A.S. Byatt published The Matisse Stories in 1993. Reading the work in 2012, I find it’s aged well.
It’s a small volume, only three stories, two shorter stories bookending a longer one. All three are about color, and Matisse paintings, and how this time we live in is one if displacement, where living by the rules doesn’t apply because we only think they are rules, and when we learn that we find we don’t quite fit, that something is missing or incomplete.
In “Medusa’s Ankles,” an aging college professor becomes a regular customer at a hair salon because her hair is aging along with the rest of her. A painting, or print, by Matisse (largely pink) occupies a gray wall, and that is what first pulls her into the salon. All goes well until the salon is remodeled, the Matisse put away and replaced by photographs, and the owner makes an offhand comment about his wife’s ankles.
In “Art Work,” a magazine illustrator, her painter husband, and their two children depend upon their housekeeper to hold their lives together. Only the illustrator understands the importance of Mrs. Brown; her husband seems determined to drive her away. What the family doesn’t know is how well Mrs. Brown comes to understand concepts of color, and what she does with their cast-off clothes. They are in for a surprise.
In “the Chinese Lobster,” a college professor (also aging – I sense a theme here) has lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a friend and colleague, to let him know that a graduate student is accusing him of sexual harassment. The reader only sees the student through their conversation and the recall of a longish letter she’s sent. The student turns out to be anorexic, likely mentally ill, and is working on an art project that she believes will destroy Matisse (and why she wants to destroy Matisse is at the crux of the story).
Byatt, who’s received the Booker Prize and other significant recognitions, has created three stories in which at first little seems to happen; the plot structures lie within the minds of the characters. But by the end of each, the reader comes to understand that many things have happened, important things that transform the characters’ lives.
Every action, every word, plays a part in moving the story forward. The stories seem almost effortless, like a Matisse painting, but the appearance is deceiving. Each story is like a fine work of art, the complexity hidden behind the simplicity of the storytelling.
Byatt does not leave the reader hopeless, but neither does she leave a sense of hope or even relief. The Matisse Stories captures a sense of the displacement of contemporary life, seen through a lens of art and color.