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Stemming the Tide of the '60s : FICTION : BABEL TOWER, By A.S. Byatt (Random House: $25.95; 622 pp.)

June 16, 1996|Nick Fox | Nick Fox is a poet and former bookseller who lives in London

If somebody is clever enough, Tom Stoppard once wrote, you can persuade that person of anything; people can also perhaps persuade themselves and others that they have written something readable, even significant. Antonia Byatt's new novel, "Babel Tower," has just been published in London to reviews that, if mostly baffled in tone, treat book and author with an odd reverence.

Mystification, detachment, fear of uncertainty, of life, are no substitute for inspiration and wit. The central character is at one point thus described: "Frederica is a clever woman, but she is not a woman with an unusually quick imagination." Fancy that--from one who is known in London for publicly reproaching other authors for writing themselves into their novels.

We meet Cambridge graduate Frederica again, protagonist of two previous Byatt novels, "The Virgin in the Garden" and "Still Life." She provides a feeling tone of listless dissociation, a kind of empty center to the book: escaping from marital imprisonment and abuse at the hands of an English country squire, taking her young son to London, where she teaches literature to adults in the evening and reads manuscripts for a publisher by day.

Her divorce takes place; so does also the trial for a Sadean obscenity of a book called "Babbletower," published by her employer and written by a man with terrible body odors who has changed his name to Jude after the doomed social outcast in Thomas Hardy's final novel, "Jude the Obscure." Frederica's landlady is also writing a novel--fey and Tolkienesque. Both are dumped into the text at intervals. There clearly isn't supposed to be any giggling or yawning in the back row as we readers/pupils struggle to sort these texts, gratuitously muddled as they are with strands of scissors-and-paste narrative and bolt-on pontification.

"Babel Tower" sets out to grasp what the '60s meant in Britain, in the same way as Byatt's last novel "Possession" tried to re-create and embrace a certain 19th century Weltanschauung. What writers should be doing in Britain today is incorporating without evasion what is happening now. Like Germany after World War I, Britain has lost an empire. The younger writers retreat into nihilism, older writers like Byatt espouse some sort of inane "retro."

At one point in the novel her heroine attends an eclectic musical "happening" in mid-'60s London. "The lovely music runs on. Frederica thinks: "There is not enough point to all this, or else I am missing something.' It is a thought she is often to have, in those years."

The '60s blew us into the age of Babel, whether we like it or not. The going got weird (pace Hunter Thompson), the weird got going, the world got weird, we all got weird, and the world kept going, keeps going. "Babel Tower" is an attempt to contain the flow. Byatt's defense against what she sees as the Walpurgisnacht '60s is to heap language like cement into something more studiedly irrelevant than any tower of ivory; she has built a Maginot line--600 pages long--with the heavy machinery of a literary technique derived from academic autopsy; her apparent motivation recalls King Canute who, a thousand years ago, set his throne on an Englishbeach and forbade the tide to come in.

If none of the characters in a novel is presented as having redeeming qualities, then at least the misanthropy of the author might do us the favor of being other than studiedly coy. At least if disenchantment with the human race (including the self) is avowed full-bloodedly, it can produce a flow of energy--think of Beckett, Duras, Burroughs, Celine.

If not pathos, we can at least expect a little irony or self-mockery even in disengagement: Borges dealt consummately with the new, and immanent, terrors to be found in a postmodern world. He surpassed even Byatt in erudition, affected to live almost literally in an ivory tower, yet when he dived into areas that Byatt examines through the wrong end of her telescope, the tiny stories that resulted were viscerally disturbing. He told us more about the Tower of Babel in a story eight pages long than Byatt does in 600--and the '60s had not even quite begun. He also spun a little tale of a man who sets out to synthesize a classic work--Pierre Menard, author of the "Quixote"--which could have given Byatt salutary pause for thought before she embarked upon "Babel Tower."

While purporting to define and encompass what the intellectual and spiritual provenance of the '60s was, "Babel Tower" serves up dead trees piled up in such a way as to make sure no one glimpses the wood. At best you get a lot of literary fusion (De Sade, Burroughs, Burgess), which like the constant fooling around with literary form simply establishes that Byatt is familiar with a plethora of extant literature: undigested glossary, rather than fiction as entertainment, elucidation, or creative act for reader or writer.

G.K. Chesterton called tradition "the democracy of the dead." That is all you get if you deny the flow of the present, and it ill behooves a living writer to wish to join that constituency.

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