Sunday, April 12, 2009

ByattBlogging 10: Babel Tower

This book is about language, like many of Byatt’s books, and the misuse of language, and the gaps in language. It’s also about education, about the teaching of grammar and about formative experiences; about finding a voice. It’s about the formation not of individuals alone, but of groups. It’s about the structure of things, about race — in that it is about the four-letter DNA alphabet that makes living things what they are. It is about class, in all the senses of the word: school classes, social classes, scientific classification. It is about the way all these things come together.

More precisely, this is the third book in the quartet which follows the life of Frederica Potter. This volume opens in 1964, with Frederica stuck in a terrible marriage to Nigel Reiver, and now the mother of a young son, Leo. Over the course of the book she leaves Nigel in dramatic circumstances, moves to London, builds a life, and engages in divorce proceedings. She becomes a teacher, a writer, and is tangentially involved in the publication of a book, Babbletower, which troubles the powers-that-be. By the end of the book, the court case for the suppression of Babbletower is moving in parallel to Frederica’s divorce.

The book opens with several hypothetical beginnings: “It might begin ... Or it might begin ...” Slowly, these openings come to cohere, to draw together as parts of one narrative. We’re reintroduced to Frederica’s brother-in-law Daniel, now manning a suicide help-line in a London church; we’re introduced to a text, which turns out to be from Babbletower, in which a group of friends seek escape from the French Revolution inside a vast tower where they will form a utopian society; we follow one of Frederica’s old London friends as he runs into her by chance, which meeting leads to a conspiracy among Frederica’s friends — a group unified by their care for her — to get her out of her unhappy situation.

(But the first hypothetical beginning of the book is a scene of ruin, a broken tower, accompanied by a thrush — which bird later recurs in a fairy-tale imagined by the woman Frederica comes to live with — and broken alphabets. Among the fallen letters are the signifiers of the four DNA amino acids, G, T, A, and C; also the sign for infinity, which was perhaps derived from the letter omega, and the letter alpha, so that in a sense in the end is the beginning is all things. Snails are there, too, with helical shells; the helix is a recurring image in this book, referring back to the shape of DNA. The thrush sings a limited song which nevertheless gives pleasure; questions are thus raised of the nature of art and the perception of the beautiful and in what does pleasure consist. So this collection of images symbolises much of what will come later in the book.)

The book covers three years in details; it moves through Swinging London, presenting a cynical, outsider’s view of the period. It’s effectively done; it feels incomplete, but for the most part incomplete in an appropriate way — the book, the characters, are watching something without being inside it, seeing the folly and errors those who have absorbed the values of the time are blind to. Youth culture is parodied by Babbletower, which itself is ironically put on trial by The Establishment. Utopian dreaming falls apart, again and again, when faced with the real world. This in a sense is the novel taking the easy way out: easy to mock the weak-minded utopians, but what if a utopian is found who has a tougher understanding of human nature, who understands, as the author of Babbletower does, the human urge to hurt others? 

In this way, the novel’s use of Blake and Tolkien is instructive. There’s some appreciation of both authors (though Frederica finds fault with the language of Blake’s poetic books, a judgment perhaps appropriate to someone of her intellectual background but one with which it is difficult to sympathise), but a different appreciation than the uncritical adulation of the counterculture. Near the end of the novel, idealists put on a “happening” celebrating the mythopoeic imagination of both writers — which event is invaded by another, more radical, wave of dreamers; the Girondists are deposed by the Montagnards. While Byatt uses the images of Blake and Tolkien in various ways, it’s hard not to think that these are writers who are in some way not central to her preoccupations; there’s a quality of vision that they have which doesn’t find its way into the book. The book has other antecedents, is in that way more purely a novel; that is what is in Babel Tower’s own DNA.

But in a sense to speak of DNA is problematic. The book seems concerned more with the fusion of many fragments of experience into one artistic whole than with genetic integrity. We get an early intimation of this when the windows of Daniel’s London church are described — shattered in the war, the splinters gathered and re-fused into a new whole. It becomes especially clear with Frederica, on her own, asserts her creativity and intellectual independence by filling a notebook with pieces of text, literary and non-literary, in an attempt to make a coherent work out of them. Laminations, she calls it, things separate yet joined together. We’re given some excerpts of Laminations, appropriated passages that happen to have recurrent themes — one set of selections, for example, seems focussed on femininity, blood, evil or the perception of evil.

Laminations is one example of the way in which individual things can be put together to make something new by their configuration; so it is with people. A committee or a school class is defined by the list of people which make it up, some of whom we later come to know as individuals and some of whom we do not; the committee or class is subsequently referred to as a unit, an entity unto itself. Frederica forms a new group around herself, just as Nigel has his family group, his women; these two groups come into conflict by the end of the novel, just as the debate over Babbletower is fought out as a debate over, in essence, community standards and community views.

