"You are a wise creature," said the Old Woman. "That is what stories are for. And after, we shall see what we shall see." So she told.
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1995) is a charming little collection of subtly post-modern fairy tales by AS Byatt. Only the novella-length title story is original to this collection, but all five tales compliment and play off each other in such interesting ways that it comes as a surprise to learn that they weren't all created together. Two of them - 'The Glass Coffin' and 'Gode's Story' - come from Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, although I must confess that I read that so long ago I'd entirely forgotten them, and was effectively coming to them again fresh; another, 'The Story of the Eldest Princess', was first published in the multi-author anthology Caught in a Story, while the fourth, 'Dragons' Breath', was commissioned for a performance project.
[Incidentally, in the course of checking this publication history, I discovered that Byatt has honorary doctorates from what seems to be half the universities in the country. And now I find myself wondering if anyone's ever managed to collect the whole set. But anyway.]
Simply as a physical artefact, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is compelling: the full-page line-drawing illustrations, the wide margins, the heavy paper stock it's printed on, and the bright green ink used to pick out the story titles and running headers all put me in mind of some nineteenth-century printing of The Thousand and One Nights. It's the sort of book that invites you to lavish attention upon it, and revisit its world every few years.
The first of the Possession stories, 'The Glass Coffin', has some of the rhythms of The Thousand and One Nights to it, as well, although that may simply be my imagination since I've (semi-)recently had Nights on the brain. (Byatt does mention in her acknowledgements the influence of Robert Irwin's commentary on the Nights on her story-telling, but I get the impression she means only the storytelling done specifically for this volume.) It is the story of a sunny-natured tailor ("a good and unremarkable man" who "imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner") with an eye for detail, a beautiful woman in a glass coffin, and the odd cottage in the woods full of animals who instruct the tailor on how to find and rescue her. It is a quest he finds himself launched upon because he has the good sense to make a careful choice when offered a choice of three gifts - this being the sort of fairytale whose characters are well aware of what type of story they're in:
And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men's lives.
Again, later, this self-awareness is woven through the first meeting of tailor and glass-coffin-lady, to the extent that Byatt's narration doesn't so much second-guess as fourth- or fifth-guess itself:
'Of course I will have you,' said the little tailor, 'for you are my promised marvel, released with my vanished glass key, and I love you dearly already. Though why you should have me, simply because I opened the glass case, is less clear to me altogether, and when, and if, you are restored to your rightful place, and your home and lands and people are again your own, I trust you will feel free to reconsider the matter, and remain, if you will, alone and unwed. For me, it is enough to have seen the extraordinary gold web of your hair, and to have touched that whitest and most delicate cheek with my lips.' And you may ask yourselves, my dear and most innocent readers, whether he spoke there with more gentleness or cunning, since the lady set such store on giving herself of her own free will, and since also the castle with its gardens, though now measurable with pins and fine stitches and thumbnails and thimbles, were lordly and handsome enough for any man to wish to spend his days there.
In between these two episodes, the description of the tasks that the protagonist is to perform if he wishes to win the object of his soon-to-be-desire - the heath he must travel to, the door there that he must open, the staircase he must go down, and so on - strongly recalled certain Nights tales to my mind, as in particular did the description of the female lead's reaction when she sees the dog her brother has been transformed into: "She fell upon his grey hairy neck, weeping salty tears" is almost word-for-word an action carried out repeatedly by the woman in 'The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad'.
More pointed in its exploration of the gender dynamic of fairytale is 'Gode's Story', which is to some extent about what lies behind the sort of extravagant romantic promises heroes make to heroines - or rather, the promises they make to the women who let themselves believe they're the heroine, when in truth they're just one of many waiting (one in every port!) for the hero to come sweeping back into their lives again. A sailor promises a miller's daughter ("all clean and proud and proper") that he will "bring her a silk ribbon from the East". Warning bells might begin to ring when her response is to "not say if she liked, yes or not", and he decides that he Just Knows the answer is yes ("but he saw that she would").
