The Mise En Abyme in Byatt’s The Matisse Stories
A.S. Byatt's stories speak to the inner life of the sympathetic listener
By Lee Yew Leong
Ann Jefferson has offered the following working definition of the mise en abyme:
Each of the three stories in Byatt's The Matisse Stories centers on a painting or a piece of writing that has very literal "points of analogy" with the text as a whole and thus functions as a mise en abyme. In 'Art Work', for example, the narrator zooms out from her description of a work of art entitled, "Le silence habité des maisons" into the actual setting of the house: not subtly, this narrator declares that "there is an inhabited silence in 49 Alma Road." In 'The Chinese Lobster', Peggi's letter detailing her suicidal tendencies mirrors Gerda's own state of mind.
If we were to conceive The Matisse Stories as a kind of subtractive color diagram, then Robin's explanation of color mixing to Mrs Brown, placed in the dead center of the book, can also be taken as a mise en abyme. This analogy of the subtractive color diagram is justified by the many overlaps in these stories running the gamut from small scale to large. On the micro-level, the overlapping consists of motifs such as the "sky blue" in 'Medusa's Ankles' echoing the last name of the protagonist Himmelblau in 'The Chinese Lobster'. The overlapping pertains also to the intertextual references: Gowing's essay on Matisse, for example, is mentioned in both 'Medusa's Ankles' and 'Art Work'. Zooming out, we see that the larger themes overlap as well, the themes for example, of male subjugation of women, of protest, of creativity (as opposed to destruction), and of the withheld inner life.
Collectively, the various Matisses embedded in the spatio-temporal world of Byatt's anthology also constitute a mise en abyme. For Byatt appropriates Matisse's privileging of color over line and applies it to her writing. In the profusion of color details littering the descriptive passages in all these stories, we see evidence of Byatt trying to write like Matisse paints: vividly if not downright extravagantly. And if, as art critic Meili comments, for Matisse "the concern for individual detail is impossible… by virtue of his choice of color as a means of expression, a color at once exalted and imaginary, which would never submit to the limits of a scrupulous drawing," then the same kind of shapelessness in story-telling is acknowledged at least once in Byatt's collection:
Mise en abyme literally means to place into an abyss; the commonplace usage of this phrase describes the visual experience of inserting oneself between two mirrors and seeing an infinite reproduction of one's image.
A mise en abyme, then, introduces the idea of a multiverse: an infinite realm of potential being of which the universe is regarded as a part or instance. The mise en abyme also opens up the possibility of infinite regress and in so doing questions the very concept of origin.
I want to put forward that the mise en abyme functions in The Matisse Stories as a conceit for the theme of fungibility in a postmodern, postcolonial, multiversal reality, different from Matisse's reality at the time he was painting. In each of these stories, we see an original/dominant challenged by a copy/hitherto secondary.
In 'Medusa's Ankles', for example, the hairdresser Lucian usurps Susannah's role as complainer and uses Susannah as confidant, subverting the normative relationship between the hairdresser and his client. Lucian wants to replace his wife of many years with a girlfriend he has been seeing on the side. Suzie – the woman in her sexual prime – is replaced by Susannah, a middle-aged woman with a do.
In 'Art Work', Mrs Brown usurps Robin's role as the artist by securing an exhibition for herself at a gallery that rejected Robin, despite the artist manqué's condescending attitude on her.
In 'The Chinese Lobster', the suicidal art student Peggi Nollett appropriates Matisse's images of luxe, calme et volupté and renders them in her own medium (faeces) for protest.
This displacement of a dominant element with a secondary one takes place on a narratological level as well. In each of these diegeses, the ongoing story concerning the male is displaced by a sudden revelation of "inner life" triggered by an act of identification on the part of the sympathetic female listener. This secondary female character, previously subjugated as passive listener of that dominant narrative, is revealed to be the true agent in these narratives, though she has taken care to hide her potentiality from the outset:
Susannah's ironic denial to the flaky hairdresser is in fact a resounding corroboration of that very inner life she disavows. In this and the other two stories, Byatt shows us how the latency of this "inner life" is unleashed by the end, despite or perhaps in reaction to, various oppressions.
