Acclaimed British novelist Dame A.S. Byatt traced the development of the fictional character in the Western novel this Friday at a lecture in Mandel Hall.
Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for her novel Possession, described her talk as addressing “what I, as a child, called ‘making up people.’” She discussed features of literary characters ranging from the intensely detailed interior life of James Joyce’s Mr. Bloom to two line sketches of characters in the works of Gogol.
Byatt is the author of nine novels and five short stories, in addition to her critical work.
Analyzing authors as diverse as George Eliot and Philip Roth, Byatt explained the social influences that have affected the creation of characters in literature. She explained that Western novelists emphasized aspects of identity that were relevant to the cultures they lived in. Byatt explained that Roth’s characters are dominated by sexuality and their bodies, a departure from previous focuses such as the religious characters of Balzac and Gogol or the Freudian characters of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Mann. “We have progressed from Dostoevsky’s Christ to thinking of ourselves as our bodies,” Byatt said
“Do I or do I not live in the world described by Roth? I do not because a) I’m too old, and b) because I live in books,” Byatt said.
In the question and answer period following her talk, moderated by English Professor Maud Ellmann, who studies the development of the novel, Byatt elaborated on her own process of character formation. “I have been accused of developing characters so extensively that readers cannot put themselves inside of it,” Byatt said.
Byatt explained she wants her readers to be able take the position of the writer, moving about the world of the novel and understanding many characters rather than identifying strongly with just one. Her most recent novel, The Children’s Book, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has no central characters, instead interweaving the stories of many.
Byatt described how intricately she details the lives of the characters she creates. Her characters are never fully modeled after real-life individuals.
This level of detail isn’t always understood, Byatt said, remembering being upset about the British cover of her book The Biographer’s Tale, which had a photograph of a woman on it; the woman did not look like the character Byatt had crafted in her mind.
She said she was also frustrated with the film adaptation of her novel Possession, as not all of the actors were cast according to the personality of her characters.
One audience member asked a question about Byatt’s sharp wit and sense of humor, which was on display throughout the event. “People are surprised because my books are so serious. They expect a woman of a certain age with a bit of academic weight not to be funny,” Byatt said.
The event was sponsored by the Artspeaks series, which brings a variety of artists to campus to engage with the community and diverse disciplines in the University.
As part of the Artspeaks program, Byatt held a reading on campus and also spoke in a panel discussion with Philosophy professor Robert Pippin and French Literature professor Thomas Pavel.