The Matisse Stories- A S Byatt

A recent delightful review on the blog His Futile Preoccupations of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s book Getting it Right gives us glimpses into the life of Gavin, the sweet natured, imposed upon, protagonist who also happens to be a hairdresser. We see the missed lunches, the arrogant and lazy salon owner, the clients who vary from pitiable to rudely demanding, and the toll it takes on Gavin to remain calm under all these pressures. (The fact that he  lives with his parents who also have to be tip-toed around does not help.)

This immediately brought to my mind a wonderful short story by A S Byatt, which perceives events in the salon from the client’s viewpoint. Medusa’s Ankles is this story and it is found in her collection of three stories, entitled The Matisse Stories. Each of the three stories takes as its inspiration a work by the painter Matisse, hence the title. Medusa’s Ankles has an image of a Matisse drawing La Chevelure on its title page and we learn that Susanna, the woman who is ministered to by the hairdresser, Lucian, first walks into the salon because she sees a reproduction of a Matisse, a rosy voluptuous woman, in his shop window. Even though he doesn’t know the artist he feels this work gives his salon ‘a bit of class.’

And the salon certainly had class 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 sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the rosy nude spread herself.

And Lucian knew how to tend Susanna’s hair,

He soothed her middle-aged hair into a cunningly blown and natural windswept sweep, with escaping strands and tendrils, softening brow and chin.

This story is only twenty-five pages long. It has a wonderful trajectory from the calm comfortable relationship at the beginning of the story to this,

‘I’ll get Deidre to tone it down,’ said Lucian.

Susannah picked up a bottle, full of gel. She brought it down, heavily, on the grey glass shelf, which cracked.

‘I don’t want it toned down, I want,’ she began, and stared mesmerised at the crack, which was smeared with gel.

‘I want my real hair back,’ Susannah cried, and thumped harder, shattering both shelf and bottle.

Many of us can relate to her rage at the loss of control that can occur when placing one’s desire for beauty in the hands of others.

I should know. Yesterday, in preparation for a coming family event I spent two hours trapped in what one could only call the ‘beauty parlour’ getting an oil and grease. As my mother used to say, ‘They saw you coming.’

The Matisse Stories are among my all-time favourite short stories

Highly recommended

4 thoughts on “The Matisse Stories- A S Byatt

  1. How delightful! I had never heard of these stories until your post popped up in my reader. One for the wishlist, I think.
    (PS I have never quite figured out why other women seem to regard going to the hairdresser as a treat. The whole ‘salon’ experience feels somewhat intimidating to me, not to mention overpriced…)

    1. I completely agree And as to why the facial and body oiling is considered relaxing I can’t imagine. But I think you will enjoy all three stories in this book.

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