"Byatt's message is that art, curiosity and stories save us." Do you agree?
Yes, I would agree strongly that that is at least one of her messages, possibly the overriding one in this work; also, I would also agree with the philosophical premise that they do, in fact, give the existences of ourselves and others meaning. Since the question is unclear, and the two facets of it arguably linked, I shall be pursuing both threads in my essay.
There is ample evidence in this volume that aesthetic expression and desire play an important role in the makeup of characters' lives. Think of Patricia Nimmo in Crocodile Tears, and her distraction of shopping; "a classical column of falling white silk jersey pleats ... a pretty pair of golden slippers, and a honeycomb cotton robe, in aquamarine. These things gave her pleasure." (p18) Equally, the long, descriptive passages Byatt is given to using are a decadent revelling in capturing the essence of a thing; they are works of art in their own right.
"Here were beauty and danger flat on a wall ... She stared ... How do you decide when to stop looking at something? It is not like a book, page after page, page after page, end. How do you decide?" (p52) It seems clear that when Byatt writes a phrase such as 'It is not like a book, page after page, page after page, end', she is seeking to make an exception of her own work. Byatt's writing invites continual re-inspection, it can be viewed on many levels of meaning, and some of the images which she describes hold the same qualities as a particularly striking painting. When she writes of 'beauty and danger flat', therefore, she is also discussing the metaphor of life and its potential to be captured within a work of art. For Bernard, interpretive art is what gives existence meaning. The scintillating butterfly at the end of A Lamia in the Cévennes shows his great curiosity and enthusiasm for life's detail, and it is written "He was happy, in one of the ways human beings have found in which to be happy." This phrase is used twice in the narrative, on pages 98 and 111 and its repetition emphasises the importance of Bernard's discovery of a personal meaning. His fixation on capturing the vibrant reality of life on canvas is obsessional: "Why bother. Why does this matter so much ... Why bother to render the transparency in solid paint or air on a bit of board? I could just stop. He could not." (p87) His abstraction has become an alternate reality in itself.
Patricia Nimmo and Nils Isaksen are both detached from reality; the only pleasure each derives in existence in played out within a self-contained fantasy, a world of fiction. Ultimately it is their entwined destinies, their continuing interest in each other's ongoing life stories, which gives them the will to carry on living. This is further emphasised later in a different story in the volume: "And if Fiammarosa was sometime lonely in her glass palace, and sometimes wished ... this was not unusual, for no one has everything they can desire" (p181) The subtext here is that it would be extremely unwise for anyone to ever reach that position; curiosity is an important part of a healthy appetite for life. The subtitle of Elementals, "stories of fire and ice" is a particularly apposite extended metaphor: many of the volume's characters are frozen in some aspect of their lives; and are thawed and made human again by art, story and fantasy—Fiammarosa is literally an ice-woman, Patricia Nimmo metaphorically so, and Bernard is almost wholly detached, stimulated by art and art alone. Art is of a singular importance, and artistic feeling is elevated to the status of being a characteristic of empirical leadership. Of Prince Sasan, in Cold, Byatt says "the line of artists runs true in the line of kings." (p163)
Byatt seems to venerate established culture, and in her character Jess there is a real fear that her generation "shall be judged without being imagined" (p207), that those who come after will not understand, will not choose to understand, how "All the excitement of life was in books" (lb) They will be judged, as Byatt may be judged, by a generation of people like Lara, who live "in a world of interactive computer-generated gladiators ... kamikaze scantily clad dolls ... and laser-duellists my reactions aren't quick enough for" (p213). Jess is a character who represents an optimum fusing of the old with the new; able to flex her memory without becoming chained slavishly to it. She remains creative: "What a delicious metaphor, sheets of red juice, explosions of extreme sensuality, sheets of red blood. Attached to nothing, it's just the way my mind works." (p205) One can believe that this spontaneity is true of Byatt as much as her character; and this combination of the spontaneous and the control of archetype forms is an explosive mixture; each "detached image" (p206) or short story a carefully considered part of a structured whole: she reworks material always to a purpose. Alone, a slightly preachy short prose such as Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, making the culminatory point that it is "those who are interested in the world" who have grasped the fundamental truth, might lack impact; as the final piece in a tapestry of marred lives, it offers so much more than this. It has the history and support of other stories.
Byatt seems to see it as her role to identify the archetypes she uses in her writing, to acknowledge a debt to those authors who have gone before; to highlight tales which might otherwise have been marginalised or forgotten—possibly, also, more accessible. This is evident in that two of the stories in Elementals make explicit their biblical references, making an effort to provide the reader with enough information that they need not know the original tale of Jael or the parable of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary to draw the parallels with Byatt's own, related, stories. There is clear suggestion in what she is crafting that the stories thus captured operate with no regard for historical placing; they are timeless, and simultaneously neatly self-encapsulated and derivative to the point where knowledge of how they were derived becomes an added level of pleasure in their reading. This is overwhelmingly so in A Lamia in the Cévennes, in this case truly to the extent that having no knowledge of the original Keats mythos is detrimental to one's understanding of the plot; Raymond is in danger of his mortal soul, but this is not made especially clear, nor is it developed into an importantly-featured part of the plot.
Another possible reason for Byatt's fictions being primarily derivative is perhaps to challenge what she describes in Jael as the concept of "dead cultural baggage" (p205), namely that a classical education is, in today's world of Raymonds, very much a thing which 'creative minds' such as Lara would choose to ignore as redundant and without value. Byatt would have us recognise that this is an incorrect and shallow assessment—an archetypical tale may be retold perfectly successfully and remain true to its origins without becoming a carbon copy of the original or supplanting it.
Throughout all of her moralising (a word which I use divorced from its modern negative associations) Byatt writes extremely expressively, bridging the gap between flat text on a page and vivid mental imagery; her short stories are compelling in a way that makes the reader curious, engaging our interest in what is to come. This is the essence of the storyteller's art. Even were it not to be her message, one could not come away from this collection of Byatt's work without the feeling that here, within these words, stories and constructs of art that there was an internal logic which offered a positive alternative to the negativity which seems to be a feature of this dispossessed age; a sense of purpose and innate meaning that channels and releases us, "as though the [emotion] was still and eternal in the painting and the [soul] was released into time." (p230) And be touched by it.
Elementals, A.S. Byatt, Vintage: Random House, 1999.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the set text.