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The Matisse Stories

A. S. Byatt

  Acclaim for A. S. BYATT’S

  The Matisse Stories

  “Brilliant. … Byatt’s fiction, like Matisse’s art, pays close attention to colors and contours of surfaces, then probes beneath them to reveal further surprises.”


  “Wonderful. … Like the best of Matisse’s works, these stories are luminous and illuminating.”

  —Miami Herald

  “A. S. Byatt’s three-tale sequence hits the imagination’s retina with all the vibrant splatter of an exploding paintbox. … Everywhere, scenes sizzle with chromatic intensity.”

  —The Sunday Times (London)

  “A writer of dazzling inventiveness.”


  “These stories are multi-layered … and thought-provoking. … Byatt has achieved the result she wanted—a book that is every bit as rich and sensual as a painting by Matisse.”

  —San Diego Union-Tribune

  “Exquisite triptych. … The Matisse Stories is richly drawn and touches upon things that matter to people.”


  “Byatt exuberantly plays with the language of color, using it to establish a mood and, like a painter, to draw the reader into a carefully arranged scene.”

  —L.A. Reader



  The Shadow of the Sun

  The Game The Virgin in the Garden

  Still Life

  Sugar and Other Stories

  Possession: A Romance

  Angels and Insects

  The Matisse Stories

  Babel Tower

  The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye


  The Biographer’s Tale


  Degrees of Freedom:

  The Novels of Iris Murdoch

  Unruly Times:

  Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time

  Passions of the Mind:

  Selected Writings

  Imagining Characters (with Ignês Sodré)


  The Matisse Stories

  A. S. Byatt is the author of the novels Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990), The Game, and the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels and Insects, and four collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Educated at Cambridge, she was a senior lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she lives in London.

  For Peter

  Who taught me to look at things slowly.

  With love.


  Medusa’s Ankles

  Art Work

  The Chinese Lobster

  Lachevelure, 1931-32

  Medusa ’s Ankles

  She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not women. The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall.

  She had asked cautiously for a cut and blow-dry. He had done her himself, the owner, Lucian of ‘Lucian’s’, slender and soft-moving, resembling a balletic Hamlet with full white sleeves and tight black trousers. The first few times she came it was the trousers she remembered, better than his face, which she saw only in the mirror behind her own, and which she felt a middle-aged disinclination to study. A woman’s relation with her hairdresser is anatomically odd. Her face meets his belt, his haunches skim her breathing, his face is far away, high and behind. His face had a closed and monkish look, rather fine, she thought, under soft, straight, dark hair, bright with health, not with added fats, or so it seemed.

  ‘I like your Matisse,’ she said, the first time.

  He looked blank.

  ‘The pink nude. I love her.’

  Oh, that. I saw it in a shop. I thought it went exactly with the colour-scheme I was planning.’

  Their eyes met in the mirror.

  ‘I thought she was wonderful,’ he said. ‘So calm, so damn sure of herself, such a lovely colour, I do think, don’t you? I fell for her, absolutely. I saw her in this shop in the Charing Cross Road and I went home, and said to my wife, I might think of placing her in the salon, and she thought nothing to it, but the next day I went back and just got her. She gives the salon a bit of class. I like things to have class.’

  In those days the salon was like the interior of a rosy cloud, all pinks and creams, with creamy muslin curtains here and there, and ivory brushes and combs, and here and there—the mirror-frames, the little trollies—a kind of sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the rosy nude spread herself. Music played—Susannah hated piped music—but this music was tinkling and tripping and dropping, quiet seraglio music, like sherbet. He gave her coffee in pink cups, with a pink and white wafer biscuit in the saucer. He soothed her middle-aged hair into a cunningly blown and natural windswept sweep, with escaping strands and tendrils, softening brow and chin. She remembered the hairdressing shop of her wartime childhood, with its boarded wooden cubicles, its advertisements for Amami shampoo, depicting ladies with blonde pageboys and red lips, in the forties bow which was wider than the thirties rosebud. Amami, she had always supposed, rhymed with smarmy and was somehow related to it. When she became a linguist, and could decline the verb to love in several languages, she saw suddenly one day that Amami was an erotic invitation, or command. Amami, love me, the blondes said, under their impeccably massed rolls of hair. Her mother had gone draggled under the chipped dome of the hairdryer, bristling with metal rollers, bobby-pins and pipe-cleaners. And had come out under a rigidly bouncy ‘set’, like a mountain of wax fruit, that made her seem artificial and embarrassing, drawing attention somehow to the unnatural whiteness of her false teeth.

  They had seemed like some kind of electrically shocking initiation into womanhood, those clamped domes descending and engulfing. She remembered her own first ‘set’, the heat and buzzing, and afterwards a slight torn tenderness of the scalp, a slight tindery dryness to the hair.

