Although A.S. Byatt's new novel is set in 1960s London and the action centers around two very modern trials -- a divorce/custody battle and an obscenity prosecution -- and although the characters read and argue about Kafka and D.H. Lawrence and the heroine is a woman struggling for independence, the heart of Babel Tower belongs to the 19th century. This is the sort of fat, serious, passionate book that George Eliot and Thomas Hardy wrote, a good read and an ambitious creation by an author who behaves as if James Joyce never existed -- and gets away with it.
The novel begins as the fiercely bookish Frederica Reiver realizes she's made a terrible and irrevocable mistake. Stricken by the accidental death of her sister and dazzled by sex, she married Nigel, a rich, wolfish squire with whom she produced one beloved son, Leo. The marriage has degenerated into captivity and violence, and she flees for the city, Leo in tow, to resume her life as an intellectual surrounded by her Cambridge-educated friends. "I must work," Frederica avers, landing a job with a publisher who, on her recommendation, puts out a book, "Babeltower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time," about an anything-goes utopian community where everything goes very, very bad. The hair-raising Sadean hijinks depicted by the book's author, Jude Mason, land both author and publisher in court.
If Byatt never successfully captures the fizzy, fragmented sensibility of the pop-maddened '60s, she does something more rare: frame the usually simplified "social issues" of the era with the agonized moral complexity of her Victorian forebearers. There are no easy, self-righteous answers here. As for sheer fun, Byatt flaunts her gift for literary mimickry to excellent effect. From Jude Mason's creepily over-ripe fairy tale prose, to a scientific treatise on snail sexuality, to the minutes of a committee charged with reporting on "language and children," to tantalizing slivers from an engaging fantasy-adventure yarn, this novel, like all of Byatt's, teems with the voices of a dozen imaginary books.
Byatt has described her love of the novel as something "you can put the whole world into." Often enough, however, she and her characters have made a world of books. "They are her books," thinks Frederica of her collection, "and not only her books, but part of herself." Byatt writes like a novelist who believes that her work really can matter that deeply, and more often than not, she's right. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One does not usually associate Byatt, who has often worked on a small-even miniature-scale, with the notion of an epic novel; but that, in terms of scope and ambition, is just what she has created here. It is an invigorating spectacle, as well as a welcome reminder of how a fine novelist can illuminate a whole era in ways not even the most skilled social historian can. Set in England in the mid-1960s, the novel focuses on Frederica, an attractive, highly intelligent and bookish young woman who cut a swath at Cambridge University, then married Nigel Reiver, a well-to-do member of the landed gentry with a country house, two doting sisters and a way of life that soon seems utterly stifling to Frederica. Her small son, Leo, passionately loved by both parents, is soon the only vital element in her existence; and when friends from her former life come calling, and are rudely rebuffed by Nigel, Frederica rebels. When Nigel, ever apologetic, but convinced it is for her own good, starts knocking her about, Frederica flees to London, with Leo clinging to her in desperation. Thereafter, the book is an account of the drawn-out custody battle over Leo, climaxing in a divorce hearing that exquisitely renders the issues of a woman's independence. More impressively, it is a riveting account of changing mores, as England begins to emerge from its ancient certainties into the shifting priorities, freedoms and follies of the "Swinging Sixties." Among the manifestations of such changes is a book written by an eccentric, Nietzschean acquaintance of Frederica's-a fantasy, with sado-erotic overtones, about the pleasures and limits of freedom. This book (a reprise of the book-within-a-book device Byatt employed in Possession) becomes the focus of another court case when its author is prosecuted for obscenity. Through the two cases (which leap from the page much more enthrallingly, convincingly and thought-provokingly than most legal thrillers) Byatt represents a whole society trying to come to terms with new values. The narrative is mesmerisingly readable, except for long excerpts from Babbletower, the prosecuted novel, and Frederica's own rather hermetic attempts at self-expression-though even these are perfectly believable in their own right. In many ways, this is a book about language, and how it is used to conceal and reveal (there is a wonderfuly satirical subplot about a commission examining English educational methods). But it also employs language, brilliantly, to create a large cast of characters whose struggles, anxieties and small triumphs are at once specific to a time and place, and universal. Simultaneous Random AudioBook; author tour. (May)
After collecting her Booker Award (Matisse Stories, LJ 4/1/95) and scrapping with Martin Amis, Byatt found time to write a novel set against the shifting moral, political, and musical sands of the 1960s.
