A.S. Byatt’s singular surreal imagination is as enthralling as ever in this hefty collection of stories from 1973, 1974, and 1996. Throughout these three decades, she retold improbable tales from her own life, alluding to Greek mythology and employing self-referential conceits to illustrate her tale-telling style. Early on, she included only two characters in her collection. In 1973’s “Manuscript with Original Pencil Drawings,” one is a blind figure, a character based on an art gallery curator by the name of Transel Basso, who appears to embody the temperament of the decade and its politics. “Hanged Scot” contains two tales of a prostitute’s in-joke called Scottish “raction.” These three tales, the first published by the late Gail Fosfield in The Paris Review, are united by an ominous tone and uneven literary economy. Yet they continually create the impression of material in disarray, interesting and yet of dubious import.
Even if Byatt’s stories are sometimes garbled, they possess a timeless quality to them. If not for Anya von Bremzen’s first novel, The Dwarves, we wouldn’t notice the nature of her mother’s, Eileen, an omnivorous, disordered relationship to food and drink; or to boyfriend Jim Hodgson, a fabulist eccentric named Charlie Franky Wiggotty. Yet some characters are much more interesting than others. In “Medusa’s Ankles,” a pedophile befriends a boy, Rocco, after agreeing to perform a sex act on him. “Many Shadows” (1975) turns on a love triangle between characters named Anderson, a much younger girl; Pierre, a nerdy boy played by Sean Connery, who looks as if he would rather be working on his computer; and Angela, a 17-year-old literature teacher. The story itself follows the plots of three other stories, presumably a joke about sex and the prospects of the British literary establishment in the 1950s. “A Dead Set About Life” picks up where “A Dead Set About Life” left off, a thoughtful, elegiac tale of young failure.
Though story collections can play to different kinds of people and the different types of writer they represent, Byatt’s work transcends genre. My friend Adrian Wooldridge, a British novelist, professor, and the editor of Faber’s spring 2018 anthology The Unfinished Novel, once said that in these works, as elsewhere, Byatt’s imagination is manifesting itself without being directed by sentimentality. Byatt can be dark, darkly comic, but every story in the collection succeeds in distinguishing itself from every other story.