  In the sixties and seventies she had kept a natural look, had grown her hair long and straight and heavy, a chestnut-glossy curtain, had avoided places like this. And in the years of her avoidance, the cubicles had gone, everything was open and shared and above board, blow-dryers had largely replaced the hoods, plastic spikes the bristles.

  She had had to come back because her hair began to grow old. The ends split, the weight of it broke, a kind of frizzed fur replaced the gloss. Lucian said that curls and waves—following the lines of the new unevenness—would dissimulate, would render natural-looking, that was, young, what was indeed natural, the death of the cells. Short and bouncy was best, Lucian said, and proved it, tactfully. He stood above her with his fine hands cupped lightly round her new bubbles and wisps, like the hands of a priest round a Grail. She looked, quickly, quickly, it was better than before, thanked him and averted her eyes.

  She came to trust him with her disintegration.

  He was always late to their appointment, to all appointments. The salon was full of whisking young things, male and female, and he stopped to speak to all of them, to all the patient sitters, with their questing, mirror-bound stares. The telephone rang perpetually. She sat on a rosy foamy pouffe and read in a glossy magazine, Her Hair, an article at once solemnly p
ortentous and remorselessly jokey (such tones are common) about the hairdresser as the new healer, with his cure of souls.

  Once, the magazine informed her, the barber had been the local surgeon, had drawn teeth, set bones and dealt with female problems. Now in the rush of modern alienated life, the hairdresser performed the all-important function of listening. He elicited the tale of your troubles and calmed you.

  Lucían did not. He had another way. He created his own psychiatrist and guru from his captive hearer. Or at least, so Susannah found, who may have been specially selected because she was plump, which could be read as motherly, and because, as a university teacher she was, as he detected, herself a professional listener. He asked her advice.

  ‘I don’t see myself shut in here for the next twenty years. I want more out of life. Life has to have a meaning. I tried Tantric Art and the School of Meditation. Do you know about that sort of thing, about the inner life?’

  His fingers flicked and flicked in her hair, he compressed a ridge and scythed it.

  ‘Not really. I’m an agnostic.’

  ‘I’d like to know about art. You know about art. You know about that pink nude, don’t you? How do I find out?’

  She told him to read Lawrence Gowing, and he clamped the tress he was attending to, put down his scissors, and wrote it all down in a little dove-grey leather book. She told him where to find good extra-mural classes and who was good among the gallery lecturers.

  Next time she came it was not art, it was archaeology. There was no evidence that he had gone to the galleries or read the books.

  ‘The past pulls you,’ he said. ‘Bones in the ground and gold coins in a hoard, all that. I went down to the City and saw them digging up the Mithraic temples. There’s a religion, all that bull’s blood, dark and light, fascinating.’

  She wished he would tidy her head and be quiet. She could recognise the flitting mind, she considered. It frightened her. What she knew, what she cared about, what was coherent, was separate shards for him to flit over, remaining separate. You wrote books and gave lectures, and these little ribbons of fact shone briefly and vanished.

  ‘I don’t want to put the best years of my life into making suburban old dears presentable,’ he said. ‘I want something more.’

  ‘What?’ she said, meeting his brooding stare above the wet mat of her mop. He puffed foam into it and said, ‘Beauty, I want beauty. I must have beauty. I want to sail on a yacht among the Greek isles, with beautiful people.’ He caught her eye. ‘And see those temples and those sculptures.’ He pressed close, he pushed at the nape of her neck, her nose was near his discreet zip.

  ‘You’ve been washing it without conditioner,’ he said. ‘You aren’t doing yourself any good. I can tell.’

  She bent her head submissively, and he scraped the base of her skull.

  ‘You could have highlights,’ he said in a tone of no enthusiasm. ‘Bronze or mixed autumnal.’

  ‘No thanks. I prefer it natural.’

  He sighed.

  He began to tell her about his love life. She would have inclined, on the evidence before her eyes, to the view that he was homosexual. The salon was full of beautiful young men, who came, wielded the scissors briefly, giggled together in corners, and departed. Chinese, Indonesian, Glaswegian, South African. He shouted at them and giggled with them, they exchanged little gifts and paid off obscure little debts to each other. Once she came in late and found them sitting in a circle, playing poker. The girls were subordinate and brightly hopeless. None of them lasted long. They wore—in those days—pink overalls with cream silk bindings. She could tell he had a love life because of the amount of time he spent alternately pleasing and blustering on the telephone, his voice a blotting-paper hiss, his words inaudible, though she could hear the peppery rattle of the other voice, or voices, in the ear-piece. Her sessions began to take a long time, what with these phone calls and with his lengthy explanations, which he would accompany with gestures, making her look at his mirrored excitement, like a boy riding a bicycle with hands off.

