Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (Vintage International) Paperback – 1 Jul 2000
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"Fired by a fierce intelligence and related in shimmering prose. This eclectic little volume should delight A. S. Byatt's devoted readers and attract many new ones." -The New York Times"A stunning display.... Elementals combines finely wrought stories with imagery as sparkling as jewels. It is a work that should not be missed." -The Denver Post "A wonderful book-complex, amusing, clever, and thought-provoking--a reader's dream." -The Plain Dealer
From the Inside Flap
From the booker Prize-winning author of Possession comes this richly imaginitive story collection that transports the reader to a world where opposites--passion and loneliness, betrayal and loyalty, fire and ice--clash and converge.
A beautiful ice maiden risks her life when she falls in love with a desert prince, whose passionate touches scorch her delicate skin. A woman flees the scene of her husband's heart attack, leaving her entire past behind her. Striving to master color and line, a painter discovers the resolution to his artisitc problems when a beautiful and magical water snake appears in his pool. And a wealthy Englishwoman gradually loses her identity while wandering through a shopping mall. Elegantly crafter and suffused with boundless wisdom, these bewitching tales are a testament to a writer at the hieght of her powers.
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'Cold' was probably my favourite story in the collection as it is a take on the fairytale, something which I particularly enjoy. Like Angela Carter, my favourite short story writer thus far, A. S. Byatt does this very well; I particularly enjoyed the stunning resolution. The descriptions are full of intricacy and wonder and, whereas Crocodile Tears felt very detached, emotions in this story are elemental, mercurial and often phrased as physical processes, making them seem even more powerful. I love that such a simple story can encompass such complicated themes and emotions.
The first story, about a woman who literally runs away from her husband's death left me utterly unmoved and cold. Another story about a reclusive painter who encounters a mythical creature in his swimming pool also left me with a "so-what" emptiness. Yes, Byatt can create these dense sentences dripping with description, but it's all underpinned by a sense of ennui that I find tiresome. The longest and most conventional of the stories is a fairy tale about a princess with ice maiden blood falls in love with a desert prince, and sacrifices her health to be with him. In that context, Byatt's elaborate prose works a bit better and isn't so off-putting. However, my favorite tale is of the wife of an English businessman who gets lost in a giant Asian shopping mall. It's a funny and grotesque absurdist piece, and the only one where Byatt's style doesn't take precedence over the storytelling.
In any event, this little volume will likely appeal to Byatt's fans and do little to endear her to those-like me-who don't care for her style.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
As its subtitle suggests, Elementals takes the classic metaphorical opposition between hot (passion) and cold (rationality) and plays with it in new ways. There is, of course, an implicitly Blakean twist to how Byatt goes about doing this, in which hot and cold are never simple oppositions, but are instead made to depend upon each other in order to understand fully their meaning. This idea gets its fullest treatment in the allegorical story "Cold," a full-blown modern fairy-tale that confirms Byatt's long-acknowledged debt to Angela Carter. While Byatt, in treating the opposing symbols of hot and cold in these stories, nods several times toward the Romantics - the narrator of "Jael," for instance, remarks on her appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel that gives particular weight to this metaphor - she also targets them repeatedly for critique. The Romantics, after all, privileged emotion and passion in their work, whereas Byatt urges the reader to consider the other side of the equation by pondering the pleasures and rewards of coldness and detachment.
Although this thread runs through the entire collection, Byatt makes her most articulate plea in "A Lamia in the Cévennes," the underlying message of which forms an implicit riposte to John Keats's poem "Lamia." At the center of the story is Bernard Lycett-Kean, a painter who moves from Britain to France in order to pursue his rigidly solitary investigations into the problems of color. There he is visited by a lamia, a mythological, snake-like creature who promises him that, should he kiss her, she will be transformed into the woman of his dreams and love him eternally. Bernard, wary of such a pact and wary of giving up his solitude, proposes to paint her instead. The story's message hinges on a key couple of lines from Keat's original poem: "Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?" This Romantic suggestion that we should not look too closely at things, that we ought willfully to blind ourselves for the sake of preserving an illusion, is vigorously opposed by Bernard. Instead, Byatt shows that, rather than leading to a simple opposition between science and art, Bernard's rationality possesses an artistic impulse with a beauty all its own.
Byatt thus makes a repeated argument in Elementals for qualities such as coldness, rationality, and solitude - qualities that, while obviously more difficult to embrace than their warm, emotional counterparts, nonetheless have their own rewards and advantages. Byatt is not, of course, opposed either to Romanticism or emotions as such, but champions this cause out of a sense of balance. Today's culture is unthinkingly sentimental, it seems, and so Byatt prescribes the qualities of coldness as an important corrective. Byatt's occasional tendency to overreach means that sometimes her work can be a bit hit and miss, but Elementals is impressive in its consistency. Byatt also helps matters by concluding the book with "Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary," one of her best stories, in which she imagines the story behind a Velasquez painting of the same name. Speaking to the distraught cook Dolores, who will later become the model for Martha in Velasquez's painting, the artist says: "You must learn now, that the important lesson... is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning" (p.226). There are few statements with which I can agree more wholeheartedly. It encapsulates why it is that Byatt, whatever her occasional faults, is truly a great writer: for her, art and literature are not merely intellectual pastimes, they are intimately bound up in the living, breathing moments of living one's life.
My favorite in the collection would have to be "Cold" though. The story of the ice princess and the desert prince was very touching and extremely well written, the prose in this story alone made reading the book very much worth it. I even read that particular piece aloud to my husband who also enjoyed it very much.
If you are a fan of A.S. Byatt then you will love this book, if you are just a fan of re-written fairy tales you will also love this book and should become a fan of this amazing author. The only reason it lost a star is the first story, "Crocodile Tears" - while powerful, poetic and meaningful in its own way - was a story I found hard to get into and was a very long short story to start the book off on. I guess that particular piece just hit a little too close to home for me.