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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 symptom not of a merely individual masochistic dependence, but of a sexual pathology belonging to her entire generation, the generation of girls who came to maturity in the 1950s taking as gospel Lawrence’s fictions of women who abnegated the intellect in order to find salvation in the service of the phallus. “That was our myth,” thinks Frederica—“that the body is truth. Lady Chatterley hated words…[whereas] I cannot do without them.”

Just as, during adolescence, Frederica and her sister had felt Lawrence’s Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, thrust upon them as models (“I don’t want the immemorial magnificence of mystic palpable real otherness,” protested Frederica, ridiculing Lawrence’s purple prose), so in Babel Tower she finds herself resisting the model of Connie Chatterley. The trial scene that ends the book parodies the famous obscenity trial of 1961; but this is not the only way in which Lady Chatterley’s Lover looms over Babel Tower. In making a new life for herself as a woman and a sexual being in the 1960s, Frederica has to question and in many respects repudiate her earlier moral education, an education imbibed from teachers who had sat at the feet of F.R. Leavis, Lawrence’s enormously influential champion at Cambridge.

The conflict between Frederica and Nigel comes to a head in a divorce trial, an extended scene into which Byatt throws all her considerable resources as a writer. The trial is a chastening experience for Frederica, who, under the remorseless interrogation of her husband’s lawyer, backed by a private detective hired to spy on her and a Reiver family prepared to lie through its teeth, is portrayed for the benefit of the court as a selfish, promiscuous woman, unfit to care for her son.

Yet there is a surprise to come. The court may seem dominated by men with public-school backgrounds, men who might be expected to gang up against a woman who has not only bucked the system but, coming from the north of England, from a different class and a different political tradition, has never really been part of that system. Nevertheless, the court, in its patriarchal wisdom, and to the rage of the Reiver family, decides that a young child belongs with its mother, and awards care of Leo to Frederica.

Much of Byatt’s long novel is given to the relationship between Frederica and her son. Leo comes across as anything but cute. Sensitive to the crackle of conflicting emotions around him, angry with the adults for disturbing an entirely satisfactory life replete with pony rides and jam scones and adoring aunts, he resorts to all means, fair and foul, to keep his parents together, doing his best to annex his mother to the family home and prevent her old friends from taking her away from him. Fiercely he demands that she subordinate her happiness to his.

For her part, Frederica—who to her secret shame had planned to abscond without Leo, and when he clung to her had felt a flush of anger—slowly discovers the centrality of motherhood to her life: “This person [Leo] is the centre. It is not what she would have chosen but it is a fact, it is a truth stronger than other truths. It is a love so violent that it is almost its opposite.”

Frederica spends a lot of time reading stories to Leo, stories that pay him the compliment of taking him seriously as a moral intelligence, a being trying to find his own way in a world full of passion and violence. What Byatt has to say, via Leo and the stories he listens to (often given in extenso in the text), is interesting and challenging in times when the orthodoxy among teachers and librarians is that young children should not be exposed to disturbing material, to say nothing of difficult words. Just as Byatt is in favor of Racine for high-school students, she is in favor of tales of magic and terror, of heroism and resourcefulness, for preschoolers. The education of the imagination comes first: it is because the creative imagination is still alive among the writers and painters and scientists with whom Frederica chooses to cast her lot that they are better people than Nigel, his family, and his business friends.

In this respect Byatt belongs squarely in a liberal-humanist Arnoldian tradition. In time of crisis, her people do not go into therapy. For them, salvation is a matter of private wrestling with their consciences; the best aids in doing this are hard work, native intelligence, and a good knowledge of the classics, preferably in several languages. In the struggle of life, happiness is not the goal, but self-improvement; childhood is not an island of joy but a time of testing.

Yet the lives of Byatt’s characters are not so simple or so puritanically grim as that. At the very moment when Frederica and her closest woman friend agree that their own childhood was not paradise but a hell of inauthenticity, the key poem on childhood, for people of English culture, comes unbidden to the minds of both: Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality,” with its evocation of

Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing.

This is a telling moment, as the voice of their culture speaks through the two women. Byatt returns to such moments elsewhere, through Frederica’s poet-friend Hugh Pink, who, tramping through the countryside, experiences what he calls “the English feeling,” a feeling of belonging to a soil that his ancestors have been rooted in and buried in for thousands of years, yet nuanced and colored by lines of verse so well known that “like turf and stones, [they] are part of the matter of the mind.”

Though a brilliant student at Cambridge, Frederica has resisted becoming a teacher, mainly to escape the overpowering example of her father. But the need to make a living in London forces her to take on evening teaching. These classes allow her to extend her horizons. She reads Nietzsche and Freud, and begins to see how insular her education has been. She expands her teaching to include Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Sartre, while putting behind her some of the writers who have formed her outlook. She can no longer believe in Lawrence’s dark gods or follow E.M. Forster’s commandment to “only connect.” Lawrence and Forster seem to her latter-day religious writers, trying to elevate the novel to where the Bible used to be. From the perspective of 1964, “Oneness, Love, the Novel” seem “so far away, so finished.”

If she does not want oneness, then what does she want? Her answer: that the various identities, linguistic, intellectual, sexual, that make her up be left “juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for fusion.” She has a presentiment of the kind of art work in which such a self as hers might express itself: “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.”

In her restless intelligence and scrupulousness of mind, and her steadily growing sense of herself as a being formed not only by books but by the larger narratives of family history and national history, Frederica begins to emerge here as one of the more interesting characters-in-progress in contemporary fiction, both as a woman and as a social type, even if one sometimes wonders whether her author has not made her self-aware beyond her years.

Taking a lead from William Burroughs, Frederica experiments idly with cutting up her husband’s divorce lawyer’s letters and rearranging the fragments. She enjoys the effect so much that she does cutups of Lawrence and Forster too. Her notebooks become a mosaic of diary entries and quotations from writers in fashion at the time (Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett, R.D. Laing, William Blake, Nietzsche, Norman O. Brown) as well as from the newspapers.

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