Once again I am bowled over by A.S. Byatt. The three stories in this collection are gems, with fully realized characters and lovely plot twists that make you smile just at the lowest moment. Of course each has a connection to Matisse that is clever and satisfying and makes you want to rush to a museum to see a Matisse exhibition.
First, and I think my favorite is "Medusa's Ankles," set in a hair salon with a pink Matisse nude on the wall. It was purchased by the owner who in the same breath says he bought it to give the place class and that "I thought she was wonderful. So calm, so damn sure of herself, such a lovely colour, I do think, don't you?" The nude drew Susannah, an academic — a classicist — of a certain age, into the shop where Lucien the owner gave her haircuts and she listened to stories of his life. Lucien is ridiculous and insightful, self-centered and thoughtful, a terrific character.
Byatt is wonderful at description, for example, this passage about the salon:
In those days the salon was like the interior of a rosy cloud, all pinks and creams, with creamy muslin curtains here and there, and ivory brushes and combs, and here and there — the mirror-frames, the little trollies — a kind of sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the rosy nude spread herself. Music played — Susannah hated piped music — but this music was tinkling and tripping and dropping, quiet seraglio music like sherbet. He gave her coffee in pink cups, with a pink and white wafer biscuit in the saucer.
"Art Work" tells the story of a married couple who met in art school; Debbie writes for an art magazine called "A Woman's Place" while her husband paints and rants at the housekeeper. Debbie believes the housekeeper is indespensable to the operation and she lives in fear she will leave. "The Chinese Lobster" takes place over the course of a lunch between a near-retirement-age Dean of Women Students and a not-young professor of art. He was accused of sexual misconduct by a student who in his view has no talent and cannot even see. He didn't touch her, but was clear about his lack of respect for her. By the end of the lunch, he stops ranting about the student and we see the Dean and the professor, as well as the troubled student, in a new light.
A.S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories, Random House, 1993, 134 pages, available at the public library. (I listened to the audiobook).