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A lecture course on the 1960s
on 29 November 2011
Having loved 'The Virgin in the Garden' and 'Still Life', I can still remember picking up 'Babel Tower' with great excitement when it came out in 1994, after the Potter family had been absent from Byatt's fiction for over five years. However, I have to say that I did not enjoy it nearly as much as the first two, though there are still some very fine passages of writing.
Part of the problem is that in Part III of the book, Byatt changed the structure of the novel. The first two novels in the 'Frederica' tetralogy had as a central leitmotif Alexander Wedderburn's latest play: in 'The Virgin in the Garden' a play about Queen Elizabeth I; in 'Still Life' a play about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh. But by 'Babel Tower' Alexander (who is only a minor character in this novel) seems to have ceased to be a playwright altogether and instead become an educational specialist. In place of Alexander's play we get long, at times rather tedious excerpts from the novel 'Babbletower', written by a strange part-time artists' model and general vagabond Jude Mason. The writing in the 'Babbletower' sections is extremely stylized and very slightly precious - it's hard to care about any of the characters in it, and I was left slightly uncertain as to why Byatt had included so much of Jude's book; was it meant to be a symbol of the carelessness and violence of the 1960s? To provide an excuse for the lengthy literary trial at the end of the book and thus comment on the changing views on literature in the 1960s? Was Jude meant to be 'a prophet for our times'? Whatever he was meant to be, his extremely mannered and often rather pretentious behaviour didn't endear him to this particular reader; although Byatt did eventually provide an explanation for why Jude had turned out the way he did, it came a bit late to really engage our sympathies. My overall feeling about 'Babbletower' was similar to my one about the pastiche poetry in 'Possession' - hugely skilful but in the end not terrifically interesting. At least with Alexander's plays Byatt made the wise decision not to reproduce chunks of them.
Fairytales are a major theme in this book (another character is writing a fantasy for young readers which is quoted at length); and Frederica is working on a pretentiously-titled book called 'Laminations', expressing the confusion and fragmentary nature of foreign life (we get big quotes from this too, and I couldn't quite see the point of reproducing Frederica's 'cut up' letter collages - they didn't make entertaining reading! The theme of the fairytale has, for the first time in the quartet, crept into Byatt's main story, which is full of larger-than-life events and deliberately eccentric characters, often with rather unbelievable names (Elvet Gander; Adalbert Holly; Avram Snitkin; Pippy Mammott etc etc). The delicate realism of the first two novels has become tinged with the grotesque. Thus the breakdown of Frederica and Nigel's marriage is not really quite credible, as Nigel has gone from being the well-observed, perhaps slightly limited but also very sensual English gent of 'Still Life' into being a grotesque Bluebeard figure, flinging axes about and ramming people's heads into doors. The characters who step out to defend or accuse Jude during his book trial are all slightly larger than life, and archetypes rather than people. Frederica's new lover John Ottakar is an identical twin whose twin brother is a hippie pop star who burns books while enacting a war dance, and who is part of a consciousness-raising group called the Spirit's Tigers. No one is quite as subtly depicted as in the first two novels in the tetralogy, and no one is as interesting (though to be fair to Byatt she writes very well on Frederica's uncertainty after her divorce, her life as a mother and her vulnerability, and on Bill and Winifred's finding of peace and love in their relationship with their grandchildren). I came to the conclusion Byatt was growing less and less interested in her characters as people, and more interested in creating a sense of the spirit of an age.
Unfortunately, this means that the book turns often into an academic lecture on the 1960s. Did we, for example, need a 40-page section discussing the national curriculum in the 1960s? A massive lecture on the point of grammar? Why does Jude's literary trial take up so much of the book when Jude himself never quite comes to life as a character? Why do we get so many quotes from Frederica's 'Laminations' in place of more information about her day-to-day life and her complex relationships, first with Thomas Poole, and later with John Ottakar, and her developing female friendships? And all too often we feel that the descriptions of books, raves, extra-mural classes, parties, art schools etc. are in there to show us how good Byatt's research of the 1960s has been (and it has!) rather than to give the story a good shape, and lead us to a deeper understanding of the characters' lives. With all this detail, other interesting bits get left out. Gideon Farrar, a fascinating character in 'Still Life', becomes a violent cult-leader; Marcus's relationship with Ruth (who becomes a cult member) is insufficiently explored; Agatha, though compelling as a character, remains a bit too mysterious; and Daniel, once a major part of the story, fades somewhat into the background. There's also some careless copy-editing at times (easy to happen in such a massive book). Frederica's flat appears to have two kitchens but no bathroom; Gideon's wife is Clemency (not Charity as she's later credited); Nigel's Herefordshire house was initially described in 'Still Life' as being in the West Country; Leo appears to 'stick' at the same age for quite some time, and there were a couple of other tiny details that should have been checked.
This is not to say that Babel Tower is an incompetent book. In fact, the frustrating thing about it is that there is some really beautiful writing at times, some wonderful descriptive passages, and some interesting characters. But the author's desire both to show that she's done her historical research very well, and to create a slightly 'fantastic' atmosphere to go with the 'fantastic' and 'surreal' atmosphere of the 1960s means that we can't engage very easily with the characters, and that there are quite a lot of longeurs.
An interesting book, but a rather tiring and only partly fulfilling read!