The Matisse Stories
By A.S. Byatt
Vintage April 1996
I read one of these stories in a seminar during my senior year of college. The story really stuck with me and I made a note on one of the million scraps of paper that float around to one day pick up this book. Now that I am trying to journey on through my books-to-read list (let’s just say it’s a Word document with more than 20 pages and fewer than 40…), I got this book from the library. After picking it up, I realized that several other Byatt books are on my list, but this is the first one I have read!
Because this book has just three short stories, I think we can give each of them some attention. Each one references or centers on a piece by the artist Henri Matisse.
The first is entitled “Medusa’s Ankles.” Susannah is a middle aged translator who picks Lucian’s hairdressing shop because of the Matisse painting she sees through the window. Her time in the salon causes her to reflect on aging and her relationship with her husband.
“She remembered, not as a girl, as a young woman under all that chestnut fall, looking at her skin, and wondering how it could grow into the crepe, the sag, the opulent soft bags. This was her face, she had thought then. And this, too, now, she wanted to accept for her face, trained in a respect for precisions, and she could not. What had left this greying skin, these flakes, these fragile stretches with no elasticity, was her, was her life, was herself.”
The second story is “Art Work.” Debbie is a former artist who now works as a design editor for a woman’s magazine so that her husband can continue to create his art. Their life is held together by the presence of Mrs. Brown, their eccentric housekeeper. The constant fighting between Debbie’s husband Robin and Mrs. Brown threatens to unravel the tenuous grip that Debbie has on balancing career and family.
“She hated Robin because he never once mentioned the unmade wood-engravings. It is possible to feel love and hate quiet quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person. Debbie continued to love Robin, whilst hating him because of the woodcuts, because of the extent of his absences of interest in how she managed the house, the children, the money, her profession, his needs and wants, and because of his resolute attempts to unsettle, humiliate, or drive away Mrs Brown, without whom all Debbie’s balancing acts would clatter and fall in wounding disarray.”
The final story in the book is “The Chinese Lobster.” This is the story I read for my class. Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, the dean of women students, is meeting a professor at a Chinese restaurant. Although it is a favorite restaurant of hers, the reason for their meeting is not cheerful. A troubled student has lodged a complaint against the professor claiming that he sexually harassed her. The discussion is further complicated by the pasts of both the professor and the dean.
A.S. Byatt writes really good stories. The characters are rich and interesting and her descriptions are beautiful. My only complaint is with the second story – it’s a tad long. I found myself skimming some of said description, although I suppose a plethora of detail is to be expected in a house full of artists.
After reading this book, I remembered how much I enjoy reading short stories. You can read them quickly, sit with them for a bit and feel the accomplishment of finishing a book amidst trudging through gigantic novels. Byatt is a beautiful writer and I look forward to reading her novels (gigantic though they might be).