A. S. BYATT is an artful writer, craftsmanlike in her approach and drawn to themes involving art and artists. An academic critic as well as a novelist, she has a painter's eye for form and color, a scholar's respect for significant detail.
Her novel ''Possession,'' winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, portrayed the discovery of a secret romance between two Victorian poets (he, somewhat Browningesque; she, a sort of Christina Rossetti with a dash of Emily Dickinson). Byatt also recreated Victorian milieus in ''Angels and Insects'' (1992), which will be released as a film later this year.
Now in ''The Matisse Stories,'' her most painterly book to date, Byatt offers a triptych of short novellas, each linked to at least one painting by the great modern master of color and form.
The first story, ''Medusa's Ankles,'' is the slightest. A sensible married woman, a university lecturer, long accustomed to relying on her natural (i.e. uncosmetically aided) good looks, has more recently been resorting to the ministrations of a skilled hairdresser to counter the depredations of encroaching middle age. Susannah has come to frequent ''Lucian's,'' a cozy pink-and-cream beauty salon featuring a reproduction of one of her favorite pictures, Matisse's ''Rosy Nude.''
When the hairdresser's magic one day goes awry, the usually sedate Susannah loses her cool: ''I want my real hair back,'' she cries, meaning much more than that. Although this novella is something of a set-piece with some stagily predictable turns, it is redeemed by delicate touches of irony, pathos, and humor.
''Art Work,'' the middle story, is the longest and most elaborate. The calm, yet subtly mysterious domestic scene of Matisse's ''Le Silence habite des maisons'' (''The Silence That Lives in Houses'') serves to introduce the Dennison household.
Debbie Dennison is design editor of a women's magazine, the mother of two children (Natasha and Jamie), and wife of Robin Dennison, a serious artist whose years of dedication have not brought commercial success. Debbie is the breadwinner, managing her balancing act with the help of her reliable, if eccentric, housekeeper, Mrs. Brown, whose gruff, somewhat coarse qualities get on Robin's sensitive nerves.
Debbie loves her husband and believes in his talent, but she is terrified of losing Mrs. Brown. She finds herself acting as a buffer between them, while mothering the children, doing her magazine job, and trying to get influential gallery owners to consider her husband's work.
There are further complications when it is revealed that there is more to Mrs. Brown than meets the eye. Byatt provides a gently mocking yet essentially sympathetic portrait of this flawed but definitely functional and loving family.
Although the last novella, ''The Chinese Lobster,'' takes place in a single scene, it summons up the most complex blend of thought and emotion. Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, the dean of women at a London university, is meeting a colleague for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant.
Prof. Peregrine Diss, a tall, well-groomed gentleman-scholar and artist of the old school, has been accused of misconduct by a hysterical, rage-filled woman student, who has also formed a virulent hatred for the ''sexist'' paintings of Matisse.
Dr. Himmelblau shares Professor Diss's love for Matisse and for the discipline, beauty, and joy of great works of art. But she is also worried about the woman student, who is anorexic and suicidal.
The two colleagues' conversation over their delicious, thoughtfully ordered Chinese lunch is itself a demonstration of what it means to be, in the best sense, civilized.