEKS, HE
KEPT LOOKING AT WHAT
WAS HAPPENING, WITH HIS
RESPECT FOR EVIDENCE.
ONCE, TOWARDS THE END,
IT FALTERED A LITTLE.
HE ARGUED QUITE FIERCELY
ABOUT THE INEXACTNESS
OF THE TERMS BENIGN
AND MALIGNANT.
ALL GROWTHS ARE
MALIGNANT, HE SAID,
IF THEY ARE HURTING YOU,
IF THEY ARE ENGROSSING
THEMSELVES AT
YOUR EXPENSE.
I COULD SEE HE KNEW
WHAT HE WAS DOING,
PLAYING WITH WORDS; HIS
EYES WERE NOT TAKING
HIS SPEECH SERIOUSLY.
HIS FATHER DIED OF
CANCER OF THE PROSTATE,
OR SO MY MOTHER SAID.
DURING THIS CURIOUS
EXCURSUS ABOUT THESE
ADJECTIVES HE SAID,
AS THOUGH I KNEW,
WHICH I DIDN'T, THAT WHEN
HE HAD HAD “THAT GROWTH.”
REMOVED FROM HIS OWN
PROSTATE SOME YEARS AGO
IT HAD BEEN ENTERED ON
HIS RECORD AS “BENIGN.”
“WHAT DO THEY MEAN,
BENIGN?” HE SAID,
CUNNINGLY, DELIBERATELY
CONFUSING HIMSELF,
LOOKING AT ME TO SEE IF
I TOO COULD BE CONFUSED.
BY THE TIME OF
THIS CONVERSATION,
HE WAS BACK IN LONDON.
I THINK HE HAD BEEN TOLD
WHAT HIS EXPECTATIONS WERE.
THEY WERE THEN, IN FACT,
A BARE THREE WEEKS,
THOUGH I BELIEVED, AND
HE MAY HAVE BELIEVED,
THAT HE STILL HAD MANY
MONTHS, MAYBE A YEAR.
HE WAS PARTLY BEING
KIND TO ME, TOO,
CONFUSING US BOTH.

Violin music plays. A. S. Byatt appears on screen as she sits on a chair on stage and speaks to a microphone.

She says I'M VERY FRIGHTENED OF
PEOPLE WITH VIOLENTLY
STRONG BELIEFS.
I'M TEMPERAMENTALLY
FRIGHTENED OF THEM.
THEY END UP DOING THE
KIND OF THING JAMES
HAS JUST BEEN DESCRIBING;
SUPPORTING THE VIETCONG
BECAUSE THEY KNOW
THE LEFT IS RIGHT,
BECAUSE THEY KNOW THE
REVOLUTION MUST HAPPEN.
TEMPERAMENTALLY AS AN
ACCIDENT OF HISTORY,
I HAVE GROWN
UP A SCEPTIC.
I HAVE BELIEVED THAT THE
JOB OF ANY GOOD WRITER,
AND ANY GOOD ACADEMIC,
WHICH IS ANOTHER THING
I'VE BEEN, IS TO LOOK AT
EVERYTHING VERY CAREFULLY
AND SEE BOTH SIDES
OF IT AND SEE EVERY
POSSIBLE ASPECT OF IT.
AND I THINK ANYBODY WRITING
A NOVEL IS WRITING,
AS PENELOPE LIVELY SAID
ON THE EARLIER PANEL
ON THIS SUBJECT,
IN A SOCIAL SITUATION,
IN A POLITICAL
SITUATION, WHAT ONE
WRITES IS FORMED BY IT.
BUT HAVING SAID THAT, I
THINK IT IS ONE'S DUTY
TO HAVE A SKEPTICAL EYE ON
IT AND THAT, AS FRANK SAID,
IT'S POSSIBLE THAT ONE'S
PRIMARY DUTY IS NOT -
OR AT LEAST THERE MAY BE
WRITERS WHOSE PRIMARY
DUTY IS NOT TO MAKE
POLITICAL STATEMENTS.
IF YOU'RE ALAN PATON,
IF YOU'RE
CHRISTOPHER HOPE,
YOU HAVE A POLITICAL
SITUATION ABOUT WHICH
STATEMENTS MUST BE CLEARLY
MADE AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY MADE.

Now A. S. Byatt appears standing behind the lectern on stage again.

