Dame Antonia Byatt is currently writing a novel set in psychoanalyst circles in Vienna and among the surrealists in Berlin between the two World Wars. The Man-Booker prize-winning author revealed her latest project while in conversation with Professor Emeritus Martin Swales (University College London) and Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (Institute of Modern Languages Research).
Dame Antonia Byatt, a guest of the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), mesmerised a capacity audience at this year’s Bithell Memorial lecture. She began her conversation with Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex and Professor Emeritus Martin Swales with a look at The Children’s Book, her 2009 novel which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year.
The novelist, critic, anthologist and essayist, focussed on the importance of German literature and culture in her work, and spoke about recreating the pre-war world of the early 1900s, in which Anglo-German relations, especially among social reformers and artists, were as close as could be.
She explained that in her immersion in the world of the Fabians and the German socialists and anarchists, but also in the legacies of English and German fairy tales and legends, the World War came as much as a shock to her as it did to the characters of the novel. And it is precisely this freshness and acuity of thought and emotion that lies at the bottom of Dame Antonia’s writing.
This freshness is tangible also in her precise and vivid interest in the literary description of objects, be it the pots and plates of the English Arts and Crafts movement, ornaments by René Lalique or German marionettes. She explained that she has been losing her trust in abstract concepts and has come to rely more and more on the descriptions of real objects.
While working on The Children’s Book, Dame Antonia also wrote an introduction to one of a new translation of one of the most important works of German literature: Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). The Children’s Book not only ends by dwelling on the experience of warfare in the mud of Flanders – as does Mann’s novel– but there are more subtle and pervasive echoes in Byatt’s book of the Zauberberg motif of youngsters being lured into an underground world. Here, the theme is turned into an evocation of the dangers of storytelling and the dark side of imagination, which has the power to ensnare the children at the centre of the novel.
Leaving The Children’s Book behind, the conversation moved on to Dame Antonia’s retelling of Norse mythology that she published under the title Ragnarök in 2011. Again, the link to German writing – but also the image of Germany and the Germans in times of war – was crucial to the conception of the book. For as a young girl during the Second World War, she was reading the Norse myths around the death (or the ‘twilight’, as Wagner would have it) of the Gods in a volume entitled Asgard and the Gods, edited by the German academic Wilhelm Wägner. Ragnarök gives voice to the child’s confusion over the contrast between the ‘good’ Germans who collect the legends of old and the ‘bad’ Germans fighting her country and thundering through the night sky like the huntsmen of the Norse God Odin.
Finally, to the delight of her audience, Dame Antonia revealed that she is currently writing a novel set in psychoanalyst circles in Vienna and amongst the surrealists in Berlin between the two World Wars. We are looking forward to its publication!
Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex is senior lecturer in modern German literature at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. Her current research projects focus on: concepts of Jewishness and femininity in the work of German-Jewish women writers, 1900-1918; the impact of biological discourses on feminist writing in the first two decades of the 20th century; consumer culture and the literary imagination.