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  • Written by A.S. Byatt
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  • Written by A.S. Byatt
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On Sale: April 18, 2012
Pages: 640 | ISBN: 978-0-307-81958-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The Booker Prize-winning author of Possession presents a stunning, contemporary story set against the clashing politics, passionate ideals, and shifting sexual roles of the early 1960s. In Byatt's vision, the presiding genius of the day seems to be a blend of the Marquis de Sade and The Hobbit. Peopled with weird and colorful characters, charted with brilliant, imaginative sympathy, Babel Tower is as comic as it is threatening and bizarre.

Excerpt

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. The massive rubble is in a clearing on a high hill. Below is the canopy of the forest. There is a spring, of course, and a little river flowing from it.

The thrush appears to be listening to the earth. In fact he is looking, with his sideways stare, for his secret prey in the grass, in the fallen leaves. He stabs, he pierces, he carries the shell with its soft centre to his stone. He lifts the shell, he cracks it down. He repeats. He repeats. He extracts the bruised flesh, he sips, he juggles, he swallows. His throat ripples. He sings. His song is liquid syllables, short cries, serial trills. His feathers gleam, creamy and brown-spotted. He repeats. He repeats.

Characters are carved on the stones. Maybe runes, maybe cuneiform, maybe ideograms of a bird's eye or a creature walking, or pricking spears and hatchets. Here are broken alphabets, a and ?, C and T, A and G. Round the stones are the broken shells, helical whorls like empty ears in which no hammer beats on no anvil. They nestle. Their sound is brittle. Their lips are pure white (Helix hortensis) and shining black (Helix nemoralis). They are striped and coiled, gold, rose, chalk, umber; they rattle together as the quick bird steps among them. In the stones are the coiled remains of their congeners, millions of years old.

The thrush sings his limited lovely notes. He stands on the stone, which we call his anvil or altar, and repeats his song. Why does his song give us such pleasure?

I

Or it might begin with Hugh Pink, walking in Laidley Woods in Herefordshire in the autumn of 1964. The woods are mostly virgin woodland, crowded between mountainsides, but Hugh Pink is walking along an avenue of ancient yews, stretched darkly over hills and across valleys.

His thoughts buzz round him like a cloud of insects, of varying colours, sizes and liveliness. He thinks about the poem he is writing, a rich red honeycomb of a poem about a pomegranate, and he thinks about how to make a living. He does not like teaching in schools, but that is how he has recently made some sort of living, and he reconstructs the smells of chalk and ink and boys, the noise of corridors and tumult, amongst the dark trees. The wood floor smells pungent and rotting. He thinks of Rupert Parrott, the publisher, who might pay him to read manuscripts. He does not think he will pay much, but it might be enough. He thinks of the blooded pink jelly of pomegranates, of the word "pomegranate," round and spicy. He thinks of Persephone and is moved by the automatic power of the myth and then repelled by caution. The myth is too big, too easy, too much for his pomegranate. He must be oblique. Why is there this necessity, now, to be oblique? He thinks of Persephone as he used to imagine her when he was a boy, a young white girl in a dark cavern, before a black table, with a gold plate containing a heap of seeds. He had supposed the six seeds she ate were dry seeds, when he was a boy and had never seen a pomegranate. Her head is bowed, her hair is pale gold. She knows she should not eat, and eats. Why? It is not a question you can ask. The story compels her to eat. As he thinks, his eyes take in the woods, brambles and saplings, flaming spindle-berries and gleaming holly leaves. He thinks that he will remember Persephone and holly, and suddenly sees that the soft quadruple rosy seed of the spindle is not unlike the packed seeds of the pomegranate. He thinks about spindles, touches on Sleeping Beauty and her pricked finger, goes back to Persephone, dreaming girls who have eaten forbidden bloody seeds. Not the poem he is writing. His poem is about fruit flesh. His feet make a regular rhythm on fallen needles and the blanket of soft decay. He will remember the trees for the images in his mind's eye, and the images for the trees. The brain does all sorts of work, Hugh Pink thinks. Why does it do this sort so well, so luxuriously?

At the end of the ride, when he comes to it, is a stile. Beyond the stile are rough fields and hedges. On the other side of the stile are a woman and a child, standing quietly. The woman is wearing country clothes, jodhpurs, boots, a hacking jacket. She has a green headsquare knotted under her chin, in the style of the Queen and her royal sister. She leans on the fence, without putting her weight on it, looking into the wood. The child, partly obscured by the steps of the stile, appears to be clinging to the leg of the woman, both of whose arms are on the top bar of the fence.

They do not move as Hugh Pink approaches. He decides to strike off himself, into a shady path on his left. Then she calls his name.

