Former Laureates

A.S. Byatt

2016

Introduction

Life Writing is a broad concept in literature, encompassing biographies, autobiographies, historical novels and ego-documents such as dairies and correspondence. The genre is a subject of great interest today, not only because the biography, autobiography and historical novel enjoy increasing commercial success, but also because they are increasingly recognized in the fields of journalism and scholarship.

The aim of this Erasmus Prize is to carry the spirit of Erasmus – critical, undogmatic thinking, with an emphasis on the power of imagination – into literature. Moreover, various criteria have been applied. The laureate has produced an extensive body of work that has been translated into various languages, that crosses boundaries, that reveals a European context. A body of work of literary, historical and scholarly value. The laureate has in several ways contributed to the development of the genre. Moreover, the author has contributed to the genre in terms of both style and substance. An outstanding author, the laureate reflects on the genre of life writing. In A.S. Byatt, the advisory committee has chosen a “born storyteller with a keen eye for relations in public and private life”.

Citation

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:
“Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts. The emphasis lies on tolerance, cultural diversity and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim by awarding prizes and by other means. A cash prize is awarded under the name of ‘Erasmus Prize’.”In accordance with this article, the Board of the Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize 2016 to the British writer Dame Antonia Susan Byatt.

The prize is awarded to A.S. Byatt on the following grounds:

- Her work crosses boundaries in style and content. It covers an enormous range of genres, literary forms and subjects. She immerses the reader in the history of European thinking, taking the big questions about science, history and identity as her starting point.

- In her wide-ranging body of work she unites great intellectual force with unbridled imaginative power.

- Central to her work is a reinvention of ‘old tales in new forms’. In revisiting myths and fairy tales, she turns them into a lasting reflection on the European history of ideas in narrative form.

- Among her recurring themes are the influence of art on life, magic and realism, and the conflict between ambition and family.

- The jury describes A.S. Byatt as a born storyteller with a keen eye for relationships in public and private life.

- Many of her novels and her critical work explore the act of writing biography or conducting research. In the process, A.S. Byatt has reshaped the genre of life writing in her own unique way.

Laudatio

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)

Acceptance speech

Your Majesties, your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize foundation, friends and family,

It is hard – indeed not really possible – to say how surprised and delighted I was to be told, completely unexpectedly, that I had won the Erasmus Prize. Erasmus is of course one of my heroes – a European who was a great writer, a great humanist, and a great scholar. The Erasmus Prize is given not for fiction nor for literature but for contributions to culture, society and social thought. When I looked through the previous winners I found many of my heroes, those who have profoundly changed the ways in which I think and work. There are the great painters Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka, Sigmar Polke, the thinkers Claude Levi-Strauss, Claudio Magris, Ernst Gombrich, Simon Schaffer, Gabriel Marcel, and Isaiah Berlin. There are, I have to say, few women, but one of them is the Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, in whose company I am honoured to find myself. These are only a few of the powerful people on the prize list. It is indeed a shock – of an entirely splendid kind – to find that I have moved from being a reader, student and admirer to being in some way a companion. It is one of the happiest events of my life.

            Since this is not a literary prize I thought I would talk for a moment or two about the art of writing fiction. Storytelling is part of most people’s lives, almost from the moment we can understand language at all. Family tales, fairy stories, popular history, news and gossip are integral parts of human life. When I taught literature at University College in London University I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in the Senior Common Room Bar with the artists from the Slade School of Art. I started to think about the fact that they worked with concrete materials – clay, stone, paint, film – whereas what I work with is the language we also use to conduct our daily lives. Whilst I have been in Amsterdam I have had the great pleasure of talking with Edmund de Waal about how – and how early in his life – he understood that clay was what he would work with. Why do some of us need to make works of art? How do we choose what we work with? What effect does the shift from dailiness to art have on us as writers and readers?

