Iris Murdoch once described one of her novels to me as "a beautifully constructed object." It was the only time I ever heard her praise herself, and it stuck in my mind because of her famous distinction between "crystalline" and "journalistic" modern novels.
She had a natural preference for the faceted, coherent crystal over Henry James's loose baggy monsters. Her intelligent brilliance led her that way. Thinking about novels to give as presents, I thought that I instinctively chose beautifully constructed objects. I would like to give people Faberge eggs, not enveloping Balzacian dressing-gowns -- though I love those, too. I like to think of people slipping my presents into metaphorical pockets or handbags, and taking them out often to admire their intricacy.
The perfect tale-as-object is usually short. Some examples: Any of Borges's collections of tales, with their elegant labyrinths, puzzling mirrors, hexagonal libraries, repeating patterns. Early Calvino -- The Baron in the Trees or The Non-Existent Knight & The Cloven Viscount, which create whole, self-sustaining worlds, with clear, unforgettable images and people. Also Calvino's wonderful threaded variations on Imaginary Cities, which he said were all visions of Venice. From the North, Karen Blixen's clear-cut, inexorably told Gothic Tales or Anecdotes of Destiny, making deep patterns of distant lives, mixing grotesque terror and sharp elegance. Or, from Holland, Cees Nooteboom's meditative fables, Rituals, In the Dutch Mountains, The Following Story, reflective, lightly told, containing the ancient worlds of Grimm and Ovid but modern in their art. Or the box-in-box Russian dolls of Steven Millhauser's tales in The Knife Thrower. Or the English poet John Fuller's strange and delectable fable Flying to Nowhere, with its library transformed back to bellowing cows and sprouting papyrus reeds. Or Fuller's Look Twice, a tale-telling on a train leaving an East European revolution, with overtones of Conrad and Scheherazade. Or Nabokov's short stories.
What do these have in common? They make their own small, self-contained worlds, parallel to what we think of as the "real" world -- though they must, as Coleridge said of the true symbol, be both solid object and the idea or thought that is inextricably part of it. They delight in their own ingenious internal coherence; their craftsmanship is on display; their intelligence and inventiveness are a deep part of their meaning. They have authority and mystery, and are, as T.S. Eliot thought art should be, impersonal. You may recognize the author by his or her style, a pattern of colors, a rhythm, a kind of metaphysical problem, a landscape, which is peculiar to them. But they don't offer themselves up in their warmth and wetness for sympathy or identification. And for that reason, they don't, as Keats put it, have designs on you. Insistent satire isn't the same as this riddling art, nor is whimsy or mere narcissistic showing-off.
The novels and stories I have mentioned so far tend to use settings that are rich and strange, remote either in time or place or both. But a work may be modern and realistic and have the qualities that make it a perfectly crafted object. Nabokov never wrote a sentence that wasn't polished and gleaming, but his short Transparent Things qualifies for my imaginary collection of Faberge eggs. It is about transparency and the glitter of things -- pencils, windows -- transfigured in its own glassy medium. I would add Penelope Fitzgerald's latest three novels to my basket -- Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Blue Flower. Not a word is wasted, not a word doesn't have meaning, not a word is not connected elegantly to the web of all the other words. I think Alice Munro's stories have the same perfection, though differently achieved -- long, rambling threads of narrative, shuttling back and forth in time and space, are woven by a perfect craftswoman into a necessary shimmer of relations, so that each incident means and glitters more because of where it has been placed. The same is true of the German W.G. Sebald's extraordinary The Emigrants, which knots apparently random facts of apparently unconnected lives into a complete and elegant simulacrum of woeful incompleteness -- in which Nabokov makes repeated fleeting appearances like a bright thread in the somber sheen. These are the moonstones and dark agates on the surfaces, as opposed to the glitter of cut diamonds. I thought about including Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, which is just as beautifully constructed and has the same sense of the necessity of every phrase and incident in the place where it is. But the raw emotion of that tale -- even though that emotion is triumphantly contained by the form and an integral part of it -- puts it outside the collection of tales as objects. It is warm, it makes a cry, it breathes. This is not to say -- my most important point -- that the crystalline stories lack either deep feeling or meaning in the world outside their precise boundaries. But they are differently expressed.
These writers are all often spoken of as writers' writers, and I love them because they speak, flamboyantly or quietly, of the nature and necessity of making art in words. All writers should ask themselves, "Why write?," and these works are part of the answer. Writers, like painters and sculptors -- and scientists -- take pleasure in the exploration of form and order -- in grammar, in a text, in a butterfly wing or a snowflake. Other writers' writers are the Flaubert of the Trois contes or the Kafka of "The Hunger Artist" or early Beckett. This kind of elegance is not very English -- we tend either to the quirky or the dressing-gown kind of story. Alice in Wonderland is a beautiful object, but Carroll's other works sag with sentiment. Waugh is too acid and too full of society (in both senses). Chaucer had the gift, and the anonymous author of "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight." Among English novelists perhaps Thomas Love Peacock, brilliant, witty and strange, and elegant, and perhaps for that reason not taken to the hearts of the British public, who tend to associate brilliance with coldness. In the age of the memoir and the TV confessional, wit and lucidity and obliquity and strangeness are not primary values. The general public has never loved that truly original inventor Henry Green, who is kept alive by the enthusiasm of writers and a passionate group of discerning readers. I would add his Loving and Partygoing to my basket.
I think of my own works in progress with different visual (sometimes visceral) working metaphors. I think of them as continuous threads, which I am plaiting, or reinforcing, or feeling along, or sometimes inadvertently snapping. This image leads to the loose-baggy-monster aspect, the knitted dressing-gown following the human bulges and cavities. Or I think of them geometrically, as kaleidoscopes of colors and forms rearranging themselves -- a purple rectangle, a series of scarlet triangles, a golden cage of glittering connections. Here is the beginning of the novel-as-Faberge-egg. Novels I read -- as a writer -- sometimes reveal things about the thread of language and feeling, and sometimes stand there as self-sufficient, solid, unchangeable things. When I was a child, what I wanted for Christmas was what I had read about but never seen, a palace, or a castle, inside a glass sphere, where you could make a snowstorm by shaking it. What I wanted from books was another (more brilliant, more significant) world. What I want for Christmas now that I am a woman is a glass weight full of shining colored canes, hundreds of them, not one the same as the next, but contained in a pattern. I'd like to give people stories with that quality of magic, perfection and durability.
A.S. Byatt is the author of "Possession," "The Matisse Stories" and "Angels and Insects," among other works.