Byatt, A. S. The Shadow of the Sun.

NY: Harcourt, 1964.

Sometimes, a young writer’s first novel is a blockbuster, a runaway bestseller. (This seems more likely to be the case when its style is heavily cinematic.) And this is unfortunate, in a way, because any subsequent work then has a sort of doom hanging over it for its author: Will the next one be as good as my first book? More often, though, for a “literary” author, the first book is likely to be a bit tentative, just a toe in the water. Then the work improves and draws more attention as the corpus grows. Practice makes perfect.

This is largely what happened with Byatt, whose work grew more complex and multifaceted until, finally, Possession won the Booker Prize. The Shadow of the Sun was her first novel, conceived while she was at Cambridge in the mid-1950s and finally published nearly a decade later. And, in the sense described above, it’s almost the perfect “first novel.”

Ann Severell is an untidy, unwashed, unbrushed seventeen, sulky and angst-ridden, whose father, Henry, is a famous novelist and generally considered a genius. She has never been able to escape the shadow he casts over everyone else, but especially (she believes) over her. People are always asking her questions about her father and his work, not about herself. Anna is not unintelligent but is, naturally, an indifferent student, having been dismissed from her school after running away to York for several days, and having been unhappily and forlornly in love. Her younger brother, Jeremy, is just the opposite — thoroughly social, determined to be liked, mannerly, polite, and always presentable. Which, of course, drives Anna crazy.

Oliver Canning, a critic and devoted admirer of Henry Severell’s work, is priggish and moralistic, nearly always sure of himself and of his opinions and observations — perhaps because he has bootstrapped himself up from a poor, working-class background. He’s prone to telling others how they ought to live their own lives (for their own good), and this is how he approaches Anna’s confusion about her life. Oliver can be a pain but he’s an excellent teacher of adolescents and has a way of shaking Anna out of her moodiness. Margaret, Oliver’s wife, is fragile in many ways. She loves her husband even though he treats her, . . . well, not badly, but indifferently. She sees Henry as her rescue, to Henry’s dismay and his wife’s annoyance.

Anna’s mother, Caroline, spends most of her time trying anxiously to protect Henry’s solitude, his creativity. She has no idea what to do with her daughter, but maybe Oliver, who, with Margaret, has come for a visit to the Severell place in the country, can manage something. Maybe he can get her into Cambridge and out of Caroline’s hair. Unfortunately for Anna, there’s no reason, really, that she has to get out of the family. Their financial situation is such that she could just stay there in her little refuge of a hut in the garden and rot; her father certainly seems in no hurry to push her out and into a life of her own. So anything Anna does in the future will have to be because she really wants to do it.

Working through all these interlinked portraits and cross-purposed motivations takes the first half of the book. Then Anna finds herself at Cambridge, though she’s rather listless about it. She goes to parties and gets mildly drunk and does just enough academic work to keep her tutors at bay. And after a year or two, she runs into Oliver again. And then things begin to get complicated. Some of what happens to them is clichéd — you’ll see it coming a mile away — but Oliver’s method of “helping” Anna to figure out what she wants to do with her life (no, she still hasn’t decided) by being cold and brutal in between fits of passion and intelligent conversation are certainly original.

None of the characters, even though they’re very nicely drawn, is especially likeable. Except possibly Caroline, who just tries and tries. And I can’t say I was happy with the ending; I didn’t approve of Anna’s choices, even though they are obviously not the end of her story. But even in this first outing, Byatt’s use of the language can be quite extraordinary. She describes Henry’s fits of intellectual activity, in which he is likely to leap up from the dinner table, leave the house, and go striding for hours in a straight line across the countryside, as “attacks of vision.” In fact, her extended description of his progress is hypnotic. And she immediately follows this chapter with the reactions of his family and friends to his absence; Caroline thinks of these disappearances as “business trips,” from which Henry will return with material for another novel. Beautiful stuff. If I had read this novel when it first appeared, I would have made a mental note to watch for Byatt’s next book.

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Published in: on 10 May 2011 at 5:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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