My first remark on the short story I’m writing on today, after such a title to my post, should and must be that it is the most beautiful, meaningful, and worthwhile story I have ever read, my constant favorite, and yet it has no overweening moral emphasis whatsoever (except perhaps that generosity is not wasted, and should never be regretted, which may seem weak to those who like conclusive statements of purpose, never mind those who like conclusive endings, who will likely be perplexed by this story as well). The story furthermore will offend those who insist that fantasy fiction is not to be mingled willy-nilly with realistic fiction without a “signal” of some surreptitious and covert kind being passed between the writer and the reader, and this story plays fast and loose with this convention, giving no hint whatsoever for about 3/5 of its length that it’s going to concern a dalliance between a woman and a wonderful, sexy male djinn, or genie. It is moreover also about the purposes of stories en masse with special reference made to Eastern European and Asian stories in particular, which to some people forewarned might seem a dry topic, as they want, or think they want, to read just a story, and not a story about stories, to have the original blinding experience and not the reflexive experience of hearing the why and how of the what. But I am issuing my own kind of forewarning for my readers: A. S. Byatt’s short tale “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (which is the longest story–a novella, really–in her fairy tale collection by the same name) is not to be dismissed as a story just for specialists in the field of narrative, or for those who are themselves storytellers or moralists with an axe to grind. It is simply the most beautiful story I have ever read, and yet it leaves many stories within it incomplete, trailing bits and pieces of connected and disconnected tales “floating redundant” (to pull out an original inspiring bit of poetry quoted by Byatt from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, wherein it describes the way serpents like the Tempter originally stood on their coils instead of being doomed to writhe on the ground).
The story is “about” Gillian Perholt, a narratologist (or, a specialist concerning the mechanisms, structures, and meanings pertinent to and inherent in the study of narrative). In this sense, as we are neatly informed in the story, narrative can be anything in our world from a tennis match, to an advertisement, to a fairy tale, to whatever creates a size and shape mentally for us to consider fictively, or in the sense of “as if.” (For those who at this point are intrigued more by the idea of narratology than by the tale itself–and at this moment, since I am investing my energies on writing about the story, not the discipline, I would just say “shame on you!”–I’d like to direct them to Mieke Bal’s excellent and easily readable book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative.) But more than that, the story is about Gillian Perholt the woman, a woman of fifty-five (not, one would think at first glance even a popular age for a fairy tale heroine, most of them being nubile, naive, and even if intelligent, sexually attractive young virgins and neophytes taking their first run at life). She has been deserted by her husband for a younger woman, but instead of feeling misused–though we get the point that the sense of feeling misused wore itself out long ago through much of the same sort of thing–she feels free, suddenly. And freedom and its lack are other main subjects of the story, along with the generosity I first mentioned as a sort of undeclared “moral.” If there is a moral about having the traditional three wishes granted and freedom, it is that regardless of what one wishes for, “Fate is fixed,” as Gillian says in a talk she gives at a conference. But, as she continues, “‘In fairy-tales…those wishes that are granted and are not malign, or twisted towards destruction, tend to lead to a condition of beautiful stasis, more like a work of art than the drama of Fate. It is as though the fortunate had stepped off the hard road into an unchanging landscape where it is always spring and no winds blow.”
But I am getting ahead of myself, and telling my own tale of reading the book all out of order! At a conference in Istanbul, with side trips to view sights in Smyrna and places round about in Turkey, Gillian Perholt (who occasionally sees visions she has told no one else about, particularly frightening images which she believes sometimes to be premonitions of her own mortality) spends time with her good friend, Orhan Rifat, a male Turkish scholar of narrative, who alike has much to say about how and why stories function as they do. In this tale, the “frame tale” of the woman and the djinn contains numerous other stories which the characters tell each other in the manner of frame tales and inset stories worldwide, and many of these tales are intriguing enough, particularly as they are narrated briefly and in a somewhat sketchy manner by the “experts” intent on finding their meanings, to make the average reader want to follow up the tales someday and read them in the original texts. There are also new insights reported by the characters on well-known tales like the tale of “Patient Griselda,” which was told first by Boccaccio, then by Petrarch, then by Chaucer’s clerk in “The Clerk’s Tale” portion of The Canterbury Tales. Byatt has her character say, quite honestly, that it is a very well-known tale which no one much likes, apparently because of the elements of the gratuitous cruelty involved in the character Walter’s testing of his wife Griselda’s faithfulness and attention to duty (I can remember studying this tale in school and having a professor tell me that it wasn’t so much the clerk’s purpose to get his “listeners” to admire marital faithfulness as it was to point to humankind’s duty to be faithful and dutiful to God though tested as Griselda was tested by her husband Walter in the parallel case. All I can remember feeling at that analysis is resentment of Walter, the professor, and God all three!)