She says THE STORY THEN MOVES ON
BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS
THROUGH THE NARRATOR'S
ATTEMPT TO REMEMBER
HER FATHER'S FAMILY
AND HER GRANDFATHER,
WHICH SEEMED TO BE
VANISHING WITH HER FATHER
BECAUSE SHE
NEVER KNEW THEM.
THE NARRATOR IS A NOVELIST
WHO WAS WRITING A NOVEL
ABOUT VAN GOGH AND GOES TO
SEE THE VAN GOGH PAINTINGS
IN AMSTERDAM IN THE
MORNINGS WITH A GUILTY FEELING
THAT SHE'S GAINING FROM
THESE TRAGIC EVENTS.
I SHALL NOW READ STRAIGHT
THROUGH TO THE END OF THE STORY.
THE VAN GOGHS
WERE DIFFERENT.
I COULD NOT LIKE, I COULD
NOT RESPOND TO THE VERY LAST
PAINTINGS, THE
TORTURED AND INCOMPETENT
CORNFIELD, WITH THE BLACK
DESPAIRING BIRDS
CROWDING OVER THE PATHS
WHICH LEAD NOWHERE.
BUT THE GREAT PAINTINGS OF
ALES AND ST. REMY SHONE.
THE PURPLE IRISES
ON GOLD.
THE PERTURBED BEDROOM.
THE SOLITARY CHAIR.
THE REAPER, MAKING HIS
DEATHLY WAY THROUGH
WHITE LIGHT IN FIELDS
OF SHINING CORN.
I KNEW WHAT VINCENT HAD
SAID ABOUT THIS PAINTING
AS THE IMAGE OF
A CHEERFUL DEATH,
A SECULAR HUMAN IMAGE,
OF A MAN MOVING
INTO THE FURNACE
OF LIGHT.
I STOPPED
THOUGHTS OFF.
I THOUGHT OF VINCENT IN FRONT
OF VINCENT'S PAINTINGS.
I BROUGHT POSTCARDS TO
MY FATHER FOR HIM SEE,
CONTAINED, FADED
DIMINUTIONS OF ALL THIS GLORY,
AND HE PAINFULLY ADDRESSED
THEM TO MY MOTHER,
HER SISTER, HIS
OLDEST FRIEND,
IN TREMBLING WRITING,
SAYING THAT HE WAS ALL RIGHT.
WE HAVE ALL INHERITED
HIS HANDWRITING,
WHICH WAS CRAMPED
AND NONDESCRIPT.
MY MOTHER'S WAS GENEROUS AND
FLOWING AND DISTINGUISHED.
WE WERE ALL TRAINED
DIFFERENTLY,
YET WE ALL WRITE
HIS SMALL SCRAWL.
HOW DOES THAT
COME ABOUT?
WE TALKED ABOUT HEREDITY
DURING THOSE LONG VISITS.
HE SAID MY MOTHER HAD COME
INCREASINGLY TO RESEMBLE
HER MOTHER, AND THAT THERE
WAS A LESSON IN THAT.
WE ALSO TALKED ABOUT MY
MOTHER'S UNTRUTHFULNESS.
MY FATHER FELT THAT IT WAS
A FAILURE IN PERFECT GOOD
MANNERS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT
HER NARRATIVE ONSLAUGHTS
ON HIS OWN VERACITY.
THIS WAS COMPLICATED BY A
POWERFUL FEAR THEY BOTH HAD
OF FAILING MEMORY, SINCE
ACCURACY MEANT SO MUCH
TO BOTH OF THEM,
AFTER ALL.
HE SAID, NOT FOR THE
FIRST TIME, ANXIOUS
ABOUT THE FACT THAT IT WAS
NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME,
THAT WE HAVE BEEN
OVER THIS GROUND,
THAT SHE HAD CLAIMED TO BE
AT HIS FATHER'S DEATHBED,
WHERE SHE HAD NOT BEEN.
“I SHOULD KNOW,” HE SAID.
“HE WAS MY FATHER.
I WAS CERTAINLY THERE.
HOW CAN I BE WRONG?”
IT WAS THEN THAT I SAW
THAT MUCH OF MY PAST
MIGHT BE HER CONFECTION.
“HAVE YOU EVER
THOUGHT,” I SAID,
“HOW MUCH OF WHAT WE
THINK WE KNOW IS
MADE UP OF HER STORIES?
ONE CHALLENGES THE LARGE
ERRORS, LIKE THAT ONE,
BUT THERE ARE ALL THE
OTHER LITTLE TRIVIAL MYTHS
THAT TURN INTO MEMORIES.”
HE WAS STRUCK BY THIS
AND PRODUCED AN EXAMPLE
OF HOW SOME FLOWERS
HAD DIED AND MY MOTHER
HAD SUPPOSED THAT
PERHAPS THE CLEANING LADY
MIGHT HAVE WATERED
THEM TOO LITTLE OR
PERHAPS TOO MUCH,
PROBABLY TOO MUCH,
AND THAT THAT WAS
WHY THEY HAD DIED,
BECAUSE Mrs. HANES HAD
OVER-WATERED THEM,
AND SO HYPOTHESIS BECAME
THE STUFF OF FACT.