"Hugh Pink? Hugh Pink. Hugh-"

He does not recognise her. She is in the wrong clothes, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. She is helping the child on to the stile. Her movements are brisk and awkward, and this reminds him. The child stands on the top step, balancing with one hand on her shoulder.

"Frederica-" says Hugh Pink.

He is about to add her old surname, and stops. He knows she is married. He remembers the buzz of furious gossip and chatter at the time of this marriage. Someone nobody knew, they had said, they had complained, none of her old friends, a stranger, a dark horse. No one was invited to the wedding, none of her university lovers or gossips, they had found out purely by chance, she had suddenly vanished, or so they told each other, with variants, with embellishments. It was put about that this man kept her more or less locked up, more or less incommunicado, in a moated grange, would you believe, in the country, in outer darkness. There had been something else, some disaster, a death, a death in the family, more or less at the same time, which was said to have changed Frederica, utterly changed her, they said. She is very changed, everyone was saying, you would hardly know her. Hugh was on his way to Madrid at this time, trying to see if poetry and making a living could be done in that city. He had once been in love with Frederica, and in Madrid had fallen in love with a silent Swedish girl. Also he had liked Frederica, but had lost her, had lost touch, because love always came before and confounded liking, which is regrettable. His memories of Frederica are confused by memories of his own embarrassment and memories of Sigrid, and of that embarrassment.

It is true that she is changed. She is dressed for hunting. But she no longer looks like a huntress.

"Frederica," says Hugh Pink.

"This is Leo," says Frederica. "My son."

The boy's look, inside his blue hood, is unsmiling. He has Frederica's red hair, two or three shades darker. He has large dark brown eyes, under heavy dark brows.

"This is Hugh Pink. One of my old friends."

Leo continues to stare at Hugh, at the wood. He does not speak.

Or it might begin in the crypt of St. Simeon's Church, not far from King's Cross, at the same time on the same day.

Daniel Orton sits on a slowly rotating black chair, constrained by a twisted telephone wire. Round and back. His ear is hot with electric words that filter through the black shell he holds to his head. He listens, frowning.

"I say I'm completely shut in you know I say I say I say I don't get up off my butt and go out of this room any more I can't seem to get up the force I ought to try it's silly really but what's the point I say I say I say I say if I did get out there they'd all stomp on me I'd be underfoot in no time it isn't safe I say I say I say are you there are you listening do you give a damn is there anyone at all on the end of this line I say I say."

"Yes, there's someone. Tell me where you want to go. Tell me why you're afraid to go out."

"I don't need to go nowhere no one needs me there's no need that's why oh what's the point? Are you still there?"

"I'm here."

The crypt is dark and solid. There are three telephones, set round the base of a pillar, in plywood cubicles soundproofed with a honeycomb of egg-boxes. The other two telephones are unmanned. There is a small blue-and-white jug of anemones in Daniel's cubicle. Two are open, a white and a dark crimson with a centre full of soft black spikes and black powder. There are unopened blue and red ones, bright inside colours hidden under fur, steel-blue and soft pink-grey above the ruffs of leaves. Over each telephone is a text, done in good amateur calligraphy. Daniel's says:

So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air.

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. I Corinthians 14:9-11.

The second phone rings. Daniel has to decide to disengage from the first caller. Someone else should be there, but even saints can be tardy.

"Help me."

"If I can."

"Help me."

"I hope I can."

"I've done wrong."

"Tell me, I'll listen."

Silence.

"I'm here simply to listen. You can tell me anything. That's what I'm for."

"I can't. I don't think I can. I made a mistake, I'm sorry, I'll go."

"Don't go. It might help you to tell me."

He is a man playing a hooked creature in the dark depths on a long dark line. It gasps and twists.

"I had to get out, you see. I had to get out. I thought I had to get out. Every day that was what I thought."

"Many of us do."

"But we don't-but we don't-do what I did."

"Tell me. I'll simply listen."

"I've not told anybody. Not for a whole year, a whole year is probably what it is, I've lost count. It might kill me to tell anyone, I might just be-nothing, I am nothing."

"No. You are not nothing. Tell me how you got out."

"I was making the kiddies' tea. They were lovely kids, they were-"

Tears, hectic gulps.

"Your own kids?"

"Yes." In a whisper. "I was just making bread and butter. I had this big knife. This sharp big knife."

Daniel's spine stiffens. He has taught himself not to make imaginary faces or places for the voices; that has led to errors; he unmakes a cramped kitchen, a tight-lipped face.

"And?" he says.

"I don't know what come over me. I stood and just looked at everything, the bread, and the butter, and the cooker, and the dirty dishes, and that knife, and I just became someone else."

"And?"

"And I put down the knife, and I didn't say anything, I just went and got my coat and my handbag, I didn't even say, 'I'm just going out for a minute or two,' I just went out of the front door quietly and shut it behind me. And I went on walking a long time. And. And I never went back. The little one was in his high-chair. He might have fallen over or anything might have happened. I just never went back."