            I remember – I am sure most of us remember – first noticing that the written word had a form that needed to be understood and thought about. Many of my generation of British children will have grown up with the series of school reading books, The Radiant Way, in which there was/is the unforgettable sequence of words:- “Pat can sing. Pat sing to Mother. Sing to Mother Pat. Mother sing to Pat.” And so on. We discover the “th”, the “ng” which are not part of the sounded out phrases we are first taught. We discover the written word as opposed to the spoken word. I think some writers become writers because they need stories, characters, other worlds. But there are those – and I have very slowly come to see that I am one of them – who think about words as painters think about paint. (Most writers have elements of both of course.) And yet, words retain their doubleness – their dailiness, their utilitarian ordinariness, and their work in poems and other works of art.

            It is interesting to read what writers have written about the inability to write. One of the most startling and imaginative descriptions of this state is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s story, the Letter from Lord Chandos, written in 1902. In this story the imaginary Lord Chandos writes to his friend Francis Bacon to say that he has completely lost the ability to put ideas into written language. Chandos tells Bacon that he can no longer grasp the ideas of a tract he wrote at the age of twenty-three “as a familiar image made up of connected words, but now I can comprehend it only word by word…” Nevertheless he is able to tell Bacon of his experience of having given orders for rat poison to be strewn in the milk cellar of one of his farms. He is able to describe the “sharp sweet smell” of the poison, the screams and struggles of the rats, when he has lost the capacity to generalise – he does not use this word or write of it in this way. It is an extraordinary essay, making its readers rethink the very nature of the relation between language and the world of things.

            Ernst Gombrich, in his essay on Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art touches on the gap between words and things from a different angle. He writes of paintings and sculptures where the artist has deliberately made a distance between words and things – Magritte, for instance, in The Key of Dreams, captioning a handbag as “le ciel”, a leaf as “la table” a pocket-knife as “l’oiseau” and then as Gombrich points out, dismissing us with laughter by simply calling a sponge a sponge. We can and do think without language – with simple or tough images or with feelings and passions – but the normal run of our consciousness is linguistic, and we almost automatically translate passion into words.

            What goes on in our minds when we think about using language? When we use language to write? I find I increasingly notice the language I am using as well as what I am trying to say or describe – Iris Murdoch in a different context spoke of the space between looking out of a window at the sky and the light and looking, at the same time, at the window itself, glass, dust, frame. When writing I switch from the emotion of the imagined world – curiosity, smells and sounds, spaces – to the forms of the words themselves. As a child, like many of my generation of British children, I read Beatrix Potter after having had her tales read to me. The stories were full of life – the puddle duck looking for somewhere to lay her eggs, the badger snoring and pretending to sleep, the little dog unintentionally ingesting a pie made of mouse. My agent Sam Edenborough doesn’t like these tales and it may be that they are now out of date. When I looked up Potter on Google I found, somewhat to my bemusement, a series of letters condemning her for cruelty and unpleasantness – as a child, and as a parent, I found her matter of fact sense of how things are, pain and difficulty and fear as well as satisfaction, both exciting and satisfying. I was a child in a war, in a world of danger and death, but Potter’s stories revealed cruelty and fear in a storytelling context. One of the glories of reading Potter – of having Potter read to me – was the discovering of unexpected and unknown words. I think my favourite was and is “soporific” from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies – in which the author informs the reader that lettuce is soporific. Anyone who will want to be a writer will be excited by the juxtaposition of the words soporific and flopsy. There were sentences like “Mr Drake Puddleduck advanced in a slow sideways manner and picked up the various articles” or ‘“I am affronted” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchett.’ “Affronted” is a wonderful word to learn. I think that the shift in my childish attention from the story to the language may have been a beginning of my need to be a writer. Though that may be a story I retrospectively tell myself.