  ‘Forgive me if I’m a bit distracted,’ he said. ‘My life is in crisis. Something I never believed could happen has happened. All my life I’ve been looking for something and now I’ve found it.’

  He wiped suds casually from her wet brow and scraped her eye-corner. She blinked.

  ‘Love,’ he said. ‘Total affinity. Absolute compatibility. A miracle. My other half. A perfectly beautiful girl.’

  She could think of no sentence to answer this. She said, schoolmistressy, what other tone was there? ‘And this has caused the crisis?’

  ‘She loves me, I couldn’t believe it but it is true. She loves me. She wants me to live with her.’

  ‘And your wife?’

  There was a wife, who had thought nothing to the purchase of the Rosy Nude.

  ‘She told me to get out of the house. So I got out. I went to her flat—my girlfriend’s. She came and fetched me back—my wife. She said I must choose, but she thinks I’ll choose her. I said it would be better for the moment just to let it evolve. I told her how do I know what I want, in this state of ecstasy, how do I know it’ll last, how do I know she’ll go on loving me?’

  He frowned impatiently and waved the scissors dangerously near her temples.

  ‘All she cares about is respectability. She says she loves me but all she cares about is what the neighbours say. I like my house, though. She keeps it nice, I have to say. It’s not stylish, but it is in good taste.’

  Over the next few months, maybe a year, the story evolved, in bumps and jerks, not, it must be said, with any satisfactory narrative shape. He was a very bad storyteller, Susannah realised slowly. None of the characters acquired any roundness. She formed no image of the nature of the beauty of the girlfriend, or of the way she spent her time when not demonstrating her total affinity for Lucían. She did not know whether the wife was a shrew or a sufferer, nervous or patient or even ironically detached. All these wraith-personae were inventions of Susannah’s own. About six months through the narrative Lucian said that his daughter was very upset about it all, the way he was forced to come and go, sometimes living at home, sometimes shut out.

  ‘You have a daughter?’

  ‘Fifteen. No, seventeen, I always get ages wrong!’

  She watched him touch his own gleaming hair in the mirror, and smile apprehensively at himself.

  ‘We were married very young,’ he said. ‘Very young, before we knew what was what.’

  ‘It’s hard on young girls, when there are disputes at home.’

  ‘It is. It’s hard on everyone. She says if I sell the house she’ll have nowhere to live while she takes her exams. I have to sell the house if I’m to afford to keep up my half of my girlfriend’s flat. I can’t keep up the mortgages on both. My wife doesn’t want to move. It’s understandable, I suppose, but she has to see we can’t go on like this. I can’t be torn apart like this, I’ve got to decide.’

  ‘You seem to have decided for your girlfriend.’

  He took a deep breath and put down everything, comb, scissors, hairdryer.

  ‘Ah, but I’m scared. I’m scared stiff if I take the plunge, I’ll be left with nothing. If she’s got me all the time, my girlfriend, perhaps she won’t go on loving me like this. And I like my house, you know, it feels sort of comfortable to me, I’m used to it, all the old chairs. I don’t quite like to think of it all sold and gone.’

  ‘Love isn’t easy.’

  ‘You can say that again.’

  ‘Do you think I’m getting thinner on top?’

  ‘What? Oh no, not really, I wouldn’t worry. We’ll just train this little bit to fall across there like that. Do you think she has a right to more than half the value of the house?’

  ‘I’m not a lawyer. I’m a classicist.’

  ‘We’re going on that Greek holiday. Me and my girlfriend. Sailing through the Greek Isles. I’ve bought scuba gear. The salon will be closed for a month.’

p; ‘I’m glad you told me.’

  While he was away the salon was redecorated. He had not told her about this, also, as indeed, why should he have done? It was done very fashionably in the latest colours, battleship-grey and maroon. Dried blood and instruments of slaughter, Susannah thought on her return. The colour scheme was one she particularly disliked. Everything was changed. The blue trollies had been replaced with hi-tech steely ones, the ceiling lowered, the faintly aquarial plate glass was replaced with storm-grey-one-way-see-through-no-glare which made even bright days dull ones. The music was now muted heavy metal. The young men and young women wore dark grey Japanese wrappers and what she thought of as the patients, which included herself, wore identical maroon ones. Her face in the mirror was grey, had lost the deceptive rosy haze of the earlier lighting.

  The Rosy Nude was taken down. In her place were photographs of girls with grey faces, coal-black eyes and spiky lashes, under bonfires of incandescent puce hair which matched their lips, rounded to suck, at microphones perhaps, or other things. The new teacups were black and hexagonal. The pink flowery biscuits were replaced by sugar-coated minty elliptical sweets, black and white like Go counters. She thought after the first shock of this, that she would go elsewhere. But she was afraid of being made, accidentally, by anyone else, to look a fool. He understood her hair, Lucían, she told herself. It needed understanding, these days, it was not much any more, its life was fading from it.