"Did you get in touch after? With your husband? Do you have a husband?"

"I did, yes. I do have a husband, I suppose. I didn't get in touch. No. I couldn't. You see I couldn't."

"Do you want me to help you to get in touch?"

"No." Quickly. "No, no, no, no, no. I'd die, I'd die. I've done wrong. I've done terrible wrong."

"Yes," says Daniel. "But I wouldn't say it couldn't be helped."

"I've said it now. Thank you. I think I'll go now."

"I think I can help, I think you need help-"

"I don't know. I've done wrong. I'll go."

St. Simeon's is not in use as a parish church. It stands in a grimy courtyard, and has a heavy, square mediaeval tower, now surrounded by a bristling cage of scaffolding. The old church was enlarged in the eighteenth century and again in the nineteenth century, and was partly demolished by bombing in the Second World War. The Victorian nave was always too high and gaunt for its width, and this effect is emphasised by the fact that it has been only partly rebuilt, inside its old shell. It once had gaudy nineteenth-century stained glass, of no particular merit, depicting Noah's Ark and the story of the Flood on one side, and the stories of the raising of Lazarus, the appearance of the risen Christ at Emmaus and the tongues of fire descending at Whitsuntide, on the other. All these windows were sucked in by bomb blasts, leaving heaps of brilliant blackened fragments strewn in the aisles. A devout glazier in the congregation undertook to rebuild the windows, after the war, using the broken lights, but he was not able, or even willing, to reconstitute the narratives as they had been. What he made was a coloured mosaic of purple and gold constellations, of rivers of grass green and blood red, of hummocks of burned amber and clouded, smoke-stained, once-clear glass. It was too sad, he told the Vicar, to put the pictures together all smashed, with gaping holes. He thought it should all be bright and cheerful, and added modern glass here and there, making something abstract yet suggestive, with faces of giraffes and peacocks and leopards staring at odd angles out of red drapery, with white wings divided by sea blue and sky blue, angels and antediluvian storks and doves mingling with pentecostal flames. The peaks of Mount Ararat balance on a heap of smoky rubble, amongst which are planks of the Ark at all angles. Dead Lazarus's bound jaw has survived and one of his stiff white hands; both make a kind of wheel with the hand breaking bread at Emmaus and a hammering Ark-builder's hand. Parts of the primal rainbow flash amongst blue-and-white wave-crests.
A.S. Byatt

About A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt - Babel Tower

Photo © Michael Trevillion

A.S. Byatt is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Her books include Possession and the quartet of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. She was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's Babel Tower, a thought-provoking, deeply intelligent novel of ideas.

About the Guide

It is 1964, and Frederica, a fiercely intellectual young woman, realizes that her marriage has become a prison. Her husband, Nigel Reiver, is determinedly philistine, resentful of her brain and her interests outside the home; Frederica's slightest efforts at independence provoke him to increasingly violent behavior. Eventually she must flee from their home in the middle of the night, taking their young son, Leo, with her. Frederica moves to London, begins a teaching job, and files for divorce. Interwoven with this story is a parallel one, Babbletower, a fable about an idealistic group of men and women who left Paris during the Terror to found a utopian community in the countryside. But in isolation from the larger society, Culvert, the group's leader, becomes more and more tyrannical in his program of pushing "freedom" to ever newer and more frightening limits.

The novel reaches its climax with two trials that mirror the upheavals of the day: Frederica's bitter, public divorce and the prosecution of Babbletower's author and publisher on obscenity charges. In her fascinating and complex narrative, Byatt raises a seemingly infinite number of questions: about language and thought, freedom and captivity, the romantic point of view, and the condition of women. She reminds us that there are no absolute answers; life consists of a series of complex and reverberating choices.

About the Author

Babel Tower is the third of a planned tetralogy about the Potter family; the two earlier volumes were The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. Byatt is the author of two collections of stories, Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories, two other novels, Shadow of a Sun and Possession, a spectacularly successful work that won the 1990 Booker Prize and the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize and reached a large international readership. The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, two novellas, will be published in November 1997.

Discussion Guides

1. Frederica's sister, Stephanie, died in a freak accident not long before the beginning of the novel's action. What effect has Stephanie's death had upon Frederica and the life decisions she makes? Why is Daniel's reaction to his wife's death so extreme? How have Stephanie's parents, and her children, been changed by her death?

2. In the first chapter, Daniel, a clergyman, speaks on the church hotline with a woman who has abandoned her children. What other images of abandoned children can you find in the novel? If Leo had not followed Frederica away from Bran House, do you think she would have left him behind for good, and if so, would it have counted as abandonment? What about the mothers at La Tour Bruyarde: in allowing their children's welfare to be decided by Culvert, did they fail in their duty as parents?

