If ‘naming is the love act’ that Patrick Kavanagh claims for poetry, both Sjon and Byatt love intensely and wildly and drunkenly the abundance of the natural world. And both these characters also drink thirstily from the world of books.
Byatt’s Thin (and lonely) Child finds consolation and direction in her lonely life from her childhood books and especially the story of Ragnarok which is brought to glittering life in this contribution to Canongate’s excellent Myth series. Sjon’s protagonist, Jonas Palmason, 17th century poet and healer is exiled to Gullbjorn’s Island for heretical conduct.
These are dark superstitious times in Iceland when men of science marvel over the unicorn’s horn, a little learning can be a dangerous thing and life is very cheap. Jonas talks to a vivid sandpiper on a desert beach, ‘Clad in a greybrown coat of narrow coat of narrow cut, with a faint purple sheen in the twilight; bright stockings, a speckled undershirt…Importunate with his own kind, garrulous with others…’ Jonas’s story breaks off from time to time and we are treated to 17th century descriptions of various wonders, including the Sea-Speckle, Moonwort, the Jerusalem Haddock and Airship while Byatt’s ‘thin child’ observes the birds and flowers of the wartime English hedgerow – ‘borders of flowers round the wheatfields, full of scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers, great white moondaisies, lamb's succory and throw-wax. Broadleaved spurge, red hemp-nettle, shepherd's purse, shepherd's needle, cornparsley’ – Byatt and Sjon bring to life dazzling natural worlds that have vanished and are vanishing daily from our man-battered planet and there are other parallels. Both narrators are outsiders, lonely and addicted to books and learning. Sjon’s Jonas Palmason, talks to the sandpiper about how he learned to read and the joys and sorrows that knowledge brought to his life. Byatt’s ‘Thin Child’ reads voraciously and explores the countryside alone, her father away at war and her mother lying in a darkened room, martyr to the migraines that haunted Christabel Lamotte in Byatt’s booker winning novel Possession. Christabel was in love with Randolph Henry Ash poet and author of a Victorian edition of Ragnarok. And so Byatt circles once more over her old obsessions, Ragnarok, the nature of myth and story, the life-saving experience of books in childhood. Byatt hits the ground running when she races to tell the story of end of the Gods, rising to heights of sheer poetry in her descriptions. And Loki so gripping with his cleverness and fallibility isthe star of the show. The parallels between our abused endangered planet and the world of Asgard and the gods couldn’t be clearer.
‘After a long time the fire too died. All there was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessman floated and bobbed on the dark ripples.’
Yet it seems too easy to slot the story of Ragnarok as a tale of the destruction of our planet. Isn’t it also a metaphor for our own inevitable deaths? Here is Sjon gustily describing the darkness none of us can avoid.
‘The barefoot brigade were no longer offered any victuals, whether it was the juicy leg of lamb dedicated to a saint or the skin of a dried haddock, or a roof over their heads, or a pair of gloves for their chapped hands. Far from it…everything a man acquired belonged to him and him alone. The rest could eat dirt. And they did…an abominable sight, the bodies of beggars lying beside the road, weathered sacks of skin stretched over the bones of adults and children…Ravens and foxes had gnawed at their heads and hands…Yes there you have it, whether you are high-born or lowly, a stout figure or a whip-thin emaciated wretch, when your time on this earth is over, you will be nothing but a sack of skin, emptied of its contents…’
Sjon has the gift of being able to stand right back, bringing the surprise of humour into the darkest of his writing, reminding me again of his prizewinning novel The Blue Fox, where the most hideous and cruel machinations of the chief villain made me laugh out loud. There are several funny set pieces in From the Mouth of the Whale; when Jonas and his colleague Ole Worm solemnly examine the precious unicorn’s horn from the Danish King’s collection before breaking into wild conspiratorial laughter, or the young Jonas discovering biology looking up the old women’s skirts, and my favourite piece - the hilarious, harrowing and surreal exorcism which ultimately leads to Jonas’s downfall. Surrealism appears again in Jonas’s vision of himself as Adam - an absurdly large giant reminiscent of the Finn McCool of Irish mythology, parodied so deliciously by Joyce in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses.
This where the books diverge, The Mouth of the Whale like Joyce’s Ulysses, contains so much high comedy and the message is less didactic as Jonas’s fortunes rise and fall like the cycle of life itself. Perhaps we humans who end up like bags of leather are not all that important in life’s cycle? Perhaps the sandpiper will be on the beach long after we dinosaurs have blown ourselves up or off the planet? Byatt on the other hand points very definitely to man’s seriously destructive use of the planet. Perhaps this is what I miss ultimately in Byatt’s Ragnarok, the sense of life’s absurdity. The ‘thin child’ is so serious, her observations sometimes a bit too adult. And yet, I found AS Byatt’s observations on childhood reading and the descriptions of the vanished nature of the forties so gripping that ultimately I could not make up my mind whether or not I would have liked to have read those observations in a different book leaving me free to fly with her fantastically rich and dark Ragnarok.