Babel Tower by AS Byatt - Rich And Strange by jerryp209


									            Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt

                               Rich And Strange

Babel Tower follows The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life in tracing
Frederica Potter, a lover of books who reflects the authors life and times.
It centers around two lawsuits: in one, Frederica -- a young intellectual
who has married outside her social set -- is challenging her wealthy and
violent husband for custody of their child; in the other, an unkempt but
charismatic rebel is charged with having written an obscene book, a
novel-within-a-novel about a small band of revolutionaries who attempt to
set up an ideal community. And in the background, rebellion gain s a
major toehold in the London of the Sixties, and society will never be the

This is a long and difficult book for a reviewer to tangle with, and I can only
do so by breaking it into parts. But, ere I do so, let me make one urgent
and important comment for the prospective reader on this, the third book in
Byatts Yorkshire Tetralogy: THE BOOK IS VERY DISTURBING. Those
reviewers here who dismiss it as boring or what not are only exposing their
own obtusity, in all sorts of ways. They are in fact demonstrating as true
the T.S. Eliot quote from Burnt Norton here (p.482) that human kind cannot
bear very much reality. - I, personally, would not trust someone who is not
disturbed by this book - Because, as Ill come around to shortly, anyone
who is not at first horrified then titillated then horrified at their own titillation
in the spectacle of Lady Roseaces death in the book within the book here
is simply not a sensitive or aware human being, aware of the cruelty latent
in his/her sexuality, whether s/he likes it or not.----And we dont like it,
generally. So on to Part

1.)      The book Babbletower within Babel Tower. - This layering is what
makes the book as a whole so thematically powerful. Yes, the character,
Jude Masons, book is in part a rehash of how utopias become dystopias
and part a commentary on the Sixties. But, primarily, as in the two
previous novels in the tetralogy, its about human nature, particularly
human nature as manifested in sexuality, a theme Byatt doggedly pursues
throughout her works. And for Byatt, and for most of us when we consider
it, the religious impulse is inextricably intertwined with the sexual. This
observation is nothing new. All one has to do is read about the religious
rites as practiced by the Ancient Greeks, for example. But its somehow
different when one thinks of ones own religious or spiritual impulses in the
modern world. As a church official puts it here: The Church has ALWAYS
been about sex, dear, thats what the problem is. Religion has always
been about sex. Mostly about denying sex and rooting it out, and people
who are trained to deny something and root it out become obsessed with
it, it becomes unnaturally monstrous... (p.25) Thus, Culverts discovery of
the paintings of the suffering Christ in the tower marks the dawn of his
awareness that there is a pleasure, a sexual pleasure, in cruelty. And this
discovery leads, ultimately, to the monstrous way in which Lady Roseace
is tortured and killed. At first I didnt make too much of this scene, too over
the top I thought, but its difficult to get the imagery and disgust out of ones
mind, where it dwells, and eventually one eventually finds oneself
responding to it in a sexual manner, because really, of course, as Culvert
intended, Roseaces execution is more about sex than death. The moment
one undergoes a sexual response in oneself to this horrid imagery and
comes to an awareness that part of one takes pleasure in it is the moment
one realises what a bewildering and disorienting book this is. Like all
literature, it stirs deep things other works leave to convention and causes
one to rethink basic assumptions about what one is all about in this world.
On to Part

2.)    Frederica - I dont like her. I like her husband even less. But thats
beside the point. The problem with not liking Frederica and her distrust of
emotion and her way of trying to think through everything and put
everything into laminations is that one realises that, to a great extent, the
person one truly dislikes is Byatt. But it has to be said for Byatt that she
(unlike Iris Murdoch, who draws a moral lesson from her own proclivities in
her books and makes them intolerable reading, to me anyway) is fully
aware of Fredericas, ahem, her own, shortcomings and shrewdly points
them out, which makes Frederica bearable, if not exactly likeable.
3.)     The book as a whole - Is too full of parody. The scene on the moors
where Federica departs her dashing husband is straight out of Wuthering
Heights, rescribed for the modern reader. And then parody breaks out all
over: Modern poetry, contemporary education, English divorce law
proceedings (before no-fault divorces were commonplace) and on and on.
The saving grace here is that Byatt parodies her own parodies, making
Fredericas laminations as much of a shipwreck as her life is at times here,
thus making them and her palatable. What the none-too-subtly named
Magog says in the trial about the Babbletower is more true of Babel Tower,
that, it is a text that twists round and round itself like the snake around the
tree. What IS its true message? p.586

One might well wonder. And go on wondering, for, despite certain
reservations on my part, this is a rare book indeed, one not just to think
and ponder over, but to W ONDER over.

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