Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Erasmus Prize was instated in a time of great optimism about a new Europe. What is left of this idea of Europe today? Where can we find a shared past to build on and find inspiration to create our future? Our laureate today is a prominent participant in the current debate. Not as a politician, nor an activist. But by passionately cultivating the life of the mind through writing. She writes, narrates and conjures up stories about European lives and European ideas, and she shows us how they live on.
Dame Antonia Susan Byatt once described how she became European: through literature. Asthmatic as a child, she was often confined to her bed. So she read voraciously. A wide-ranging literary palette was central to her education, and from an early age her conceptual world included the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Arthurian legends, the Norse and Icelandic sagas. She read Cicero and Livy alongside Kleist and Virgil, and Racine alongside Thomas Mann. At university she not only mastered foreign languages, but also studied literature through those languages. During an extended stay in the United States, Byatt steeped herself in American literature, striving to pinpoint exactly what it means to be American, and how that identity influences one’s writing. It was during this period that she first became conscious of the fact that she herself was a European. Although she was fascinated by American literature, the authors she studied never became part of her own literary consciousness, as was the case with Balzac, Racine and Thomas Mann. Her personal myths were Scandinavian, Germanic, European, and their names were Ragnarök, Faust and À la recherche du temps perdu. Indeed, Proust’s ruminations on artistic awakening and life experience have been influential in paving the way for what we now call ‘Life Writing’.
For ‘Life Writing’, ladies and gentlemen, is the theme of this year’s Erasmus Prize. A relatively new term, it denotes a literary genre that encompasses autobiography, biography, the so-called ‘ego document’, and the historical novel. Both the general public and academic world share an interest in ‘Life Writing’ as a means of reflecting on one’s own life through insight into the lives of others, a means of studying the complex process of identity formation. Our laureate, A.S. Byatt, lives in the heart of the genre. In her multifaceted and highly diverse oeuvre, comprising dozens of novels, short stories, critical essays and works of non-fiction, reflections on biography and portraiture are never far away.
Searching, investigating and digging through documents from the past – it is the academic pursuit of the two protagonists in her most famous and much beloved novel Possession: A Romance, published in 1990. Inquisitive and obsessed by their subject matter, like Byatt herself, the researchers become entangled in a web of mysteries garnished by an exquisite pastiche of genres and literary fireworks. Seemingly effortlessly, the author seams together diary entries, 20th-century dialogue and 19th-century poetry. Readers are startled once they discover that the Victorian poetry which seduced them so thoroughly in this romantic story was in fact crafted from beginning to end by the author Byatt herself. Seldom has a novel illustrated so beautifully how reality and literature can become enmeshed, how thin the mirrored wall between reality and the imagination can become.
“Whether you are reading or writing a novel,” she once told me in an interview, “in both cases you are trying to fundamentally understand something or someone.” Her book The Biographer’s Tale, about the complex relationship between the biographer and the object of his or her study, was written purposefully as an answer to Possession, to function as its counter-voice. In this investigation into the pains and difficulties of the work of the biographer, the clever ‘Droste effect’ or mise en abyme, so masterfully drawn by Byatt, is a means to an end, showing how biographical work is full of pitfalls and complexities, in which the end result tells us so much about the biographer himself, and conveys so little about the one who is portrayed. Being in conversation with and in contradiction to each other, Possession and The Biographer’s Tale in the end convey the same message, as Byatt herself has stated. “It is impossible to truly know ‘the other’, maybe especially the object of your admiration and affection.”
While these novels explore the relationship between biography and identity, a preoccupation in much of her work has always been how to shape life through art. In Peacock & Vine, her most recent essay, she brings together two artists, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, crafting their designs the way she herself crafts her own books. In this way the book could be considered a self-portrait in disguise. What is it that fascinates Byatt here? Work, research, passion. “Life is about change and curiosity,” she once observed. Peacock & Vine is an ode to research, to creativity and the power of creation – it is, in fact, the core of Byatt’s oeuvre.
Intrigued as she is by portraiture and storytelling, A.S. Byatt is also highly articulate in underlining that people’s lives can perhaps only be captured through fiction. It is through artistic expression that Byatt’s protagonists achieve their best chance of happiness, and it would be hard not to suppose that the same applies to the creator of these stories herself.
Like her protagonists, A.S. Byatt devotes herself to her art. To her, being a writer trumps everything, and all her activities serve that one cause. She also had an academic career even though she never considered herself a real academic. The same holds true for her critical essays: “I think of my criticism as being ‘writer’s criticism’” she once said.
But whoever thinks that her intellectual force in the traditional sense stands in the way of a keen eye for contemporary culture and language would be sorely mistaken. Whoever meets her is impressed by her dignity, her sharp mind, her scientific interests, her erudition. Not to mention her exquisite wit. When recently asked whether the Facebook/Twitter idiom of, say, her own grandchildren was foreign to her, or whether it upsets her that modern language is constantly changing, she replied: “I enjoy listening to them immensely…Of course you must never let them know that you were listening. You must assume the role of the grandmother.” “You see,” she continued, “you must like what you see, because it is what there is.”
Dame Antonia, with your fundamental artistic curiosity and your open and critical attitude, you embody in exemplary fashion the values of Erasmus that this Foundation cherishes so dearly. On behalf of our Foundation, I would like to congratulate you with this prize.
(presented by Margot Dijkgraaf, former vice-chair of the Foundation Praemium Erasmianum)