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A Challenging Work By Two Formidable Scholars Revisits Some Of Our Finest Women Writers

By Merrik Bush

Imagining Characters, by A.S. Byatt and Ignês Sodré; edited by Rebecca Swift (Vintage Books). Paper, $14.

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  IF NATIONAL BESTSELLER lists are any indication of popular tastes, it's safe to say American readers like their fiction entertaining, viscerally stimulating and intellectually unchallenging--a quick-acting formula to escape collective ennui without having to work too hard. There still exist, however, pockets of literary purists who spurn the formulaic book-of-the-month mainstays by Clancy, Koontz, Crichton and Steele (at least in principle) for the works of more challenging, thought-provoking scribes such as, say, Austen, Brontë, Cather and Morrison.

For the unabashedly well-read, Vintage Books has released a companion guide, of sorts, that promises to take readers one step further into the minds of these authors and their fictional human menageries. Imagining Characters, newly released in the United States after its British debut two years ago, is a book of literary conversations between British novelist and noted scholar A.S. Byatt (best known in America for her works Angels & Insects and Possession) and lesser known Brazilian psychoanalyst Ignês Sodré. The reader is invited to "listen-in" while these two discriminating readers discuss and evaluate six novels by six seminal female authors: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, George Eliot and Toni Morrison.

Sounds great in principle; but in spite of the wealth of critical and creative talent involved, the effort required to read this work is more an exercise in discipline than an act of pleasure. The "conversations" are at times witty, profound and refreshingly free of pedantic rhetoric, but this proves more the exception than the rule. More to the point, readers are well advised to do their homework before reading this work, because Characters, although billed on the cover as "six conversations about six women writers," is really "six conversations about six novels by six women writers": Austen's Mansfield Park, Brontë's Villette, Eliot's Daniel Deronda, Cather's The Professor's House, Murdoch's An Unofficial Rose, and Morrison's Beloved. And though you desperately want to like Characters because Byatt and Sodré are so erudite, compassionate and disarmingly intelligent, you inevitably get lost amid the unfamiliar territory.

The readership for Characters seems awfully narrow--better suited as a required text in a graduate-level literature course than gathering dust on a Barnes & Noble reference shelf. But even for those who move freely in this circle of literary classics, Characters still has some problems. The authors are intensely polite and agreeable, rendering the discussions somewhat rehearsed and far too sedate. One must read carefully to discern where Byatt's thoughts end and Sodré's begin. The transition between narrators--and new thoughts--is totally seamless, which doesn't seem as interesting in this format.

The reader is also simply left out of the whole endeavor. The authors share their ideas and analysis of the works with each other, not the reader. Approached often from a Freudian perspective, with vague references to philosophical treatises, religious and mythological paradigms, and European literature, Byatt and Sodré analyze the psychology and morality of each book's characters, and authors, at a level that often obscures the point for the less-educated reader.

And the big question remains: Why these specific novels? The preface, by editor Rebecca Swift, explains that Byatt and Sodré met at a literary festival, were attracted to each other intellectually, and found that, basically, they had lots to chat about. Swift overheard their conversation and approached them with the idea for Characters: "(Their) conversation was electrifying, informed not only by a mutual knowledge and love of literature, but also by a deep interest in human development. Each...sparked the other with a challenging blend of sympathy and difference."

Swift's hope that readers might vicariously experience this same intensity, by reading its translation into the printed page, is a lofty goal but a boring read. Swift, perhaps understanding the alienating quality of such an insular conversation, dangles a carrot to the reader: She promises that Byatt and Sodré will discover, and be mutually surprised by, fascinating and profound connections between the books that readers, universally, will also appreciate.

This is where Swift proves a savvy editor, because it's this mystery that just barely keeps the reader from shelving Characters under the burgeoning category "should-read-it-because-it's-good-for-me."

Byatt and Sodré do develop the promised "links" between novels as their dialogue evolves--connections such as the presence of myth and fairy-tale allegories, Freudian theory, the restrictive roles of women, lessons on morality, fear of death, and the oppression of marriage. These are the bright spots in this 257-page discourse. During these seemingly unscripted passages, the reader is allowed a more participatory role: The beauty and thrill of conversation comes through, illuminating insights and ideas that are surprising and unpredictable. At these moments, where the reader gets it, Characters just may succeed in tempering our itch to cast scholarship aside and pick up the latest Anne Rice novel.

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