Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt

This is the third book in Byatt’s series about the Potter family, taking up shortly after Still Life leaves off. Rereading the first two books gave me much to think about, as I mentioned in blogging about them, and deepened my understanding of them, so I hoped for a similar experience with this book. I hadn’t liked it the first time around—in fact, it put me off reading anything by Byatt for a number of years—and I didn’t much like it this time either.

Set during the mid-1960s, the main story follows Frederica and her marital difficulties. This narrative is interrupted by sections of a fable about a group of people who flee the Terror following the French Revolution and set up a utopian community in a remote mountain hideaway. The story is also interrupted by Frederica’s summaries of manuscripts she is reviewing. And by sections of a fairy tale about two children on a quest. And by pages of court transcript. And by pages of text made from letters and quotations cut up and rearranged to form what looks like an essay but doesn’t actually make sense. These last are Frederica’s attempts to create something that expresses the truths she is discovering. She surrounds these chunks of text with quotations from newspapers, books, and speeches.

Yes, all very interesting in a post-modern way, and continues Byatt’s exploration of the relationship between words and the things they describe, but tedious to read. Perhaps if I hadn’t already read most of the books she quotes, if I hadn’t lived through the time period myself, I would have found great excitement in the juxtaposition of ideas that might then have been new to me. I confess I was also irritated by the fact that many of these insertions are in a tiny font that is very difficult to read. And the book is long, over 600 pages. Some of my favorite books are that long, The Discovery of Heaven for one, but this one drags.

However messy and sprawling, the structure is not inappropriate for a book set in the 1960s. Kudos to Byatt for managing to write about the period in a way that doesn’t seem silly or unrealistic. It’s not an easy time to write about. The way she accomplishes this is twofold: first, with Frederica she gives us an observer who is a bit older than most of the flower children and who has the responsibility of caring for a child; second, along with the hippies and happenings, Byatt includes the elections and sensational trials and minutiae of daily life (planting window boxes, having to go home to relieve the babysitter). Not everyone was swinging in the Sixties, not even in London.

I also have to mention how brilliant Byatt is at presenting children. All the children here are real characters, complex, true to life. It’s so hard to write about children without making them precocious brats, miniature adults, or unbearably cute manikins. Byatt’s children are children, not adults, perhaps with similarities to their parents but fiercely individual.

I love the intelligence behind the book, the way Byatt expects us to step up and stop being so lazy. There is much to like here. Another reader might find this book great fun, taking joy in seeing how all the extraneous bits are pieced together—not a melting pot but a mosaic—like the multitude of languages into which the inhabitants of the original Tower of Babel devolved.

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