3. Do you find that Frederica places too much blame for the state of her marriage upon herself? In your opinion, does she behave passively when dealing with Nigel? If so, do you think that such behavior is a product of her time and generation? Might a modern, more "liberated" woman behave differently?

4. Do you feel any sympathy at all for Nigel, or is he presented as an absolute villain? What attractive characteristics drew Frederica to him in the first place? Do you see Nigel as a comment on the "type" of the Romantic hero--Heathcliff or Byron? If you do, what point do you think Byatt is making about such heroes?

5. Why has Byatt chosen the 1960s as the setting for this novel? Rupert Parrott describes the climate of that time as "a period of moral ferment, moral realignment, fruitful chaos" [p. 149]. What particular events of the 1960s contributed to this sense of moral ferment? In what ways do the times described in the novel resemble, or differ from, the 1990s?

6. Babel Tower makes extensive comments upon Romanticism and the romantic outlook on life. Can you infer Byatt's own views? What flaws does she find in the romantic ethos? Why are there so many references, both overt and obscure, to William Blake? Do you feel that Byatt deals with Blake in a positive, hostile, or satiric manner?

7. In what ways do the attitudes prevalent at the Tour Bruyarde parallel those of London in the sixties? "The social structures of the Society [the French utopians] had fled...were structures of authority, of persecution, of narrow loyalties, of hierarchy, of exclusive and narrow affections and privileges, all of which led to oppression, irrationality and the sense of private property and personal greed" [p. 204]. Is this point of view comparable to "progressive" thinking in the 1960s?

8. While living and teaching in London, Frederica becomes deeply wrapped up in the novels of E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence. If you are familiar with these authors' work, particularly Lawrence's Women in Love and Forster's Howards End, can you explain why Frederica found these authors' concerns so germane to her own life? If you are familiar with Thomas Hardy, can you understand why Jude Mason has named himself after the hero of Hardy's Jude the Obscure?

9. One of the questions posed by Babel Tower concerns the nature of freedom and of captivity. When are Frederica and the Lady Roseacre the most "free"? What qualities must they possess, and exercise, in order to achieve freedom? In this novel, does freedom seem harder for women to achieve than for men, and if so, why?

10. The Romantic period, like the 1960s, was a time when "natural" behavior, and life, was assumed to be good. The Babbletower narrative takes a dissenting view; Jude demonstrates "that if we are free to follow our passions, who can prevent us from following our desire to hurt others, to kill, to rape, to torture? These are--human passions; they are natural" [p. 545]. How is this theme played out in the modern portion of Babel Tower? What conclusions, if any, are drawn?

11. Frederica is fearful and suspicious of groups and group life: "I was no good at group life," she says to Agatha. "I hated school." What is it in her nature, or her experience, that has formed this dislike? Does Byatt imply that such feelings are characteristic of intellectuals and artists in general? What points do the two narratives--the 1960s story and Jude Mason's Babbletower--make about the nature of group versus individual life?

12. A number of the characters in Babbletower, from Bill Potter to Culvert, and especially the members of the royal commission, have strong feelings about education and the nature of learning. Whose ideas do you find the most convincing? Whose the least so? What type of person might the William Blake Primary School produce? What about the Swineburn School?

13. What relevance do the four reader's reports Frederica writes for Rupert Parrott's firm [pp. 151-56] have to Frederica's own life, and to the themes addressed in the novel itself?

14. The latter portion of Babel Tower contains large verbatim quotations from the two trials, Frederica's and Jude's. Reflecting on the way the legal experts distorted the truths of their lives, Frederica "sees herself as a caged or netted beast.... The net is made by words which do not describe what she feels is happening" [p. 326]. Is language by its very nature inadequate, or is its inadequacy the fault of people who manipulate it to achieve their own ends? What is the myth of the Tower of Babel, and why has Byatt chosen it as a metaphor--and a title--for her novel?

15. "I feel I'm on trial for reading books," Frederica says [p. 502]. Why are so many people in Frederica's world--Nigel, his family, even the lawyers and jury members during her trial--apparently threatened by intellectuals, particularly intellectual women? What separate aspects of British culture and society do the two principal families, the Reivers and the Potters, represent?

16. Frederica finds herself questioning "the Romantic desire for everything to be One--lovers, body and mind, life and work" [p. 361]. Does she conclude that the ideal of oneness is realizable or even desirable? How do the identical twins, John and Paul Ottokar, illustrate the ideas of oneness and separateness? What other images of oneness does Byatt invoke?

17. "The Church has always been about sex," says Canon Holly [p. 26], and later, "The Christian religion is an expression of the perception that what we now call sado-masochism is a central truth of our existence" [p. 555]. What does he mean by these statements? Do you find them credible?


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