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BABEL TOWER by A S Byatt Chatto pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
This massive novel is Antonia Byatt's first full-length work since Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990. Babel Tower, the third volume in a planned quartet, continues the story of Frederica Potter and her family, the central characters of The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life. Here we find Frederica, in her late twenties, unhappily married and fleeing from rural seclusion and a violent husband. With her small son she arrives in London. Old friends provide generous support, finding her places to live, jobs, a GP and a solicitor. They cook her delicious little meals, admire her fortitude and welcome her back to the world of the thinking man (or woman, but as Frederica says, "The kind of woman I am is not quite sure she is a woman").

Frederica, never an attractive character, has not improved with age. Initially she is suffering from shock, an axe wound, VD and anxiety about her son; even so, her acceptance of people's kindness as her natural due seems graceless, and her self-absorption is breathtaking. She learns that her husband has beaten up her brother-in-law and attacked her elderly father. "Help me," she cries. Without apparent irony, she assures a social worker that she loves her child "more than anything else, including myself, including my books". She hates to write "I" because: " 'I' is a character I am inventing who/which in some sense drains life from ME into artifice and enclosedness."

She teaches fiction courses, reads for a publisher and agonises over language and meaning, for it is the early Sixties and the educational assumptions of her past are being cast aside. She shares a house with equally high-minded Agatha, who quotes from "Lycidas" one morning. "They grin. The quotation makes them both feel better. They do not question why this should be so; they are women who share a certain culture." This culture, shared indeed by most of their friends and colleagues, exhales a fatal miasma of complacency and self-righteousness. The spirit flags, becomes torpid and sullen as it is guided through the labyrinths of Frederica's search for the truth about herself. "I am not thinking clearly. I am accusing Forster and Lawrence of making me marry Nigel, out of some desire for Union of Opposites, of Only Connecting the Prose and the Passion. Whereas in fact, at least in part, I married him for exactly the opposite reason, because I wanted to keep things separate. I though the sex was good, was satisfactory, which is better than good, and I think I thought that because he was rich, I wouldn't have to be a housewife like my mother." And so on. Frederica provides us with a Burroughs-inspired collage of quotations and anecdotes which gives her intense pleasure but is tedious for anyone else; we must also read her lectures, her reports on books, and her friend Agatha's Tolkienish children's serial, with bumper dramatic episodes on Sundays: "the requirement of the Sunday Shock is formally very satisfying, no doubt like constructing episodes of novels like The Idiot or Dombey and Son." Ah yes, no doubt. But how one yearns for a spot of frivolity, for kitsch and ketchup, for warmth and humour.

There are even greater inducements to narcolepsy in the endless small- type pages of Babbletower, the novel within the novel. In allegorical and chivalric prose this describes the creation and self-destruction in a towery mountain fastness. Not only must we read this sub-novel, we must also endure discussions, eulogies, reviews and finally a court trial, held to determine whether the sub-novel is obscene or of mitigating literary merit. I can tell you now that it is neither; it is just annoying and boring and I was delighted when the Lady Roseace was chopped up by a sex machine and the infant Felicitas fell off a tower.

In the novel proper there are many towers. The central image of the Tower of Babel represents the intellectual, social and moral confusions of the Sixties, the collapse of old, received wisdoms into the welter of opportunism, or into well-intentioned liberal theory. In contrast are the tiny spiralling towers of snail shells, the twisting of certain branches, the coil of an ammonite, all representative of pure form, immutable order, the harmonious truthfulness of numbers. In the enlightened primary school, children create cardboard towers, the concrete heights of a new university shadow an Elizabethan garden, the ziggurats of Babylon vie with Kafka's Castle, Frederica's spine twists into a helter-skelter of desire, a madman burns toppling piles of books. Towers of presumption, towers of aspiration, towers of folly.

This is a profoundly didactic book; each tower is implicit with questions and answers and argument. Byatt moves expertly among her structures, discoursing, debating, on language, the teaching of English, education, sexual freedom, television, the legal system, pollution and the genetics of snails. Her versatility and parodic skills are dazzling. She assembles a government committee of academics and writers to study the teaching of English, and peppers it with vignettes of recognisable characters bearing half-familiar names, mischievously deployed - Roger Magog, Naomi Lurie, Mickey Impey, Hans Richter. Here, away from the mainstream of the narrative, there are some genuinely funny scenes and satisfyingly sharp glimpses of group interaction.

The scene shifts between London and the Yorkshire moors, where we come upon Frederica and some people with names that just go too far - John Ottokar, Jacqueline Winwar and Dr Luk Lysgaard-Peacock. Byatt's descriptions of landscape are ravishing, underpinned always by some small, surprising comment or parallel. Here, as Dr Luk Lysgaard-Peacock and the others chat about radiation and genetic polymorphism, Byatt describes the early warning system, three vast white spheres. "Their size is incommensurate with the moorland, their scale is in another world. They are beautiful and sinister. They are so beautiful and simple it is not easy to see them as man-made, and thus they do not seem to spoil the wild landscape as they might be expected to. They are huge yet unobtrusive."

Such descriptions, truthful and resonant, stand out distinctly in a book where one is often unable to suspend disbelief. Yet there is an energy behind this restless, striving and unwieldy novel which makes one read on, makes one want to know what happens next to Frederica, tiresome as she is and tiresome as Byatt's continuous use of the present tense is. Much is demanded of the reader, but much too is given, even if it is often concealed to an oracular degree in analogy or metaphor. "Is a naked prancing man a mask for a brain and a pair of eyes watching and watching and trying to make sense?" Well, is he?