            As I have suggested writers may come only gradually and slowly to think about the medium in which they work. Words and language are the medium of our daily communication. Perhaps fortunately I only came gradually to be aware of, and to think about, the difficulty and the glory of the gap between words and things, the shifts we have to make as readers and writers between thinking about things, thinking about words and things, taking pleasure in the gap between words and things. I want to end with Shakespeare. He was a poet and much of what modern dramatists would now convey purely with movement and expressions he conveyed with words, as though he was an epic poet. (I am for that reason distressed when modern actors swallow his words for dramatic effect.)

            In the unforgettable scene in Macbeth where Macbeth and his wife meet after their murder of Duncan most of what they say to each other is practical and terrible. Their hands are bloody, there is a knocking at the gate. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “get on thy night gown” and look as though he has come from bed. Macbeth meditates on murder and produces one of the great metaphors in the English language, calling in the ocean to the bloody bedroom.

            “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
            Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
            The multitudinous seas incarnadine
            Making the green one red.”

This shows one of the glories and beauties of the English language – the juxtaposition of Latin and English words. “Multitudinous” and “incarnadine” are pure Latin and Shakespeare’s audience and readers I imagine almost all take a sensuous pleasure in their sound and rhythm, rather than “seeing” anything. “The green one red” is anglo-saxon, and appeals to the visual imagination inside our heads. We “see” green and red, all of us differently, more or less vividly, all of us more intensely because of the preceding ‘multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine.’ We hear the music of the terrible words.

           I should like to end by thanking the Royal Family, the members of the Erasmus Prize foundation and the jury for the enormous honour you have done me by giving me this prize. I am also very happy to thank my publishers, agents, friends and family for being here with me on this special day.

           It is a prize for “life-writing” – a new and intriguing word for categorizing books and literature. As I have tried to say, the two - life and writing - are intricately entwined and yet also always distinguishable from each other. Here they come together – and thanks to your generosity my life and my writing have also come together, to my great delight. Thank you.

Biography A.S. Byatt

Dame Antonia Susan Byatt (1936) is the author of an extensive body of work that includes dozens of (historical) novels, biographies, short stories and critical essays. She made her name with the novel ‘Possession’, in which she describes how the paths followed by two young academics merge with those of the (fictional) nineteenth-century poets they are researching. In her work Byatt unites great erudition with remarkable imaginative power. Her writing is influenced by Marcel Proust and George Eliot, among others. Writing, for Byatt, is a “lifeline”. She calls it “one of life’s essentials, just like breathing”.

Byatt has a deep fondness for art. A central theme in many of her works is the way artists live life through their artistic expression. She focuses on the creative process itself, which fascinates her greatly. Byatt explores a range of genres, literary forms and subjects to immerse the reader in the history of European thinking, taking the big questions of science, history and identity as her starting point.

Among her recurring themes are the influence of art on life, magic and reality, and the conflict between ambition and family. Her works bring together not only artists and academics, but also fairy tales and myths. Many of her novels, including ‘The Biographer’s Tale’ and ‘Possession’, explore the act of writing biography or conducting research. They have enabled her to reshape the genre of life writing in her own, original way. Among her best-known works are ‘Possession’, collections of short stories like ‘Sugar and other Stories’, and the novel ‘The Children’s Book’. Her most recent book (2016) ‘Peacock and Vine’, examines the work and life of visual artists William Morris in London and Mariano Fortuny in Venice.

A.S. Byatt has received numerous honorary degrees, including one from Leiden University (2010). She has also won literary accolades around the world, among them the Booker Prize in 1990 for ‘Possession’. In her native country she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999, and in France she was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2003.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Writing contest Six Sentence Self-portrait

This year the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation organizes the writing contest 'Six Sentence Self-portrait'.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Erasmus Prize 2016 awarded to A.S. Byatt

The 2016 Erasmus Prize is awarded to the British author A.S. Byatt.

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize to A.S. Byatt

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize to A.S. Byatt

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt

Presentation of the Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt

Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt

Erasmus Prize 2016 to A.S. Byatt