An ambitious, intelligent work that, while aiming to get Britain's swinging '60s down pat, unfortunately scants the usual fictional elements, putting in their place a mordant and always perceptive historical critique.
This third installment in Byatt's planned quartet (after The Virgin in the Garden, 1979; Still Life, 1985) is set in that small, cozy Brit world where everyone knows everyone else because they've all been to prep school or Oxbridge together. They're insular people, smug about their politics, their unbelief, and their intellectual acumen, which, paradoxically perhaps, makes them particularly vulnerable to change. In 1964, as the story begins, Frederica, married to Nigel and the mother of four-year-old Leo, wants to put her Cambridge English degree to use. But Nigel, a quick-tempered male chauvinist, won't hear of it, of course, so after he's roughed her up a couple of times, Frederica flees with Leo to London. There, old Cambridge pals find work for her, and she begins to make a life. Revolution, however, is in the air: Students test the limits, drugs are omnipresent, grammar is under assault, the environment is polluted, nuclear war threatens, and sexual freedom is a givenall of which is crystallized in a work of fiction, Babbletower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time, that Frederica reads for a publisher and recommends. Written by Jude, a homeless vagrant with a pedigree, the novelchapters of which are excerpted heregraphically describes a dystopia where freedom has reached its ultimate and nihilistic limits. Babbletower, and Frederica's desire to work and raise her child as a divorced woman, define the times, and the lengthy court cases in which the book is banned and Frederica granted her divorce are both fully covered. Nothing is really resolved, though the publisher of Babbletower eventually wins on appeal and Frederica gets her freedom, since what matters is the Zeitgeist, not the characters.
Clever, with moments of wit and insight, but a somewhat lumbering dance to the music of time. Not Byatt's best.
Read an Excerpt
It might begin:Copyright 1997 by A.S. Byatt
The thrush has his anvil or altar on one fallen stone in a heap, gold and grey, roughly squared and shaped, hot in the sun and mossy in the shade. The massive rubble is in a clearing on a high hill. Below is the canopy of the forest. There is a spring, of course, and a little river flowing from it.
The thrush appears to be listening to the earth. In fact he is looking, with his sideways stare, for his secret prey in the grass, in the fallen leaves. He stabs, he pierces, he carries the shell with its soft centre to his stone. He lifts the shell, he cracks it down. He repeats. He repeats. He extracts the bruised flesh, he sips, he juggles, he swallows. His throat ripples. He sings. His song is liquid syllables, short cries, serial trills. His feathers gleam, creamy and brown-spotted. He repeats. He repeats.
Characters are carved on the stones. Maybe runes, maybe cuneiform, maybe ideograms of a bird's eye or a creature walking, or pricking spears and hatchets. Here are broken alphabets, a and ?, C and T, A and G. Round the stones are the broken shells, helical whorls like empty ears in which no hammer beats on no anvil. They nestle. Their sound is brittle. Their lips are pure white (Helix hortensis) and shining black (Helix nemoralis). They are striped and coiled, gold, rose, chalk, umber; they rattle together as the quick bird steps among them. In the stones are the coiled remains of their congeners, millions of years old.
The thrush sings his limited lovely notes. He stands on the stone, which we call his anvil or altar, and repeats his song. Why does his song give us such pleasure?
Or it might begin with Hugh Pink, walkingin Laidley Woods in Herefordshire in the autumn of 1964. The woods are mostly virgin woodland, crowded between mountainsides, but Hugh Pink is walking along an avenue of ancient yews, stretched darkly over hills and across valleys.
