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The Game (1967)

by A. S. Byatt

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6721424,589 (3.23)18
When they were little girls, Cassandra and Julia played a game in which they entered an alternate world modeled on the landscapes of Arthurian romance. Now, the sisters are grown and have become hostile strangers--until a figure from their past, a man they once both loved and suffered over, reenters their lives. It is the skittish, snake-obsessed Simon who draws Julia and Cassandra into his charismatic orbit... and into menacing proximity to each other, their discarded selves, and the game that neither of them has completely forgotten.… (more)
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This was Byatt's second novel of the sixties, whose writing overlapped with The shadow of the sun. It picks up different aspects of the same theme, the way social expectations at the time wouldn't allow a woman to be both an academic and a creative artist, or indeed both an academic and a wife and mother. But where The shadow of the sun does this by presenting a young woman with (false) choices, The Game shows us two sisters in their thirties, after their lives have been sent off down diverging tramlines, with Cassandra — the imaginative, dogmatic one — turned into a spinsterish don in an Oxford ladies' college and Julia — the one who's connected to the real world — into a successful social-realist novelist with a family and a slot on a TV arts programme.

There are plenty of hints in the text that we are meant to read these two women as different sides of the same person, but of course we're also going to be jumping to conclusions about possible autobiographical elements, and Byatt exploits that knowledge by talking about the way that novelists can't help stealing from real life, and having Julia precipitate the novel's crisis by writing a book about a character obviously based on Cassandra.

There's also a lot in the book about engagement with the real world, and what it means: Julia and Cassandra are both, in different ways, still stuck in the Brontë-ish fantasy country of the Game they played as children, which was clearly at least in part an escape from the well-meaning rootedness of their Quaker family. At the same time, Simon, the boy they fought over many years ago, is off in the rain-forest trying to convince us all that what a snake is to the world and to itself is more important than what the image of a snake suggests to a human, and Julia's charity-organiser husband Thor burns with frustration at his inability to solve the real problems that he sees around him.

Iris Murdoch's footprints are all over this, of course (Byatt was also working on a critical study of her early novels at the time), but it isn't quite a pastiche Iris Murdoch novel. One very striking element (which I'm sure some readers hate) is the way the novelist and the critic constantly seem to be fighting in the background, forcing us to be constantly aware that this is a novel we're reading: characters are forever realising why they've just said what they did, and what effect they must have been trying to achieve with those words; towards the end of the book Byatt amuses herself by parodying a Sunday Times review of Julia's book-within-a-book, in which the reviewer picks out for particular criticism some of the most memorable images in the "real" story, like Cassandra's crucifix necklace dangling in the college spaghetti. ( )
  thorold | Sep 2, 2020 |
Blick. Bluck. Blech.

I'm not a huge Byatt follower (give me her estranged sister, Margaret Drabble, any day). But at her best, she's good.

Here... she ain't. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
What's not to love? Doomed, obsessive sisterly and romantic relationships entangled with myth and the ever-present atmosphere of menace and darkness. ( )
  subabat | Mar 19, 2018 |
This book is less immediately engaging than the later books which made A S Byatt popular, but it is intriguing and disciplined. It's possible to see her use of interlocking plots and relationships illuminating wider themes; her interest in science and religion as forms of creativity; and her detailed and precise excavation of personal relationships. In this case, the relationship between two sisters is the heart of the novel, illuminated by various other interactions. Awkward comedy sits alongside high seriousness, and the writing is detailed and demanding - I often found myself repeating sections of prose to try to understand the nuances. I enjoyed reading a novel where everything fits a purpose and there is very little additional baggage - I suspect some of its images will stay with me for a long time - Cassandra painting furiously in the botanical gardens; the awful college dinner party then skewered in fiction; Julia eating avocado with her lover in front of the fire...
1 vote otterley | Mar 14, 2016 |
Dire and deeply boring.

There's a problem with the dialogue and I notice she plays to her strengths at the start by keeping it to minimum, thank God.

She writes fairly well and most of her sentences can be understood but she's referencing works that elicit emotional responses. Le Morte Darthur gets me all teary eyed over some guy getting his brain pan cleaved. But it's not enough just to mention it. It doesn't impress me. And is that a ham fisted and abortive attempt at symbolism with the snakes? Don't make me laugh. Certainly don't make me cringe with sympathetic embarrassment at the pretentiousness of it all. The characters are pretentious because the author is. ( )
  Lukerik | Nov 26, 2015 |
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"Come again soon", Julia said, arresting them again at the top of the stairs, smiling and pleading.
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I think
no one has the necessary right to publish what they know - however good it
might be for them to write it.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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When they were little girls, Cassandra and Julia played a game in which they entered an alternate world modeled on the landscapes of Arthurian romance. Now, the sisters are grown and have become hostile strangers--until a figure from their past, a man they once both loved and suffered over, reenters their lives. It is the skittish, snake-obsessed Simon who draws Julia and Cassandra into his charismatic orbit... and into menacing proximity to each other, their discarded selves, and the game that neither of them has completely forgotten.

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