In 'Medusa's Ankles', the narrative seems to center around Lucian's crisis; that Susannah is a much more accomplished individual with a more exciting past does not matter at all. After all, she is just a "suburban old dear." Even when Susannah announces that she has just won a Translator's Medal and will have to appear on television to give a speech, Lucian refuses to take on the usual role of listener called for in such situations; he wrestles the conversation topic back from her:
Having coerced Susannah into being his psychologist, Lucian then tells a story about his wife, which elicits the crucial act of identification from the listening Susannah.
Seeing in Lucian's abandonment of her to Deirdre the same betrayal of the aging wife, Susannah, on the behalf of both of them, angrily refuses to be complicit in her own subjugation anymore. Byatt's tour de force description of Susannah's outburst of violence emphasizes the protagonist's coming to an agency with a machine-gunfire of verbs.
'Art Work' follows the same trajectory. In the story, both Debbie and Robin are artists, but Debbie has given up her art to enable Robin to devote his life to his. Robin, who "never once mentioned the unmade wood engravings" that she has given up, subjugates Debbie with his speech: "he had told her (about his vision of color, and about Luxe, calm et volupté) and she had listened."
Compare her acquiescing response to that of Mrs Brown, who, despite her own working-class status, refuses to give in to Robin's subjugation:
Fittingly, it is Mrs Brown's story that elicits an act of identification on her part:
For Debbie does "find out for (herself)"; inspired by Mrs Brown and her palatte of colors(representing infinite possibility), "she goes back to making (art)" and in so doing, embraces her potential as agent.
In the final story, 'The Chinese Lobster', male subjugation of the female appears in two forms. First of all, it manifests in the figure of the doctor at the health center who refuses to listen to Peggi Nollet's problems. Secondly, we see it in Perry Diss who will not allow himself to be swayed, although articulate Gerda puts up a good fight. Perry's "vatic enthusiasm" with which he intones the lengthy citation about Luxe, calme et volupté in fact directly echoes Robin's "agitated exposition" of the same text to Debbie. Like Robin and the other solipsistic male in The Matisse Stories, the hairdresser Lucian, Perry too is completely absorbed in his role as a speaker, so absorbed that he does not realize that his listener's own life, very much unlike his, has "contained only a modicum of luxe, calme et volupté."
While telling the story of Peggi Nollet, Gerda lets slip that she identifies with the suicidal student. "Anyone," she says, "who could imagine the terror – the pain – of those who survive a suicide – against whom a suicide is committed – could not carry it through." The specificity of her qualification: "against whom a suicide is committed," indicative as it is of a hitherto unarticulated inner life, one heavy with tumult to boot, is enough to unsettle the talkative Perry Diss:
Byatt then signals a narratological displacement by beginning with a new section. The subplot of Kay and Kay's daughter, given to us in this new section, describes the corrosive effects of the sufferer upon the non sufferer and uses the mise en abyme within the text not in a spatial relation a la Jefferson but in a cause-and-effect one, mediated by the psychological act of identification. The result is a metaphysical foodchain, one in which the original sufferer(or at least the earliest one) is king of the hill:
But Byatt provides a counterpoint in Diss's anecdote: if Kay's story and by implication, Kay's daughter's story represents a will to death, then Matisse's story, his seeing color even in black, even despite his going blind, represents the contrapuntal will to life.
This dialectic has in fact been presented before. The narratological juxtaposition of 'Medusa's Ankles', a story culminating with an act of destruction, with 'Art Work', a story ending with the embrace of creativity – on the macro level, is represented here on a micro-level since the two opposing stories are now contained in one – mixed, if you will, like two overlapping circles in one color diagram – and represented, to wit, as two options open to one agent:
Seeing in Perry Diss's anecdote about Matisse an alternative where before there was none, awakened, then, to a multiverse, this agent chooses life:
The conceit of the mise en abyme extends then not only to the way in which the narrative is rendered, but also to the way in which the narrative, or rather, narratives in general are received. Byatt's stories about the power of artwork on viewer – everyone in The Matisse Stories is clearly affected by art – are in fact stories about the power of the story(lived or anecdotized) on its listener. Just as Matisse's palette bears witness to the possibilities of life, so do all stories contain within them the power to speak to the inner life of the sympathetic listener and, in reminding the listener of the multiversal nature of human reality, rouse agency.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009