Sunday 26 November 2023

"The nearest grande dame of literary fiction may be behind you!" Meeting Madame Antonia, aka the late A S Byatt

1999 was a challenging year for me. Have you noticed how "challenging" has come to mean everything from "bloody awful" to "damn near impossible", as well as its primary meanings of "inviting competition" and "testing one's abilities"? The word has become the go-to euphemism (especially in government circles) for "much harder than we care to say". In 1999 of course the world was bracing itself for technical malfunctions on an apocalyptic scale, as we approached Y2K -  preppers hunkered down in bunkers in anticipation, stocked to the gunwhales with candles and several years' worth of baked beans - yet when the date rolled round it was all a bit of a damp squib. I saw the millennium in in a smoke-filled pub in Stoke, and absolutely nothing happened, except for a lot of kissing. 

No, 1999 was challenging for me on account of a back to back series of challenging(!) work projects, and the death of my mother in January. So tight were the deadlines on the job I was on at the time, that I was on the phone to Switzerland and Germany making appointments the day after I registered her death, with my sister-in-law sitting quietly at my side, choosing hymns for the funeral and exuding a generally comforting presence.

In June of that year I carried out a study in France on the market for ladies' hosiery, on behalf of a company that made nylon yarn. By chance, several of the manufacturing centres for ladies' tights coincide with famous wine growing regions, so I was able to do some memorable tasting along the way. Examples of this happy crossover were Troyes (champagne, plus a bonus hosiery museum!), and Pouilly Fuisse (wine and town neatly combined in one name), but there were others along my route south. Eventually I ended up in a fairly obscure part of the Gard in South West France. My meeting was at the hosiery factory in Le Vigan, but I stayed in a pretty auberge in the nearby village of Aveze, which served food on its shady terrace. 


After my meeting, I was unpacking my briefcase when the chambermaid stuck her head round the door, asking if I would like my room to be made up. She immediately clocked the dictaphone on the bed and inquired gaily: "Oh, have you come to interview Madame Antonia?!" I said no, while wondering who this person was to cause her to jump to that conclusion. I set about transcribing my recording for the rest of the afternoon, and thought no more about it. That evening I wandered down to the garden restaurant, ordered some food and a glass of wine, and carried on reading one of the books I had brought with me on the trip.

I had just started my main course when I heard a very well-spoken English voice address me from a table diagonally behind me (centre left vs bottom right in the photo below):

"So how are you finding the McEwan?"

I nearly jumped out of  my chair, as I hadn't heard any English for a good week or so. I turned round and instantly recognised the late middle-aged lady as A S Byatt, and also made the connection with the chambermaid's question earlier - I hadn't even known her Christian name was Antonia, as she is so often referred to by her initials. As luck would have it, I had noticed a review by her on the back of Amsterdam, the book in question, and was able to reply, quick as a flash:

"I'm enjoying it. And there is actually a review by you on the back cover!"

"Oh jolly good, what did I say?"

"'Full of gusto, straightforward, and delivers blows to the gut...shocking.'"


I sensed that A S Byatt couldn't quite remember saying those very words, but that she trusted and stood by her earlier judgement - the book had come out the previous year. There followed a stimulating conversation about our favourite novels, and the role of literary criticism. I told her my mother had recently died, and that she was proud of the fact that she had never read a book of literary criticism, which made her laugh. She asked me who my favourite author was, which put me on the spot, and I blurted out Barbara Trapido, whom A S Byatt also liked. Given more time, I am sure I would have come up with a more heavyweight writer like E M Forster, say, but I was caught completely off-guard. A S Byatt explained that she came here every summer to write, staying at a house she owned nearby, and eating her evening meals in the auberge. Her son was over at the moment, which was a bit of luck, as she was suffering from a cold and relied on him to do the shopping. She talked about having to read a lot of books in her capacity as judge for literary awards, and how much of an effort that could be, on account of the sheer volume of pages involved. She recommended I read "Black Dogs" by Ian McEwan (which I duly did later - what a dark tale that was!), and she was just about to recommend ice cream flavours for my dessert when the heavens opened, thunder clapped, and lightning streaked the sky. A full-on electrical storm erupted, scattering the guests in all directions in search of shelter. As I ducked into the hotel, I looked towards A S Byatt's table, but she had vanished, and the garden was sodden and deserted. Up in my room listening to the clamorous patter of the rain, the whole encounter had a dreamlike quality, adding to its charge, which is undimmed by the passing years.

Here is a photo of her, rather fittingly speaking at an event in Amsterdam!

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Fred Ernst

Then as you may have heard on the news, A S Byatt died earlier this month, aged 87.  After the deaths of Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel, I found myself suddenly wanting to read their work again. In the case of A S Byatt, I now have an urge to read her work for the first time, hehe, because although I own a quartet of her books, to my shame I  have never quite got round to reading them... This didn't stop me dining out on my meeting with this literary luminary for years afterwards, for which I was teased mercilessly by friends, whom it amused to contract her name to the even more succinctly familiar "A". They would find any opportunity to say: "And of course you have met A, haven't you?", and it became something of a running joke. It was one such friend who messaged me in fact to tell me the news of her death. I did feel genuinely sad, for quite apart from A S Byatt's great talent as a writer, she was a warm and approachable person who happened to appear - however fleetingly and mysteriously! - at a time when I was feeling the lack of a maternal figure, and our brief encounter has had a greater resonance as a result. 

Oh, and I quite forgot to ask her what denier and shade of tights she wore!