If one were to consider Mandy Greer’s current project, Solstenen, as an “adaptation” of A.S. Byatt’s short story “A Stone Woman,” one might first do a close reading of the story—the source text—and then compare how the project—the adapted “text”—re-told the story living in their shared core.
A scholar of twenty-first century adaptation theory would first dismiss the question of “fidelity” as historically superseded, and then proceed to uncover how the narrative threads in Byatt’s work revealed themselves in a different time, through a different medium, and to a different audience in Greer’s work, thereby charting an evolution of a story.
Indeed, Greer herself cites Byatt as a source, and speaks directly to the identificatory processes at play in relating Byatt’s character Ines’ journey of slowly becoming stone to Greer’s experience of the birth of her son seven years ago. While Ines mourns the loss of her mother by growing stones where her umbilical cord used to be, Greer recalls the first days of motherhood and “the rigidity and un-familiar quality of [her] own body.” She continues: “it wasn’t so much breastfeeding, but more of a constant adrenaline of being a protector and the physical labor of that constant other body I had to deal with.” Both Byatt’s story and Greer’s, then, quite literally embody the question of the mother-child bond—one through death and severing, the other through birth and attachment. Solstenen, as adaptation, will yield a further interpretation of the Byatt story, as Greer crochets thread, fabric, and stones into wearable pieces for a site-specific work at The Project Room next year.
But how does a scholar of adaptation begin to approach the as-yet-unadapted? There are no texts to set side by side. The story of Ines’ mother’s death and Ines’ response to it has no counterpart yet in the silver and grey crocheted web gradually enveloping The Project Room this summer, as Greer…Mandy…pulls threads through loops in communion with material, with concept, with space, and with the people who visit the studio during her crochet gatherings.
One could, perhaps, note the gradual aspect of metamorphosis in both: Ines is an etymologist who categorizes and organizes meanings rather than lives them. After what the reader imagines has been an emotionless life, Ines’ excess of grief at her mother’s death slowly manifests itself as a web of veins and knobs of hard, jeweled mineral encrusting her body, beginning at a scar site on her abdomen. So, too, the yarns and scraps of fabric in The Project Room grow daily into ever longer looped arms, extending themselves over shelves, from hooks, down pipes. But the lightness of the room, the fan turning overhead, the hot water kettle, the large table, the friends and artists and passersby laughing and telling tales as the crochet hooks skitter through thread—this is all the furthest thing from grief.
“You will never be a scholar, Jenifer. You feel too deeply.” When my graduate adviser said these words to me early in my academic career, I started on my own process, 18 years in duration, of pinching off every feeling that started to awaken as I dealt with German literature and cinema. When my heart pounded at a turn of phrase, I breathed deeply to measure it. When a scene was framed ideally for its purpose and I wanted to leap up and run toward the screen because it was so amazing, I made myself cross my legs, sit up straight, and sketch out the mise-en-scène in a notebook in the dark, coolly. And I succeeded. I published articles and book chapters and a book, I gave papers at conferences, I taught at well-respected liberal arts colleges and received tenure and promotion. And I told the other me (the peculiar and creative storyteller from Arkansas, the cook, the potter, the picture-maker, the singer) to go away. The scholar must be invisible.
Of course I disobeyed me. A tornado came in 1998 and blew things away, leaving in their place my once-hushed voice. I started to sing again, and write poetry, and replace trimming tools, and apply for jobs at arts colleges in Seattle…
Mandy and I first met at a dinner in The Project Room, as she told us (the board of advisors) aboutSolstenen. Given my own history writing about adaptations, I was fascinated by what residue of “A Stone Woman” would stick to this work, and I asked if Mandy would meet me for coffee to talk more in depth about this influence. It was not an interview per se—in fact, I scarcely remember asking a question. What I call up in my mind’s heart is two women at the Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House, sharing tiny cinnamon rolls and chai tea and tripping over themselves to tell stories about what compelled them to make things: a parallel experience in graduate school of not being taken seriously by a male professor and the joyous damage it had done (we are both, after all, here and more fierce for it)—the making that escaped. We talked about literature and how Mandy’s “massive ingestion of books” as she was becoming a visual artist shaped her, about the fact that the art often resides as much in those moments of making and being stuck in the weeds of influence as it does in any finally freed, finally installed work.
“Products are an archive—the work is done. The process is what keeps me alive.”
We talked about Iceland and myth and A.S. Byatt and how 9/11 served as her “tornado”—where I took voice lessons and traveled to China, she bought tap shoes and a hula hoop. We considered metamorphosis and adaptation and evolution and appropriation and whether those are wholly separate or how they differ, if degrees of same. We mused on Ines and Thorsteinn, the Icelandic stone carver, and their relationship: a woman dying by turning to stone and in the process becoming more alive; a man who takes her as she is and is becoming. There was talk of mineral names and colors. Gregor Samsa and Kafka were mentioned (Gregor’s metamorphosis into a dung beetle being brought about by a too-present father, as opposed to Ines’ calcification resulting from a suddenly-absent mother)…. In short, we gave ourselves over to what Byatt calls the romance of scholarship, to not knowing, to the conversation one is in, the book one is reading, the thread one is crocheting.
“Who am I going to get entangled with because this story stuck with me?” Mandy asked this question rhetorically, and yet I think of it every time I visit The Project Room these days, just before the end of her residency. So many different hands created the work draping the room. So many artists and thinkers have sat around that table, asking the big questions and despairing of, delighting in, the not knowing. There will be people and landscapes and stones and threads and weeds in Iceland, as well, and when Mandy returns to The Project Room next year, she will have been transformed—adapted—by the time and space between now and then and here and there.
My scholarly tools are of little use in tracing this process, certainly not as a foreshadowing. A few years ago I might have spit out these words, still trying to re-claim a voice I had stifled. Now, I find relief and calm in having access to two languages, like Thorsteinn, the stone carver in Byatt’s story, who was only able to witness Ines’ transformation because he understood both the language of human reality and the language of myth and trolls. So, too, I live in the space between my ability to ground myself and do a scholar’s “close reading” of A.S. Byatt, on the one hand, and soar with curiosity about Solstenen as a process, on the other—knowing that an adaptation study is still premature. What will this work become? And what will The Project Room be, when Mandy comes full circle here next year?
Meanwhile, I will write these thoughts down (ending with a footnote—this voice, too, is my voice), since the grey-silver stone and thread piece that returns here on Mandy’s back a year hence will already be an archive of all that is unfolding. I feel (too deeply) like Thorsteinn, when he asks Ines if she will sit for him in his studio:
“I too, he said, am utterly changed by your changing. I want to make a record of it.” 1
"What is the source story?" Photo by Jenifer Ward
1 A.S. Byatt, “A Stone Woman,” in Little Black Book of Stories (New York: Vintage, 2005), p. 149.