Rowland Bismark's Reviews > Babel Tower

Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt
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Sep 07, 10


While Babel Tower continues the story of Frederica, begun in The Virgin in the Garden and continued in Still Life, it readily stands on its own. It is a large book, and its sprawl is not necessarily inviting. It does not offer itself as easily to the reader as, say, Possession did, and so our praise comes with the warning that this is not for everyone. The setting is the 1960's, and it is a novel about that decade -- though from a very intellectual point of view (a vista that has not provided many insights into the decade, as even the intellectuals preferred to pretend they were mucking about as everyone else was). Intertwined are the stories of Frederica and her messy divorce from her completely unsuitable husband and Babbletower, a book from which we are presented extensive excerpts.

Babbletower is written by the obscure Jude, a man who lives at the fringes of society and whom Frederica befriends. Frederica is to some extent responsible for getting the book published. It is soon banned on grounds of indecency, and a sizable portion of the novel is devoted to the court proceedings. (Another courtcase, over custody of her son, is also a prominent part of the novel).

Byatt is at her best when she devotes herself to questions of literature and art. Her arguments, interjected forcefully into the novel as a record of the court proceedings, are well-reasoned and interesting, though not all readers enjoy such debate in the pages of their novels. Her characters, though rich, also have some unsatisfactory voids. Worse is that Byatt spends considerable amounts of space on certain characters and they then just fade away, without our knowing what comes of them. Perhaps they'll reappear in the next volume ?

We enjoyed the book, but it can try one's patience. It is well written, and it is a thoughtful book. It is an important contribution as a picture of the 60's (really -- we haven't seen this particular view so well presented previously). It is also a book that is very well constructed -- she is a clever writer -- and it lends itself to a second reading, to enjoy the pleasure of uncovering all the connections she has artfully built in.
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