His thoughts buzz round him like a cloud of insects, of varying colours, sizes and liveliness. He thinks about the poem he is writing, a rich red honeycomb of a poem about a pomegranate, and he thinks about how to make a living. He does not like teaching in schools, but that is how he has recently made some sort of living, and he reconstructs the smells of chalk and ink and boys, the noise of corridors and tumult, amongst the dark trees. The wood floor smells pungent and rotting. He thinks of Rupert Parrott, the publisher, who might pay him to read manuscripts. He does not think he will pay much, but it might be enough. He thinks of the blooded pink jelly of pomegranates, of the word "pomegranate," round and spicy. He thinks of Persephone and is moved by the automatic power of the myth and then repelled by caution. The myth is too big, too easy, too much for his pomegranate. He must be oblique. Why is there this necessity, now, to be oblique? He thinks of Persephone as he used to imagine her when he was a boy, a young white girl in a dark cavern, before a black table, with a gold plate containing a heap of seeds. He had supposed the six seeds she ate were dry seeds, when he was a boy and had never seen a pomegranate. Her head is bowed, her hair is pale gold. She knows she should not eat, and eats. Why? It is not a question you can ask. The story compels her to eat. As he thinks, his eyes take in the woods, brambles and saplings, flaming spindle-berries and gleaming holly leaves. He thinks that he will remember Persephone and holly, and suddenly sees that the soft quadruple rosy seed of the spindle is not unlike the packed seeds of the pomegranate. He thinks about spindles, touches on Sleeping Beauty and her pricked finger, goes back to Persephone, dreaming girls who have eaten forbidden bloody seeds. Not the poem he is writing. His poem is about fruit flesh. His feet make a regular rhythm on fallen needles and the blanket of soft decay. He will remember the trees for the images in his mind's eye, and the images for the trees. The brain does all sorts of work, Hugh Pink thinks. Why does it do this sort so well, so luxuriously?
At the end of the ride, when he comes to it, is a stile. Beyond the stile are rough fields and hedges. On the other side of the stile are a woman and a child, standing quietly. The woman is wearing country clothes, jodhpurs, boots, a hacking jacket. She has a green headsquare knotted under her chin, in the style of the Queen and her royal sister. She leans on the fence, without putting her weight on it, looking into the wood. The child, partly obscured by the steps of the stile, appears to be clinging to the leg of the woman, both of whose arms are on the top bar of the fence.
They do not move as Hugh Pink approaches. He decides to strike off himself, into a shady path on his left. Then she calls his name.
"Hugh Pink? Hugh Pink. Hugh-"
He does not recognise her. She is in the wrong clothes, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. She is helping the child on to the stile. Her movements are brisk and awkward, and this reminds him. The child stands on the top step, balancing with one hand on her shoulder.
"Frederica-" says Hugh Pink.
He is about to add her old surname, and stops. He knows she is married. He remembers the buzz of furious gossip and chatter at the time of this marriage. Someone nobody knew, they had said, they had complained, none of her old friends, a stranger, a dark horse. No one was invited to the wedding, none of her university lovers or gossips, they had found out purely by chance, she had suddenly vanished, or so they told each other, with variants, with embellishments. It was put about that this man kept her more or less locked up, more or less incommunicado, in a moated grange, would you believe, in the country, in outer darkness. There had been something else, some disaster, a death, a death in the family, more or less at the same time, which was said to have changed Frederica, utterly changed her, they said. She is very changed, everyone was saying, you would hardly know her. Hugh was on his way to Madrid at this time, trying to see if poetry and making a living could be done in that city. He had once been in love with Frederica, and in Madrid had fallen in love with a silent Swedish girl. Also he had liked Frederica, but had lost her, had lost touch, because love always came before and confounded liking, which is regrettable. His memories of Frederica are confused by memories of his own embarrassment and memories of Sigrid, and of that embarrassment.
It is true that she is changed. She is dressed for hunting. But she no longer looks like a huntress.
"Frederica," says Hugh Pink.
"This is Leo," says Frederica. "My son."
The boy's look, inside his blue hood, is unsmiling. He has Frederica's red hair, two or three shades darker. He has large dark brown eyes, under heavy dark brows.
"This is Hugh Pink. One of my old friends."
Leo continues to stare at Hugh, at the wood. He does not speak.
Or it might begin in the crypt of St. Simeon's Church, not far from King's Cross, at the same time on the same day.
Daniel Orton sits on a slowly rotating black chair, constrained by a twisted telephone wire. Round and back. His ear is hot with electric words that filter through the black shell he holds to his head. He listens, frowning.
"I say I'm completely shut in you know I say I say I say I don't get up off my butt and go out of this room any more I can't seem to get up the force I ought to try it's silly really but what's the point I say I say I say I say if I did get out there they'd all stomp on me I'd be underfoot in no time it isn't safe I say I say I say are you there are you listening do you give a damn is there anyone at all on the end of this line I say I say."
"Yes, there's someone. Tell me where you want to go. Tell me why you're afraid to go out."
"I don't need to go nowhere no one needs me there's no need that's why oh what's the point? Are you still there?"
