Like most of the backdated books on my shelves, I found The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories by A.S. Byatt in a used bookstore. Because of my growing interest in fairy tales and fairy tale analysis, there was no way I was leaving that bookstore without this collection. I must admit, however, that this blog post has been sitting in my drafts folder for many months (has it been a year?). I wanted to finish the last and title story before hitting publish, but as I explain below, things didn’t go as planned.
But before I get into that, the words from the back of the book:
The magnificent title story of this collection of fairy tales for adults describes the strange and uncanny relationship between its extravagantly intelligent heroine–a world renowned scholar of the art of story-telling–and the marvelous being that lives in a mysterious bottle, found in a dusty shop in an Istanbul bazaar. As A.S. Byatt renders this relationship with a powerful combination of erudition and passion, she makes the interaction of the natural and the supernatural seem not only convincing, but inevitable.
The companion stories in this collection each display different facets of Byatt’s remarkable gift for enchantment. They range from fables of sexual obsession to allegories of political tragedy; they draw us into narratives that are as mesmerizing as dreams and as bracing as philosophical meditations; and they all us to inhabit an imaginative universe astonishing in the precision of its detail, its intellectual consistency, and its splendor.
Painting: Musician by an unknown Persian painter from the 19th century
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
Before talking about the first four stories, I want to be upfront about my experience with the the title story. It is the longest in this collection, taking up about 2/3 of the pages. And unfortunately I only made it about 1/3 of the way into the story itself before putting it down indefinitely. The pacing of the first four stories is quite characteristic of fairy tales – quick or at least not dreadfully slow – but The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye brings the pace to a screeching halt and crawl. It was such a stark change that I thought it would be best to put it down for a couple of days and then come back to it when the pace and rush of the previous stories was not so fresh on my mind. Unfortunately that didn’t help, and I still felt like the story was dragging too much. It is very rare for pace to effect my reading like this, but I just couldn’t bring myself to continue on. The story is still in DNF status, and is likely to remain that way.
If you are interested in reading it for yourself, this story was published (1994) in The Paris Review, and can be found on their website.
The Glass Coffin
I was excited to see this tale listed in the table of contents, because I read and enjoyed the Grimm brothers’ version. A.S. Byatt’s version is slightly more lengthy than the Grimm version (not a critique), and the descriptions of what is inside the cave/hole in which the main character (a tailor) finds himself are more dazzling and delightful. A.S. Byatt also put more emphasis on the tailor’s artistry and craft, which I think helped elevate the beauty of the story even more.
This tale required me to read it more than once, and although I’m still not sure I have entirely grasped its purpose, I think I sort of understand it. It is also the one story that is a little tricky to explain and summarize, because its elements are more abstract than the others in this collection. So while this may be an unsatisfactory comment for those of you who have not read it, I can confidently say that it’s a tale of love, grief, and death, and quite an alluring one at that.
The Story of the Eldest Princess
It is not rare for the tradition of storytelling to be present in a fairy tale or fable, but not many tales have a main character (the eldest princess in this case) who acknowledges the patterns, flaws, and structure of those tales, particularly the ones in which someone (often a princess or maiden) goes on a quest and ends up getting distracted or sidetracked, and ultimately failing at whatever they were meant to do on said quest. By not wanting to fall into a pattern, the eldest princess ends up getting sidetracked and fails to fulfill the quest she was put on – fortunately her story ends quite hopefully. Color plays a big role in this tale, as does the natural world and an old woman who lives deep in a forest, living out her own story in ways she sees fit. This old woman tells the eldest princess the potential stories and fates of her two younger sisters, with the disclaimer that “‘many things may and do happen, stories change themselves, and these stories are not histories and have not happened. So you may believe my brief stories about the middle on and the youngest or not, as you choose.'”
Perfectly paced, just the right length, and hard-hitting enough that if you read it particularly during a certain moment in time (personally and/or globally speaking), your eyes will start to water. It’s about a village in which monotony is the way of life, and how a mounting threat, unstoppable tragedy, and numbing aftermath is what it takes for a community of people and individuals to see the beauty in their surroundings. I have fortunately found this tale online, so if you can bear it at the moment, give it a read here.
Although I am disappointed in the title tale (which, knowing myself, I will try again and again to read), this is a collection that will stay on my bookshelves. I love how each story [that I did finish reading] has its own degree of magic, wonder, and philosophy, which are all amplified by A.S. Byatt’s descriptive mastery. These are stories I want to return to for entertainment and direction – and isn’t that what we all want from fiction?