Monday, September 12, 2011

Two Sisters

When I consider the two novelist-sisters A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble I am always frustrated because it ought to be possible to roll them into one single thoroughly satisfactory genius and simultaneously to discard (in this imaginary process of human blending) all their combined failings.

Byatt is the better writer, no doubt about it -- lucid, sharp, masterful -- but also cold, severe, and condescending. I reread Angels & Insects not long ago. The patterning was exquisite. The prose was both streamlined and gorgeous. "Absolutely beautiful," I thought. And yet, like other Byatts, it somehow left a slightly rancid and mechanical taste behind.

Then only today I finished one of Drabble's books from a few years ago, The Seven Sisters. Warmth, empathy, generosity -- a novel overflowing with humane qualities. At the beginning, taking in these pleasures, I wondered why there are still several of this sister's titles that I haven't read at all? Then I gradually remembered why. The slipshod plotting, the half-formed gestures toward trendy technique. In fact, the characters ultimately suffered from the author's very love for them. They began to look like pampered pets, inviting resentment.

The work of one sister is too clever and the work of the other is too kind. Isn't it obvious that they ought to be merged? But of course in reality Drabble and Byatt are famously at odds, never speak, and refuse even to read one another's publications.

* * *

Actually it occurs to me that the composite fiction-writing creature I am fantasizing about producing (using a cleaver and sutures, as in Frankenstein) already existed and abundantly flourished in the generation immediately preceding that of these two sisters. She was called Iris Murdoch.