The crypt is dark and solid. There are three telephones, set round the base of a pillar, in plywood cubicles soundproofed with a honeycomb of egg-boxes. The other two telephones are unmanned. There is a small blue-and-white jug of anemones in Daniel's cubicle. Two are open, a white and a dark crimson with a centre full of soft black spikes and black powder. There are unopened blue and red ones, bright inside colours hidden under fur, steel-blue and soft pink-grey above the ruffs of leaves. Over each telephone is a text, done in good amateur calligraphy. Daniel's says:
So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air.
There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.
Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. I Corinthians 14:9-11.
The second phone rings. Daniel has to decide to disengage from the first caller. Someone else should be there, but even saints can be tardy.
"If I can."
"I hope I can."
"I've done wrong."
"Tell me, I'll listen."
"I'm here simply to listen. You can tell me anything. That's what I'm for."
"I can't. I don't think I can. I made a mistake, I'm sorry, I'll go."
"Don't go. It might help you to tell me."
He is a man playing a hooked creature in the dark depths on a long dark line. It gasps and twists.
"I had to get out, you see. I had to get out. I thought I had to get out. Every day that was what I thought."
"Many of us do."
"But we don't-but we don't-do what I did."
"Tell me. I'll simply listen."
"I've not told anybody. Not for a whole year, a whole year is probably what it is, I've lost count. It might kill me to tell anyone, I might just be-nothing, I am nothing."
"No. You are not nothing. Tell me how you got out."
"I was making the kiddies' tea. They were lovely kids, they were-"
Tears, hectic gulps.
"Your own kids?"
"Yes." In a whisper. "I was just making bread and butter. I had this big knife. This sharp big knife."
Daniel's spine stiffens. He has taught himself not to make imaginary faces or places for the voices; that has led to errors; he unmakes a cramped kitchen, a tight-lipped face.
"And?" he says.
"I don't know what come over me. I stood and just looked at everything, the bread, and the butter, and the cooker, and the dirty dishes, and that knife, and I just became someone else."
"And I put down the knife, and I didn't say anything, I just went and got my coat and my handbag, I didn't even say, 'I'm just going out for a minute or two,' I just went out of the front door quietly and shut it behind me. And I went on walking a long time. And. And I never went back. The little one was in his high-chair. He might have fallen over or anything might have happened. I just never went back."
"Did you get in touch after? With your husband? Do you have a husband?"
"I did, yes. I do have a husband, I suppose. I didn't get in touch. No. I couldn't. You see I couldn't."
"Do you want me to help you to get in touch?"
"No." Quickly. "No, no, no, no, no. I'd die, I'd die. I've done wrong. I've done terrible wrong."
"Yes," says Daniel. "But I wouldn't say it couldn't be helped."
"I've said it now. Thank you. I think I'll go now."
"I think I can help, I think you need help-"
"I don't know. I've done wrong. I'll go."
St. Simeon's is not in use as a parish church. It stands in a grimy courtyard, and has a heavy, square mediaeval tower, now surrounded by a bristling cage of scaffolding. The old church was enlarged in the eighteenth century and again in the nineteenth century, and was partly demolished by bombing in the Second World War. The Victorian nave was always too high and gaunt for its width, and this effect is emphasised by the fact that it has been only partly rebuilt, inside its old shell. It once had gaudy nineteenth-century stained glass, of no particular merit, depicting Noah's Ark and the story of the Flood on one side, and the stories of the raising of Lazarus, the appearance of the risen Christ at Emmaus and the tongues of fire descending at Whitsuntide, on the other. All these windows were sucked in by bomb blasts, leaving heaps of brilliant blackened fragments strewn in the aisles. A devout glazier in the congregation undertook to rebuild the windows, after the war, using the broken lights, but he was not able, or even willing, to reconstitute the narratives as they had been. What he made was a coloured mosaic of purple and gold constellations, of rivers of grass green and blood red, of hummocks of burned amber and clouded, smoke-stained, once-clear glass. It was too sad, he told the Vicar, to put the pictures together all smashed, with gaping holes. He thought it should all be bright and cheerful, and added modern glass here and there, making something abstract yet suggestive, with faces of giraffes and peacocks and leopards staring at odd angles out of red drapery, with white wings divided by sea blue and sky blue, angels and antediluvian storks and doves mingling with pentecostal flames. The peaks of Mount Ararat balance on a heap of smoky rubble, amongst which are planks of the Ark at all angles. Dead Lazarus's bound jaw has survived and one of his stiff white hands; both make a kind of wheel with the hand breaking bread at Emmaus and a hammering Ark-builder's hand. Parts of the primal rainbow flash amongst blue-and-white wave-crests.