Violin music plays. A. S. Byatt appears on screen as she sits on a chair on stage and speaks to a microphone.

She says IT IS A CURIOUS THING TO
ME THAT VERY INNOVATIVE
FORMS WHICH TRY AND SHED
ALL REFERENCE TO THE PAST
THINK OF THEMSELVES AS
ALLIED WITH REVOLUTIONARY
POLITICAL MOVEMENTS WHICH
ARE FREEING WORKING PEOPLE
FROM OPPRESSION, BECAUSE
ACTUALLY CULTURE ALWAYS
GETS IN BY THE BACK DOOR.
IF YOU'RE KNOCKING DOWN
THE BUILT-UP FORM
OF THE EUROPEAN EPIC
OR THE REALIST NOVEL,
YOU NEED TO
KNOW WHAT IT IS,
AND YOU CAN KNOCK IT DOWN
FOR ONE GENERATION
IN THE EYES OF AN AUDIENCE
THAT KNOWS WHAT IT IS,
AND THAT'S ABOUT IT.
SO REALLY, YOU ARE PLAYING
IN A PRIVILEGED SPACE
WITH WHAT YOU BELIEVE TO BE
A REVOLUTIONARY FORM.
YOU CAN ONLY BE
REVOLUTIONARY AS LONG
AS YOUR AUDIENCE
ACTUALLY KNOWS WHAT
YOU'RE REBELLING AGAINST.
THE MOMENT YOU TAKE FROM
THEM IN THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
THE KNOWLEDGE
OF WHAT MILTON IS,
YOU CAN'T START
SUBVERTING HIM.
IT MAKES NO SENSE.

A. S. Byatt appears standing behind the lectern on stage again. Next, the screen shows her from behind.

She says EARLIER THAT YEAR WHEN IT
HAD BEEN SHE WHO WAS ILL,
WE HAD HAD A SIMILAR
CONVERSATION,
AND I HAD SAID,
JOKING AND SERIOUS,
IT'S ALL RIGHT
FOR YOU.
YOU DIDN'T INHERIT
THOSE GENES.
BOTH OF US UNDER STRESS
FOUND THIS VERY FUNNY.
WE LAUGHED IN
COMPLICITY.
LATER HE TOLD HIS
HOUSEKEEPER OVER COFFEE,
THAT I WAS THE
IMAGE OF HIS MOTHER,
THAT I RESEMBLED THAT
FAMILY STRIKINGLY.
BUT I DON'T THINK
THIS IS TRUE,
AND THE PHOTOGRAPHS I HAVE
SEEN DON'T BEAR IT OUT.
NOW, IN MOMENTS
OF FATIGUE,
I FEEL MY MOTHER'S FACE
SETTING LIKE A MASK
IN OR ON MY OWN.
I HAVE INHERITED
MUCH FROM HER.
I DO MAKE A PROFESSION
OUT OF FICTION.
I SELECT AND CONFECT.
WHAT IS ALL THIS?
ALL THIS STORY SO FAR BUT
A CAREFUL SELECTION
OF THINGS THAT CAN BE
TOLD, THINGS THAT
CAN BE ARRANGED IN
THE LIGHT OF DAY.
ALONGSIDE THIS
FABRICATION ARE THE LONG
BLACK SHADOWS OF THE
THINGS LEFT UNSAID
BECAUSE I DON'T WHAT TO
SAY THEM OR DARE NOT,
OR DO NOT REMEMBER,
OR MISUNDERSTOOD
OR FORGOT OR
NEVER KNEW.
I LEFT OUT, FOR
INSTANCE, THE TEAR GAS.
I WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT
AMSTERDAM AS CLEAN AND
REASONABLE AND ENDURING,
AND SO IT WAS.
BUT TWO OF US CAME OUT OF
THE AIRY SPACE OF THE
VAN GOGH MUSEUM INTO A
CLOUD OF DRIFTING GAS
WHICH BURNT OUR THROATS
AND SCOURED OUR LUNGS.
THERE WERE BLACK-ARMOURED
POLICE AND STONE-THROWING
EVICTED SQUATTERS.
BEHIND OUR HOSPITAL-HEADED
TRAM WAS A SMOKING
COLUMN OF BURNING CARS.
FOR SEVERAL NIGHTS WE
COULDN'T RETURN
TO THE HOTEL DIRECTLY.
IT WAS CORDONED BY POLICE
AND THE PAVING STONES
WERE TORN UP.
MY FATHER COULD NOT
BEGIN TO BE INTERESTED
IN THESE MANIFESTATIONS.
HE WAS FIGHTING HIS
OWN PRIVATE BATTLE.
TO OMIT THEM IS A MINOR
SIN AND EASY TO CORRECT,
BUT WHAT OF
ALL THE OTHERS?
WHAT IS THE TRUTH?
I DO HAVE A
RESPECT FOR TRUTH.