When he returns, the miller's daughter makes the mistake of attempting to pay for the ribbon, thus making him angry - the subtext being that this was not a gift at all, but an attempt to make her obliged to him. What follows ("a
man hurt in his pride will take what he may, and he took") is disquieting for all concerned; Byatt implies much, but stays strictly within the sing-song register of the fairytale form, making the whole thing even more creepy by virtue of the disconnect between the voice and the obliquely referenced events going on.
More cheerful, even ebullient, is 'The Story of the Eldest Princess', about a young woman who goes on a quest to discover why the sky has stopped being blue. A lot of this involves meeting people and animals who either tell her stories, or who give her glimpses of their own (sometimes unpleasant) stories. Being "by nature a reading, not a travelling princess", she knows already what sort of story she's in: "she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests". She thus decides to take charge of the story she's in, and escape the conventions ("I am in a pattern, I know") of being the eldest sister, ordinarily doomed to provide either a cautionary example or an adversary for the youngest sister in this sort of tale.
Here, as throughout the collection, Byatt's language is lavishly descriptive:
And the blue days were further and further apart, and the greens were more and more varied, until a time when it became quite clear that the fundamental colour of the sky was no longer what they still called sky-blue, but a new sky-green, a pale flat green somewhere between the colours which had once been apple and grass and fern. But of course apple and grass and fern looked very different against this new light, and something very odd and dimming happened to lemons and oranges, and something more savage and hectic to poppies and pomegranates and ripe chillies.
Likewise, Byatt has plenty of fun with her lightly-sketched world, drawing on genre touchstones with gleeful abandon and a disarming touch of the surreal:
So they consulted the chief ministers, the priests, and a representative sample of generals, witches and wizards. The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might usefully be set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favoured a Quest.
After the sprawling, scattershot, faintly Alice in Wonderland charm of 'Eldest Princess', 'Dragons' Breath' is much more tightly focused. It's also a particularly tricky story to describe or discuss, since so much of its effect lies in the cumulative claustrophobia of its frankly odd conceit and the lowering atmosphere of the way its told. Essentially, it is about dragons invading a boringly ordinary, nothing-ever-changes town; but the dragons' descent down the mountain to their goal happens with excruciating slowness. It is a creeping takeover, an inch-by-inch volcanic eruption come to choke the town:
It stank, the ash, it was unspeakably foul. At first they grumbled and dusted, and then they gave up dusting, for it was no use, and began to be afraid. It was all so so unreal that there was a period of unreal, half-titillating fear, before the real, sick, paralysing fear took hold, which was when the creatures were close enough for men and women to see their eyes, which were rimmed with a gummy discharge, like melting rubber, and their tongues of flame.
Finally, 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye' take something of the fairytale voice - the swooping cadences, the charming literalism, the larger-than-life narrative gaze - and transfers it to the present day:
Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
The specific setting that this paragraph zooms in on recalls in some measure that of Possession: that of half-obsessed, half-reclusive individual scholars more than sustained by their immersion in the literature of their choice. Our companion here is Gillian Perholt, a divorced scholar who is "redundant as a woman, being neither wife, mother nor mistress", but "in demand everywhere" as a narratologist, a different sort of role but one equally strongly linked, we're told, to womanhood. Visiting Turkey for a conference, she finds herself first discussing the framing story of Shahrazad in the Thousand and One Nights, and then encountering a jinni of her own, which she inadvertantly frees from a type of glass flask known locally by the wonderfully evocative phrase Çeşm-i Bülbül, "nightingale's eye". (Here are some examples.) She is told:
"There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at Incirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it is called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales."
Quite apart from these flashes of appreciation for Turkish aesthetics - refreshing to see, in an English-language novel - there's some lovely stuff in here about women in fiction ("the stories of stopped energies [...] all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion"), women creating fiction, and Gillian rediscovering herself and her love of the imagination through the wishes she makes to the jinni. A creative, challenging and liberating happily ever after beckons; surely the best kind.