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Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt (1996)

  1. 30
    A Whistling Woman by A. S. Byatt (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels feature Frederica Potter.
  2. 00
    The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels feature Frederica Potter.

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This is the only book to cause me to miss my stop on the train. I was so engrossed that I blew right past my station and had to call my mother to come pick me up.

Possession will always be my favorite of Byatt's - partly because it was the novel to introduce me to the author, partly because it's a masterpiece - but this is one that really spoke to me the second time around. I somehow missed the unifying dissertation on language last time, only vaguely connecting spoken thought (or the lack of thereof, silence, etc.) to the title, a legend on the birth of language.

I've read some reviews calling Babel Tower a mess in twelve parts, and it's true that there are multiple parallel plot lines. However, the plots are balanced and overlapping, even if it is a little difficult to say exactly what the novel is about in a sentence.

It's about Frederica, an Englishwoman attempting to divorce her husband and retain custody of her son. It's also about education, as it traces civil servants on a committee to analyze primary-level schools and determine which was the "right" way to teach. In examining teaching, the book begins to discuss grammar, words, and theories suggesting that a lack of formal language instruction diminishes a person's capacity to think. It's also about a clergyman who works for the Listeners, a suicide hotline, and his relationship with his estranged children. It's about a book, written ostensibly by one of the characters, which may or may not be obscene, and is used as a frame narrative to offer alternative context to the rest of the story. Its trial mirrors the Lady Chatterly affair even as it is set alongside Frederica's divorce and custody hearings.

The book is brilliant. It's the third in a quartet. I liked the first two, but to this one, I have sworn undying love. ( )
  eldashwood | Apr 17, 2013 |
You get:

* Charles Fourier vs. Sade (in the novel, babbletower, within a novel)
* An affectionate send-up of the medievalism and attractions to Apocalyptic Blake in 60s counterculture (and a perhaps less affectionate send up of the countercultural psychology of Laing and Marcuse)
* A wondering exploration of the 60s developments in pedagogy
* a harrowing feminist account of domestic violence
* TWO courtroom dramas (first divorce, and then an obscenity charge, during which Anthony Burgess (!) appears)
* the birth of environmentalism

Merits repeated rereadings. ( )
  karl.steel | Apr 2, 2013 |
Een bijzonder veelomvattend boek. Het huwelijk van Frederica wordt uitgebreid beschreven en geanalyseerd. Een verhaal in een verhaal: Babbeltower, wordt in de jaren zestig opgevat als schokkend en pornografisch. Het boek is niet zomaar even samen te vatten, het is intens, intensief om te lezen maar boeit meer dan de voorafgaande delen. De rechtbankscenes vond ik af en toe al te veel uitgesponnen maar zelfs die heb ik geboeid gelezen. Ik neem een korte pauze en dan verheug ik me alweer op het vierde en laatste deel. ( )
  elsmvst | Jul 2, 2012 |
I do find Frederica rather a frustrating character - a bit limp - or maybe I'm just annoyed by her liking for DH Lawrence (whom I can stand in only very, very small doses); and I find her marriage to Nigel rather hard to take - why someone described by others as feisty and intelligent should be taken in by someone like him without biting back until it's (almost?) too late...If anything I find the internal Babbletower story more interesting - perhaps the ideas seem clearer? Though I'm quite enjoying Daniel's strand of the story.

Two-thirds of the way through "Babel Tower" and I'm finding it hugely satisfying - the intertextuality (when Byatt mentions Justine, we don't know if she means Durrell or Sade, since both writers are namechecked); the texts themselves - "Babbletower", Agatha's story, the letters, the cut-ups, Frederica's reader's reports, her musings on Howard's End and DH Lawrence; the babel of voices - Frederica and her family, friends, and all their various combinations; Jude Mason - who's both loathsome and also, at some level, the foul-smelling, foul-natured cynic who sees things as they are. Like Samson Origen in his own novel. All the symbols and clues - Blake, snails, memory, the punning names (which in themselves could be irritating if it weren't for the fact that everything in this novel seems to connect - seems to thus far, but I'm wary of the feeling of connectedness as Frederica is...).

It's just such a massive book in terms of what it's trying to do, but at the same time it doesn't come across as a dry intellectual exercise - it is very intellectual, but there's a playfulness at work, too, and despite the tight plotting it also feels organically right, it doesn't feel contrived (or rather, if it is contrived, it's explicitly so). Tigers, the twins...And even its deficiencies I'm tending to come to see as deliberately so - i.e. Frederica, a bit feeble at time, but a product of her times? Nigel, black villain, but he is he meant to be that? The "romantic hero" figure who's not actually any good for any real woman?
[Dec 2002] ( )
  startingover | Feb 1, 2011 |
An amazing novel- I cannot praise it too highly. This is in many ways a serious read, there is so much going on, so many allusions, so much intertextuality- yet it all seems to flow effortlessly. A novel to trurn to again and again :) ( )
  dartmoor | Mar 3, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679736808, Paperback)

Babel Tower follows The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life in tracing Frederica Potter, a lover of books who reflects the author's 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 gains a major toehold in the London of the Sixties, and society will never be the same.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:44 -0400)

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In England, a woman marries into the landed gentry, only to find the life stifling. When she tries to renew with her old milieu, her husband objects. Drama follows drama, ending in a custody battle for their only child. A look at British society.

(summary from another edition)

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