It’s the end of the world as we know it. Does AS Byatt feel fine? “There were versions of this story in which the world, which had ended in a flat plane of black water, was cleansed and resurrected, like the Christian world after the last judgment. But … I found [that] weak and thin compared to all the brilliant destruction. No, the wolf swallowed the king of the gods, the snake poisoned Thor, everything was burnt in a red light and drowned in blackness. It was, you might say, satisfactory.”
The most alarming thing about Ragnarok, Byatt’s retelling of the Norse apocalypse story for Canongate’s series The Myths, is that it is, indeed, most satisfactory. The stomp-the-sandcastle thoroughness of universal annihilation has rarely been rendered with such dark, contagious joy; I don’t believe the characters and events of the Norse myths, which I grew up on and have been reading in various versions all my life, have ever been captured so beautifully or succinctly in English.
The faults Byatt tends towards are generally those of loquacity. Many of her strengths lie in the same direction. In period tomes like The Children’s Book and Babel’s Tower she achieves a soaring, architectural expansiveness of vision that more than compensates for her self-hobbling insistence on cramming in wodges of historical research. But she’s also capable of concision, densely evocative imagery, lucid phrasing and a light touch. The best of her short fiction – the novella Morpho Eugenia, the collection The Matisse Stories – is as good as anything she’s ever written, and Ragnarok, a sylph of a book at 177 far from closely written pages, ranks with these.
Our entry into Norse myth comes via a nameless 1940s child – pretty clearly a version of Byatt’s own girlhood self – for whom the book Asgard and the Gods is at once a beloved, inexhaustible well of story, and a means of understanding that her own world may be about to end in the fire of German air raids. The myths, recreated in fecund, luminous prose, are the heart of the book. It’s only in her afterword that Byatt delivers her real sting: we are, all of us, in the position of her nameless 1940s protagonist-self.
“Almost all the scientists I know think we are bringing about our own extinction, more and more rapidly.” The satisfactory crunch of the book’s profligate destruction turns, as you read this, into the crunch of your own breaking bones.
RAGNAROK, by AS Byatt (Text, $30).
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