The climactic court cases bring together much of the disparate symbolism of the book. The Old Bailey becomes a literal manifestation of the Tower of Babel, of the destruction of language; the law uses language to distort, not to clarify. The court system, which Frederica is told works on the principle of opposition, of confrontation, becomes a venue for the dissolution of meaning — again and again the legal language becomes parodic, ironic, as when the prosecutor responsible for trying to suppress Babbletower praises the “decent society where [a witness] is free to say what he pleases because his rights are protected by the vigilance of courts like this”. Oddly, the results of the trials are either acceptable, or understandable — that is, the wrong results in Frederica’s trial are produced not by a misuse of language, but by simple deception. By lies, and the creation of a false story.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Babbletower as a book, despite the lengthy extracts from it which make up part of the substance of Babel Tower. Nobody seems to doubt that it’s shocking, and contains radically transgressive passages; the text in Babel Tower hints at that, but avoids what must have been the more explicit passages — even given the tamer morality of the mid-60s, it’s hard to imagine the writing on offer provoking the outrage Babbletower supposedly did. Then again, many of the characters who provide testimony about the book suggest that good writing contains an element of sexual pleasure, which is difficult to understand (perhaps it’s meant to be an example of the 60s pleasure principle at work); even harder to grasp is the fact that they uniformly state or imply that Babbletower gave them sexual pleasure — that the book was sexually stimulating. I can accept that I’m less likely to be sexually stimulated by a novel than most, but even so, I wouldn’t expect a book written in the style of Babbletower to be likely to create a genuine sexual frisson; it’s so thickly ironic it’s impossible to sympathise with emotionally. As pornography, it seems neither heated, inventive, nor even especially explicit. Still, as Byatt wisely withholds the full text of the novel, it’s at least possible to imagine that the rest of the book was lurid enough to provoke the trial.

In a way Babbletower can be seen as a kind of mirror to Babel Tower; as the names suggest, a near-twin, with significant differences as well as similarities. Babel Tower is certainly concerned with this kind of otherness; Frederica takes a lover, John Ottokar, who has an identical twin — amusingly, the twin is named Paul, so that the parody of 1960s counterculture finds a new level. Paul is mentally troubled in a way that John isn’t, a distinct, if troubled, personality; so Babbletower is a troubled mirror to Babel Tower, a helical contrast to its framing text. The book is described by a prosecution witness as “a text that twists round and round itself like the snake round the tree”; its author, Jude Mason, is seen as a kind of scapegoat. He and his book are made into the Other, made evil, sacrificed.

Both books are concerned with the use of language, the nature of language. Culvert, the leader of the utopians in Babbletower, entrances his followers with rhetoric, which slowly disintegrates when faced with reality (when, near the end, his wife flees and he hunts her down, she hears the noise of his hounds as a “babble”; such is the ultimate state of decrepit language). Babel Tower, on the other hand, considers language from a host of perspectives. Is language use learned or innate? What is grammar, and how is it to be taught? One of the surprising contentions we find in the novel is that language is a function of the body; Nigel Reiver is inarticulate in every other way, but his body speaks a common language with Frederica’s, and this is why their marriage can work at all. The discovery of the photos changes this; the language becomes babble; there is no ground for communication left between the two of them, and so the marriage must end. 

(And all this is anticipated by Babbletower: “language is a bodily product,” Culvert proclaims, “a product of our earliest intimacies and desires, from the babble of the infant at the breast to the impassioned discourse of the visionary who tries to speak what is yet unformulated and unshaped.” Babies and visionaries, and babble, and the speaking of the unshaped — these things become preoccupations of Babel Tower, so again the two books circle around each other, like a helix, like a DNA strand.)

Conversely, one of the charming aspects of Babel Tower is the way it analyses itself; the way its characters are aware of the resonances within the languages they use. Frederica goes wandering through her husband’s ancestral home when he’s away, and discovers a box of pornographic pictures, to which she reacts with all the shock, horror, and naïveté that 1964 has to offer. There’s an obvious parallel, given Nigel’s status as a figure out of romance, with Bluebeard (indeed, the unshaved Nigel is described as having a “mussel-blue” shadow of a beard); Frederica and the other characters soon realise as much, and say so. And if Frederica’s own reaction to the pictures seems extreme, she herself later refers to this, noting her surprise at her own visceral response. So the characters of the book are briskly aware of the resonances through which they move, almost challenging the reader to keep up with them. When Frederica sees Jude Mason, in the witness stand, staring at his wrists and imagining shackles, we’re almost pleased that we recognise the reference to Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” but Frederica doesn’t. Mason’s own name is unpacked for us, its weight of meanings laid out, but the unspoken irony is that the most obvious associations of the name aren’t spoken — Jude, patron of lost causes; Mason, a builder of towers.

Babel Tower’s reconstruction of the 1960s, its attitudes and prejudices, seems to me who did not live through these things to have the ring of truth to it (although I do note that Byatt has the Batman TV show debut several years before it actually did, and apparently in black-and-white; perhaps British TV ran the old serials in the early 60s). I wonder, though, whether there isn’t an omission in the description of the debate over Babbletower: there’s no hint about any international reaction to the book. This seems odd, given the reception of the novel — we are given reviews which appeared in many of the newspapers and journals of the day, including an article by Anthony Burgess (who also takes to the stand during Mason’s trial; perhaps an ironic nod to the controversy around the film version of A Clockwork Orange), and you’d think a book that got that amount of press, and was then prosecuted for obscenity, would gather interest in the rest of the world.

Still, as a novel, Babel Tower is remarkably well-designed. It manages to bring alive a host of characters and ideas. It’s packed with incident, with colour. And it builds nicely; there’s the feel of a story gathering momentum, of events of importance manifesting like a storm which slowly gathers and then breaks. It’s not metafictional in the way of Still Life, but it’s still a ferociously self-aware book. Rather than have the text try to break down the text, the characters analyse the text in which they live — while a counter-text within the main text provides contrast, the second half of the double helix, an otherness that gives the book as a whole another dimension. Babel Tower is structurally adventurous, its prose is compelling, and its thought is graceful; it’s a fit successor to The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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