Book Review: The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt

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Random House, New York, 1993. Perhaps I am late in reviewing this book, but I just read it for the first time, and, like a good Matisse, it has not lost anything with the passage of time.

The three stories contained therein show Byatt’s great sense of detail, as she defines the lives of the women at the center of each, and uses Matisse’s art and life as inspiration. Each story is illustrated (but not really) with a Matisse drawing, their spare, fluid lines moving with the same gracefulness as Byatt’s sentences. But these drawings are meant to evoke, rather than directly illustrate; works directly referenced in the stories are not shown.

A word or two about each story:

Medusa’s Ankles: A woman and her hairdresser enter an uneasy partnership, with a surprising turn at the end. This is the least connected to Matisse, though a reproduction of one of his paintings hanging in the hair salon is the reason the woman goes there to start with.

Art Work: another uncertain relationship, this time between an artist’s wife, her husband, and their stolid cleaning woman. There is a lot about art here, though not always linkable to Matisse. The twist late in the story, unlike the first story’s, is no surprise, and I won’t spoil it here, but makes for good reading regardless.

The Chinese Lobster: Here Matisse is front and center. A university Dean (a woman) must sit down with a visiting Professor (a man) and discuss a complaint brought against him by a female student. He is an expert on Matisse, and even met him, while the student’s work seeks to reinterpret Matisse through her own mental turmoil. At first it isn’t clear if the Professor is to be villain, hero, orI t what – his impolitic use of the word “bitch” casts doubt. However, by the end his status, as well as that of the Dean and the student, has become clear. This is the only story in the book written in one scene, and all in the present tense. It brings an immediacy to the end of the book, and their conversation brings closure to the story.

It’s not necessary to know anything about Matisse, or Byatt, for that matter, to enjoy these stories. They move efficiently, picking out detail where needed, skipping forward as the plot demands – the way a good painter does. I think it wise of Byatt to have stopped with three stories, though I would like to see her tackle other artists and see what inspiration they might bring her.

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