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This article is taken from PN Review 66, Volume 15 Number 4, March - April 1989.

The Hard Idea of Truth Michael Westlake

With the publication of Still Life, the second novel in the trilogy or tetralogy inaugurated by The Virgin In The Garden, A.S. Byatt has emerged as a defender of a certain kind of literary and philosophic faith. In print and in person, she has taken up the challenge laid down by post-structuralist thought to prevailing notions of language, truth, reality and personal identity. While conceding that naive ideas of correspondence of language to some pre-given reality are untenable, she fears that recent post-structuralist ideas, emphasising only the 'untrustworthiness' of language, undermine the social and logical possibility of truth (in conversation with Iris Murdoch at the ICA). Her position, elaborated at greater length in Still Life, cannot, however, be assimilated to the pre-Saussurean simplicities demanded by those who conceive of her as their ally in this cultural and intellectual debate. The novel's hesitations, contradictions and formal equivocations, its failure to secure the stability it seeks, can be read productively as an index of our larger cultural crisis.

Most critics, ignorant of or defending themselves against the backwardness of English literary culture, welcomed Still Life for its 'traditional' qualities, coupled with the evidence that Byatt for one had read and rejected the pretensions of Continental theorists and writers. Such a reception finds textual support: slabs of the novel display the virtues of 19th century high prose; and the interpolations of a narrator warning that 'it is now fashionable intellectually to write of Desire and the Other, of a desire ...

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