Violin music plays. A. S. Byatt appears on screen as she sits on a chair on stage and speaks to a microphone.

She says Mrs. THATCHER IS
CERTAINLY RE-STRUCTURING
THE INTELLIGENTSIA
ECONOMICALLY IN THE SENSE
THAT SHE'S STARVING THE
UNIVERSITIES OF MONEY,
AND SHE'S ATTEMPTING TO
FORCE UPON THEM A MARKET
AND BUSINESS MENTALITY
WHICH IS CERTAINLY
CAUSING CERTAIN
SUBJECTS AND CERTAIN
KIND OF ENTREPRENEURIAL
QUALITIES IN ACADEMICS,
WHICH THEY ARE NOT
USUALLY NOTED FOR,
TO COME TO THE FORE.
WHETHER SHE CAN IN
HERSELF - AND I REALLY
DON'T THINK SHE
IS ALONE IN THIS.
I THINK - I MEAN SHE DOES HAVE - -
THERE
ARE OTHER PEOPLE
ON THE RIGHT WHO ARE ALSO
THINKING QUITE HOW -
WHETHER SHE CAN IN
HERSELF DO ANYTHING
TO THE INTELLIGENTSIA,
I DON'T KNOW.
SHE JUST SEEMS TO MAKE
THEM ANGRIER AND ANGRIER
AND MORE AND MORE SIMPLE
IN THEIR STATEMENTS
OF LOATHING.
WHAT REALLY GETS ME ABOUT
MOST PEOPLE IN ENGLAND,
I'VE STARTED ASKING
EVERYBODY, IF I MEET THEM,
I SAY, WHAT DO YOU
THINK OF Mrs. THATCHER?
AND YOU DON'T GET
AN ANSWER SAYING,
SHE IS STARVING THE
UNIVERSITIES OF MONEY.
YOU DON'T GET AN ANSWER
SAYING, WHAT SALMAN SAID,
SHE IS ATTEMPTING TO STIFLE
FREE SPEECH IN THE PRESS.
YOU GET AN ANSWER
SAYING, OH,
I DO SO DISLIKE
HER MANNER.
[laughter]

Now A. S. Byatt appears standing behind the lectern on stage again.

