En Route to the Catastrophe

Babel Tower

by A.S. Byatt
Random House, 622 pp., $25.95

In the 1970s the British novelist A.S. Byatt (b. 1936) embarked on an ambitious project: a sequence of novels that would trace the growth of a woman of her own class and generation and education, from the drab early 1950s through the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Byatt planned four novels. In The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985) she followed her heroine, Frederica Potter, the daughter of two middle-class literary intellectuals, through the last of her Yorkshire schooling and her three years at Cambridge; Still Life ended with Frederica in the arms of Nigel Reiver, the first man to awaken her sexually.

Since then six years have passed. Babel Tower, the third novel of the series, opens in 1964. The marriage with Nigel is not going well. Cooped up with his horsy sisters and odious housekeeper in a house in the Home Counties, Frederica feels stifled. She would like to see her old college friends, now making names for themselves on the buzzing London cultural scene, but Nigel doesn’t like them. When they write, he intercepts their letters. An ex-commando, he has no scruples about roughing her up in ways that leave no telltale marks. She becomes a virtual prisoner. In a terrifying episode he hunts her around the outbuildings in the dark, flinging an axe that wounds her in the leg. Frederica flees with her four-year-old son, to find shelter with friends in London. Nigel pursues her, leaving a trail of violence in his wake, demanding her back, or, if not her, then the child.

Marital cruelty is not the central concern of Babel Tower. Nevertheless, the Reiver marriage stands out only in the egregiousness of its violence. At the ever-so-polite cocktail parties that Frederica begins to frequent, the talk is dominated by men; the women huddle in corners exchanging notes on anti-depressants. At one such party the wife of an eminent academic makes a scandalous outburst. With the discreet efficiency for which the British are renowned, she is spirited from the scene and order returns. It is this kind of future, as much as Nigel Reiver, that Frederica knows she must escape.

Frederica has been brought up in “that tolerant, non-conformist, cautiously skeptical tradition that requires you…to look for the good and the bad in everything.” On the one hand she fears and hates Nigel, on the other she is unnerved by her hatred; her urge to cut all ties with him is balanced by a puritanical determination to be fair to him. In sexual relations Nigel may be a practiced cynic (he operates by rules like “If you say ‘I love you’ to a woman, it makes her wet”). Nevertheless, Frederica continues to be fascinated by him. Even at the divorce trial she feels a hot rush of desire.

It is the Lawrentian flavor of her response (“the dark, dark look, the intentness that always stirs her”: the very language is Lawrence’s) that, to Frederica, identifies it as a …

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