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A. S. Byatt. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays.

A. S. Byatt. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Harvard Univ. Press, 2001. 196 pp. $22.95.

A. S. Byatt is at her best in this collection when explaining her own work, not least because she provides very concrete suggestions for interpretation. The two historical novellas that make up her Angels and Insects (1992) simply cry out for this kind of authorial direction, and Byatt is careful not to exhaust them, which makes her comments all the more useful. Billed as an analysis of the boom in British historical fiction, On Histories and Stories is nevertheless a considerable failure. Indulging in the prime student weakness, Byatt drowns her argument--or what there is of it--in quotation and paraphrase. As a result she often doesn't manage to go beyond the announcement of the essay's topic and a brief treatment of what she considers the most relevant passages from an altogether subjective set of historical narratives that are meant to illustrate her point. Indeed, the ensuing discussion of individual texts resembles a hasty tour through Byatt's personal gallery rather than a full-fledged treatment of the subject at hand. The eclecticism of "Old Tales, New Forms," a piece about the contemporary historical novel on the European continent, is downright embarrassing. To make things worse, the central thoughts of an individual essay frequently remain so underdeveloped that it becomes impossible to dispute them. This is the case, for instance, with the idea in the first essay that historical fiction partly compensates for the inescapable and perhaps frustrating insight that history must remain unknowable. The subsequent presentation of several war narratives could have benefited from this proposition, yet Byatt insists on looking the other way. So while some of her observations are stimulating, the reader interested in present-day historical fiction may do well to turn to more encompassing monographs on the subject, such as A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988) by Linda Hutcheon.
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Author:Herman, Luc
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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