The Books: “Babel Tower” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

0679736808.jpgBabel Tower – by A.S. Byatt.

The third novel featuring the Potter family – this book is epic. Fantastic. Frederica Potter is the star of this book … but the real star is the 1960s, or – more specifically – London in the 1960s. It’s not so much about the counterculture – not yet – but about the upheavals going on at all levels of society. Frederica flees in the night with her son from an abusive marriage. Her husband is an old-school Englishman – who has very specific ideas about what a wife should be. (Why he would marry someone like Frederica then, is beyond me) His disappointment in his wife translates into rage, and domestic violence. Frederica takes her son and leaves – goes and stays with some of her old college friends (all men) in London. They all take her and her son on. It’s a collective kind of community – they love Frederica, she needs them, her son needs them … they step up to the plate. Frederica’s husband naturally will not go down without a fight – and divorce proceedings begin, where he drags Frederica’s name through the mud. She has to go to trial to prove her fitness as a mother. Meanwhile (sorry, I realize I’m making this sound like a soap opera – and it’s NOT) – a book written by an acquaintance of Frederica – a kind of loopy Nitszchean-influenced outcast – is going on trial for obscenity. It’s a book along the lines of Marquis de Sade – it purports that it’s showing a Utopia, a world of ultimate freedom. Brutal. At the same time that Frederica is fighting for her son and her reputation – this book is standing trial. Because it’s Byatt here – we get to read long sections of the controversial book. It has a sort of Anne Rice “Sleeping Beauty” feel to it – only it’s more political, less pornographic. Babel Tower – with all of these different elements – ends up being about rebellion – useful rebellion and also useless … the ideas of the 60s, loopy ones, and also revolutionary ones. How on earth Byatt writes a book about an entire society I will never know – but that’s what she does. She does so without sacrificing character – Frederica is as clearly drawn as ever, all the characters are … but Byatt is really interested here in language – the breaking apart of convention and what that does to our language – this is reflected even down to the personal level of what a word like “wife” or “marriage” means. As society upends itself, as the Swinging Sixties really kick in … it is not a bold new day dawning … even with all the new ideas, and new freedoms … it is just another day, with new struggles, new annoyances – and the rebellion of those days will end up creating the rigid academic world Byatt so beautifully portrays in Possession. All that freedom, all that openness … ends up solidifying, petrifying – into the postmodernist theoretical atmosphere that is so influential and, at times, annoying, today. Byatt is looking at the beginning of all of that in Babel Tower (I mean, her title kind of says it all).

This is a bold book. A book with huge sweep and ambition. I love it – I am feeling the need to read it again. As with all of the Byatt books I’ve excerpted – I flip through them, get a glimpse of a passage here, a paragraph there, and think … argh, have to read it again!!

Here’s an excerpt. Frederica is in London. She has left her husband. She’s taken a lover. (I love how Byatt writes about sex.)

Excerpt from Babel Tower – by A.S. Byatt.

John and Frederica come back to Gothland in the evening. They walk in the dusk through the village, where the black-faced sheep stare with yellow, inhuman eyes. Something tugs at Frederica’s memory. She came here once, in a bus, on a trip, and had what she has now docketed as an interesting and instructive experience with a traveller in dolls. The sight of a sheep and a thorn bush brings back this person, Ed, in his interesting and repelling flishiness, but it also brings back a thought. It was a thought about her own separateness, and the power that was possibly inherent in keeping things separate – sex and language, she thinks, ambition and marriage, what was I thinking? She remembers she was thinking about Racine, and the rhythmic movement of her feet, comfortably in time with the rhythmic movement of the feet of John Ottokar, brings back the couplet in the landscape to which it was wholly irrelevant then, and for that reason interesting, for that reason compelling:

Ce n’est pas une ardeur dans mes veines cachee
C’est Venus toute entiere a sa proie attachee

She remembers, and with it her delight in the balance of the lines, the way they pivot on the caesura and are both separated and joined by the rhyme. She says the verse out loud, and John Ottokar puts his hand over her buttocks, lovingly, and laughs, and says, “Precisely.” Frederica stops in her tracks, dizzy with sex, and puts her arms tightly round him: watched by sheep, and by the man who was reading Lady Chatterley in the rosy restaurant, they embrace, they kiss, they walk on. They lean together. Frederica’s mind, a dark snake burrowing in darkness, looks for a word which then seemed the key to power and safety. She remembers her distress that Stephanie had apparently found happiness with Daniel. She thinks of Forster and Lawrence, only connect, the mystic Oneness, and her word comes back to her again, more insistently: laminations. Laminations. Keeping things separate. Not linked by metaphor or sex or desire, but separate objects of knowledge, systems of work, or discovery. In her pocket her fingers touch Luk Lysgaard-Peacock’s snail shells, two greenish and one striped. Are the stripes laminations, or organic growths? The layer of strontium, exposed by the diamond saw in the spiral form, is a layer – an accident in Cumberland, a time of fall-out in the air – what is she saying? Partly that even fear of death in the air is not all-consuming or all-pervading. She has the first vague premonition of an art-form of fragments, juxtaposed, not interwoven, not “organically” spiralling up like a tree or a shell, but constructed brick by brick, layer by layer, like the Post Office Tower. The radomes are on the moor and are seen amongst the heather and the neolithic stones and barrows, but their beauty is in the difference as well as in the simultaneity of the vision.

She is feeling for something, and doesn’t know what it is, cannot push the thought further. Laminations. Separation. I was thinking about the Virgin Queen and the power of her solitude and her separation, the fact that her power and her intelligence were dependent upon her solitude and her separation.

“What are you thinking?” says John Ottokar, and takes her shoulders, and turns her face to his. “You’ve gone away from me. Where? What are you thinking?”

Desire moves round the column of Frederica’s spine like the spiral of a helter-skelter, round which she spins screaming with fear and delight.

“I had an idea for a book called Laminations.”

“Why Laminations?” he says later, in the bedroom. At the time, he simply smiled and nodded.

“I haven’t thought it out. It’s to do with what was in the lectures, the Romantic desire for everything to be One – lovers, body and mind, life and work. I thought it might be interesting to be interested in keeping things separate.”

“I know about that,” he says, sitting naked on the edge of the bed. The lights are out, but the room is full of pale moonlight. “I know what it is like to be afraid of being two separate creatures confined in one skin.”

They are naked and cool in the night, sitting companionably on the edge of the bed. On an impulse she touches his sex, the two balls moving loose and separate inside the cool bag of skin. The penis shrinks like a soft curled snail, and then swings out blindly, a lumbering and supple serpent becoming a rod or a branch. Two in one, thinks Frederica, as his arms go round her. You might think, she thinks, as their bodies join, that her are two beings striving to lose themselves in each other, to become one. The growing heat, the wetness, the rhythmic movements, the hot breath, the slippery skins, inside and out, are one, are part of one thing. But we both need to be separate, she thinks. I lend myself to this, the language in her head goes on, with its own rhythm, I lose myself, it remarks with gleeful breathlessness, I am not, I come, I come to the point of crossing over, of not being, and then I fall away, I am myself again, only more so, more so. His face, post coitum is calm like an Apollonian statue. There is no clue to wghat is inside his brain-box. I love that, says Frederica’s chatty linguistic self, I love not knowing, I love it that I don’t know him.

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1 Response to The Books: “Babel Tower” (A.S. Byatt)

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