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Babel Tower (1996)

by A.S. Byatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Frederica Potter Quartet (3)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,825147,821 (3.83)35
"In BABEL TOWER a cast of striking characters play out their personal dramas amid the clashing politics, passionate ideals and stirring languages of the early 1960s. Frederica (the heroine of VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN and STILL LIFE) now teaching English in an art college, is hiding herself and her son Leo from a violent husband; her urge towards freedom later leads to an angry, humiliating divorce case. Hers is not the only struggle- her friend Jude writes a novel, BABBELTOWER, which is tried for obscenity; her brother-in-law Daniel becomes involved in new movements for London's poor and distressed. Their crises mirror those of the age - abroad, this is the decade of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of Kennedy; at home it is the era of the LADY CHATTERLEY case, of the Beatles, of Mods and Rockers, art school riots, the Profumo scandal. Moving and absorbing and full of comedy as well as strife, this superb novel brings our own recent past to vivid, and disturbing life."… (more)
  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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» See also 35 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I’m presented with the problem endemic to enthusiastic readers who don’t have any formal education in literature; I can tell this is a good book, but I can’t really say why. I suppose the best I can do is say I found the heroine complicated, but appealing and the other characters also complicated, whether they were appealing or not. ( )
  setnahkt | Jul 7, 2022 |
see the notes on Reading Byatt's Fredricia Quartet, found with her fourth book, *A Whistling Woman* ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 28, 2021 |
The third in the Frederica saga: we're now in the mid-sixties. Frederica's impulsive marriage to Nigel Reiver has not worked out well, and she's trying to build a new life as a literary single parent in London, teaching adult education classes, reviewing, and reading manuscripts for a publisher. Alexander is on a government committee that's reporting on possible reforms of the teaching of English in schools, and Daniel is working for the Samaritans out of a switchboard in a church crypt.

Byatt comments ironically on the challenge-everything ethos of the Swinging Sixties by bringing in a full-scale book-within-a-book, Babbletower, a fantasy novel set in a libertine community where the do-what-thou-wilt ideals of Sade and Fourier are taken to their grotesque, horrific conclusion.

The book ends in two — parallel — extended set-piece court scenes, as Frederica's marriage is ended under the still unreformed divorce laws of the time in one court, and the author and publisher of Babbletower are tried for obscenity in another. We see how clumsy an instrument the legal mechanism for determining truth is when it has to deal with the emotional reality of a marriage or the literary reality of a novel. But we've already seen Frederica trying and failing to resolve her firsthand experience of sex and love with the supposedly authoritative — but mutually conflicting! — understanding she has learnt to look for from her reading of E M Forster and D H Lawrence. And we see that each of the so-called experts who give evidence for and against Babbletower has taken something quite different from the book from what we saw in it as readers, and different again from what the author thought he was putting in.

This is a very big, serious, complicated novel of ideas, but it's also a very funny book, full of mischievous caricatures of sixties types — two dreadful Liverpool Poets, Anthony Burgess (safely dead, and therefore playing himself, hilariously), Angus Wilson (a friend of the author's sister, and therefore disguised slightly), trendy clergymen and trendier psychoanalysts, a Bowie-esque pop star, various artists, a vicar's-wife novelist, etc. Best of all, of course, but a full-scale character rather than a mere caricature, is the author of Babbletower, Jude Mason, who shares a profession and some aspects of his personality with Quentin Crisp, but turns out to have a quite different background.

Oh yes, this is a Byatt novel, so it doesn't stop with one book-within-a-book: as well as Babbletower there is a Tolkienish quest-novel being written as a serial for the children by Frederica's childcare-partner, Agatha Mond, and there is Frederica's own work-in-progress, a collage and cut-up book she calls Laminations. Not to mention the usual literary fun and games with parodies of reviews, novel reports, student essays, and the documents of Alexander's committee. And — just in passing — a lot of serious discussion of the nature of language, the sources of morality, the way these things develop in children, cults, Happenings, charismatic Christianity, ritual, the sexuality of snails, the effects of pesticides, and much more.

A lot to take in, even at a second or third reading. But vastly entertaining. ( )
3 vote thorold | Oct 3, 2020 |
One of my friends, who maintains amazing literary tastes, told me two years ago that Babel Tower was unreadable. I now agree. The familial and educational contexts of the first two novels are gone in this one. What is left is simply ugly. Byatt hopes to make sense of the 60s with a pastiche method and pair of court cases. I deign she fails. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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. ( )
1 vote eldashwood | Apr 17, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
It is both a novel of daunting virtuosity and a statement of grand moral and historical force.... a forceful confrontation with the sacred monsters of the 1960s counter-culture, Blake, Sade and Tolkien.... It is devastating, and unanswerable, because it never caricatures what it despises.
added by KayCliff | editThe Spectator, Philip Hensher (Sep 7, 2002)
 

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Byatt, A.S.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aldred, SophieNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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It might begin: The thrush has his anvil or altar on one fallen stone in a heap, gold and grey, roughly squared and shaped, hot in the sun and mossy in the shade.
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Human beings invented Original Sin because the alternative hypothesis was worse. Better to be at the centre of a universe whose terrors are all a direct result of our own failings, than to be helpless victims of random and largely malevolent forces.
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Daniel keeps watch in St Simeon's Church.... It is October 28th and Daniel wishes to give thanks for, to contemplate, the ending of an evil. On this day the House of Commons, in a free vote, has passed the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Bill. Daniel ... meditates on the panoply, the grisly ceremony, the ghoulish cruelty of what has just been done away with.
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"In BABEL TOWER a cast of striking characters play out their personal dramas amid the clashing politics, passionate ideals and stirring languages of the early 1960s. Frederica (the heroine of VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN and STILL LIFE) now teaching English in an art college, is hiding herself and her son Leo from a violent husband; her urge towards freedom later leads to an angry, humiliating divorce case. Hers is not the only struggle- her friend Jude writes a novel, BABBELTOWER, which is tried for obscenity; her brother-in-law Daniel becomes involved in new movements for London's poor and distressed. Their crises mirror those of the age - abroad, this is the decade of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of Kennedy; at home it is the era of the LADY CHATTERLEY case, of the Beatles, of Mods and Rockers, art school riots, the Profumo scandal. Moving and absorbing and full of comedy as well as strife, this superb novel brings our own recent past to vivid, and disturbing life."

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