Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Djinn In the Nightingale's Eye by A.S. Byatt-- Review

The Djinn in The Nightingale's Eye Five Fairy Stories by A.S. Byatt is actually five fairy stories and a novella. The book is six inches by eight inches and is about an inch thick. It easily fits in the hand. It is easy reading if you are on a subway or bus.

The first story in the collection is the Glass Coffin. It is about a little taylor who rescues a princess and her brother from an evil magician. I like the story because the hero is a master craftsman, not a prince. The ending is different than most fairly tales. It is a different kind of happily ever after.

The second story, Gode's Story again varies from other fairytales. This is not a tale I cared for much. The protagonist is rather cruel and unthinking. He is a sailor with merry feet who destroys womens lives. It is almost a relief when he comes to a bad end. There is a unique monster in this tale, a baby who dances a woman off a cliff. This seems to be an excellent metaphor for women who don't rear or like children well.

The Story of the Eldest Princess again changes the morals to a more modern sensibility. I especially like when the cockroach saves the first princess from certain doom by insisting she listen to the complete song of the woodsman instead of the first verse. Apparently the woodsman is a villain who drives women to their death.

Dragonsbreath is especially interesting. There is a metaphor for volcanoes as dragons who belch smoke and destroy the lives of villagers. It is the story of unhappy villagers who are driven to ever greater unhappiness by disaster.

The last story is not a story at all, but a full novellas. The story is told by a "narratist" woman. A woman who has her children gone, her husband run away, and now is free to wander the world happily providing lectures to universities. Two of the oddest passages in literature which I have ever read are in this story. The first is a lecture by Dr. Perholt, the protagonist, on the meaning of Chaucer's Winter Tale. The second is a lecture on the meaning of wishes in fairtytales. This makes it especially odd because she has just gained the services of a djinn from a blue Nightingale's Eye bottle.

There is something to be learned from the novella, The Djinn In The Nightingales Eye about wishing for things the right way in fairytales. It seems to reflect on ordinary wishes. It says we should wish for things that are both attainable and comfortable that we can appreciate in the real world. For example, Dr. Perholt wishes she was the age that she was most comfortable with her body and promptly turns 35. She is not young, but not old.

A.S. Byatt's stories are written with a very modern sensibility. They are often about creating myths which help women deal with false images of masculinity, sensuality, and the body if you read them carefully. The critics call her fairytales Victorian in nature. I find the style to not be Victorian at all. They are much too liberated and full of life. The images seem to draw out the free style of Art Deco or the 1920's than the Victorian age. They are not prudish.

A.S. Byatt uses glass in her fairytales. She describes snow globes, and glass weights. The way she describes these images, they are of glass you might see in a high end antique store frequented by an upper middle class professor, or nouveau rich person who liked Vogue magazine and elegant things from Tiffany's or Fortunoff. It is not a Victorian feeling at all.

This is a paperback version of the book.


Stella said...

Have you read Byatt's Possession?

Book Calendar said...

No, I haven't. It was a bestselling book if I understand correctly.

Stella said...

Yes, and I think it won the Booker prize as well. It's a very interesting book, though I can't exactly say I enjoyed reading it. I suppose it's because I didn't particularly identify with the protagonists. It's still worth reading, though, for the style and the plot.