Belief is an important element which is examined in Byatt’s key tale of tales, and I find that I “believe” it (or most easily practice what the poet Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”) just because it makes no special territorial claims for itself. The explanation for most of my lifetime of being impatient with Scripture and annoyed by Christianity (in which faith I was brought up) was given to me gratis in this story, and I will never forget the strength of the emotion with which I read this portion: “Angels had made Gillian think of Saint Paul. Angels had sprung open Saint Paul’s prision in Ephesus. She had sat in Sunday school, hearing a fly buzzing against a smeared high window in the vestry, and had hated the stories of Saint Paul and the other apostles because they were true, they were told to her as true stories, and this somehow stopped off some essential imaginative involvement with them, probably because she didn’t believe them, if required to believe they were true. She was Hamlet and his father and Shakespeare: she saw Milton’s snake and the miraculous flying horse of the Thief of Baghdad, but Saint Paul’s angels rested under suspicion of being made-up because she had been told they were special because true.” This echoes or at least mentions tangentially something which I’ve heard several people say before, which is that Milton’s Paradise Lost is so monumental and believeable a work of poetic art because the poet allowed himself to be a poet, (and by the way to make his Satan more poetically moving as a subject than his angels and holier characters), instead of trying to be a theologian and only secondarily a poet.
At the moment when Gillian first meets the djinn, she has already finished what she was there in Turkey for, and is in her hotel bathroom after having had a shower. She bethinks herself of the dusty bottle she bought in the bazaar, and takes it to the sink to wash off the dirt, and out pops–guess what? You know already. I would not tell even this much of the tale, not wanting to ruin the story and the buildup, except that I want to point to another very significant element of this story: Gillian expresses no surprise, horror, wonderment, in short, A. S. Byatt does not try to persuade the reader via emotional mimesis (mimicking of the character’s mental state for the reader to follow and “fall into” by that special “contract” or “agreement” I mentioned earlier). Byatt simply recounts the logistics of trying to get out of one’s bathroom when a huge foot is blocking the way. This makes it far easier for us to accept the story than if we had read any special pleading to do so. Any consideration of the matter is handled after the fact, when the characters have already been making acquaintance for quite some time. We are told of Gillian Perholt: “She was later to wonder how she could be so matter-of-fact about the presence of the gracefully lounging Oriental daimon in a hotel room. At the time, she unquestioningly accepted his reality and his remarks as she would have done if she had met him in a dream–that is to say, with a certain difference, a certain knowledge that the reality in which she was was not everyday, was not the reality in which Dr. Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley’s solipsism with a robust kick at a trundling stone.” Instead, Byatt engagingly uses in her story the traditional formula by which stories are told in Turkey, “bis var mis, bir yok mis,” “perhaps it happened, perhaps it didn’t,” which works because it lets the reader have the choice of whether to continue reading and be enlightened and amused or to be a lug who insists on only absolute fact and thus misses all the fun and learning alike which can be derived from fiction (or what purports to be fiction!). For fact-lovers, though, Byatt even lets us know how she is manipulating the reader’s perceptions and reactions by mentioning outright the formula bis var mis, bir yok mis,” rather like a conjuror showing us empty hands before performing a sleight-of-hand which will astonish and amaze us.
And Byatt, as usual, succeeds in astonishing and amazing, so enchanting and enlivening is the tale she tells us. I definitely won’t tell you how it ends, except to say that it is a hopeful, blissfully and perennially youthful story without a perennial youth in it on the face of it, and the ending is sufficiently “open-ended” (as Gillian tells the djinn her century prefers in stories) to lend itself neither to authorial fudging and lying nor readerly despair. But enough about my reactions to the book and my experiences of it: why not read it for yourself? (And after you read it, why not read the four other stories in the same volume? Yes, it’s like letting a djinn out of a bottle, a totally magical experience!)