She says THE DAY OF HIS FUNERAL
WAS BITTERLY COLD.
IT WAS JUST
BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
IT WAS A QUAKER CREMATION,
ATTENDED MOSTLY
BY NON-QUAKERS, WHO DID NOT
BREAK THE TENSE SILENCE.
I FELT NOTHING.
I FELT FEAR
OF FEELING.
I FELT THE
RUSH OF TIME.
OUTSIDE MY MOTHER
WAS PINCHED
AND TINY AND STUMBLING.
I SAID, I
REMEMBER THE DAY
HE CAME BACK
FROM THE WAR.
“YES,” SHE SAID, VERY
SMALL AND VAGUE.
HE CAME BACK AT MIDNIGHT,
OR SO MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID.
HE HAD SENT A TELEGRAM
WHICH NEVER ARRIVED,
SO SHE HAD NO IDEA.
SHE WENT FURIOUSLY TO
THE DOOR AND BURST OUT
“IT'S TOO BAD,” THINKING
HE WAS THE AIR-RAID WARDEN
COMPLAINING ABOUT
CHINKS IN THE BLACKOUT.
WHAT DID THEY SAY
TO EACH OTHER?
I REMEMBER BEING WOKEN
HOW MUCH LATER?
I REMEMBER THE LIGHT
BEING PUT ON, A RAW, DIM,
CEILING LIGHT, NOT
REACHING THE GLOOMY CORNERS.
I REMEMBER THE FIGURE IN
THE DOORWAY, THE UNIFORM,
THE RED HAIR, A SMILE AS
SURPRISED AND HUGE
AND HALF-AFRAID AS I
IMAGINE MY OWN WAS.
I REMEMBER HIM HOLDING
HIS OFFICER'S HAT.
WHY HADN'T HE
PUT IT DOWN?
OR AM I WRONG?
I REMEMBER EVEN
AN OVERCOAT,
BUT I CONFUSE THE
MEMORY OF HIS RETURN
HOPELESSLY WITH
HIS PARTING.
THE HAIR WAS LESS
RED, MORE GOLD
THAN I'D REMEMBERED.
HE HAD A HAIRY
RUDDY-GINGER HARRIS TWEED
JACKET WHICH MY MOTHER
HAD ALWAYS SAID EXACTLY
MATCHED HIS HAIR, AND
WHICH I STILL THINK OF
AS “MATCHING” IT, THOUGH
I SAW DIFFERENTLY
AND REMEMBER BETTER.
AND HOW TO BE SURE WITH
ALL THE YEARS OF FADING
BETWEEN THEN AND
THAT LAST COLD DAY?
I SAT UP, SCRAMBLED TO
MY FEET AND LEAPED
AN ENORMOUS LEAP, OVER
MY BED, OVER THE GAP,
OVER THE BED WITH MY
SMALL SLEEPING SISTER.
I DON'T REMEMBER THE
TRAJECTORY OF THIS LEAP.
I REMEMBER ITS BEGINNING
BUT NOT ITS END,
NOT MY SAFE ARRIVAL.
I DO REMEMBER - THIS
IS SURELY MEMORY,
AND NO ACCRETION - A
TERROR OF HAPPINESS.
I WAS AFRAID TO FEEL.
THIS EVENT WAS
A STORIED EVENT,
ALREADY LIVED
OVER AND OVER,
IN IMAGINATION AND HOPE,
IN THE INVENTED FUTURE.
THE REAL THING,
THE TRUE MOMENT,
IS AS INACCESSIBLE
AS ANY POINT
ALONG THAT
FRANTIC LEAP.
MORE THINGS COME
BACK AS I WRITE,
THE GOLD-WINGED
BUTTONS ON HIS JACKET,
FORGOTTEN BETWEEN
THEN AND NOW.
NONE OF THESE WORDS,
NONE OF THESE THINGS,
RECALL HIM.
THE GOLD-WINGED,
FIRE-HAIRED FIGURE
IN THE DOORWAY IS AND WAS MYTH,
THOUGH HE DID COME BACK,
HE WAS THERE,
AT THAT TIME,
AND I DID MAKE
THAT LEAP.
AFTER THINGS
HAVE HAPPENED,
WHEN WE HAVE TAKEN A
BREATH AND A LOOK,
WE BEGIN TO KNOW WHAT
THEY ARE AND WERE.
WE BEGIN TO TELL
THEM TO OURSELVES.
FAST, FAST THESE THINGS
TOOK AND TAKE THEIR PLACE
BESIDE OTHER MARKERS; THE
TEAPOT, THE HORSE TROUGH,
REAL APPLES AND
PLUMS, A WHITE ANKLE,
THE COAL SCUTTLE, TWO
DOLLS IN CELLOPHANE,
A GAS OVEN, A
BLACK-AND-WHITE DOG,
GOLD-WINGED BUTTONS, THE
MELDED AND TWISTING HANKS
OF BROWN-AND-WHITE SUGAR.
THANK YOU.
[applause]

Violin music plays as the credits roll against the backdrop of the marble entrance with two columns floating on misty mountains and the title “AUTHORS AT HARBOURFRONT” in big white letters.

Produced and directed by TRACEY FISHER.

Audio, DOUG KAYE.

Music composed by KIRK ELLIOTT.

Narrator, FRED LANGAN.

Computer animation, LINDA PROSH.

Edited by MICHEL LEBRUN.

Special thanks, GREG GATENBY AND THE FESTIVAL STAFF AT HARBOURFRONT, THE PREMIER DANCE THEATRE STAFF AT QUEENS QUAY TERMINAL, DAVID MIRVISH BOOKS – BOOKS ON ART, TVO ONTARIO, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, MICHAEL BROWNE, ELIZABETH LOWRY.

Executive producer, MICHAEL VAUGHAN.

Produced by TV ONTARIO BY TIER ONE COMMUNICATIONS INC.

The logo of TVOntario appears on screen.

Copyright, The Ontario Educational Communications Authority, 1988.

Watch: A.S. Byatt