Giving up on the Tower of Babel

I read for the sheer pleasure of it: wild, poetic writing; developed, challenging characters; plot lines you escape to, that involve you; narration that becomes the narrator of your life; a humbling space to learn and expand your own world.  Every new book is a new opportunity for this, so I find quitting a book very difficult.  It’s been published for a reason; all those nice reviews on the cover are there for a reason.  What can’t I see?  Am I missing out?

And so I found myself with A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower.  Two tales run parallel: a 1960s contemporary tale about class, literature, and personal and partisan politics; and a documentation of a wartime collection of a hedonistic community, setting up their personal, pleasure-filled Tower of Babel.  I reached approximately a quarter into the book, and apart from a narrative voice at the begining, asking “where to start” this story, there is no connection between the two accounts.

The lives of the contemporary characters revolve around making a living with writing; ‘saving’ their old university friend Fredericka from her isolated, abusive marriage; and the life she then makes for herself.  We have poetry, ruminations on cultural ideas influencing creativity, a battle between motherhood and identity, and an element of mystery around Fredericka’s sisters-in-law.  But the crux of the issue for me was that it was just not enough to care about: while I was involved when reading, I thought very little about this book while I was away from it.

What made it even easier to leave this book behind were the very confronting scenes of domestic physical and sexual abuse Fredericka suffers.  These are very close-up, intimate events of shocking violence, and what makes them even more challenging is the insight the reader is given to her internal voice throughout it.  Fredericka is as harsh on herself as her husband is on her, and to read her criticising herself, her behaviour and her responses to the intense violence he enacts on her is awful to participate in.  However afterwards, what sat awkwardly with me is the fact that I still didn’t care about her as a character.  While I academically sympathised with the situation, we had seen so little of Fredericka, and what we had seen (outside of these scenes of abuse) I was having trouble relating to.

The real push to quit this book however, came from the second parallel story, that of the Tower of Babel.  We are given very little historical or geographical context as we are introduced to a group of seemingly wealthy, educated upper class peers and their servants.  The closet themselves into an old castle complex, and establish a hedonistic, pleasure-driven society with no rules, no class, no status.  All dialogue and narration is extremely stilted, and for a community obsessed with personal satisfaction, I got very little of my own from the writing.  We are subject to some wooden scenes around sexuality and desire, the affected, stiff characters are rude and unthinking, and we see little of their motivations.  And in the end, I didn’t really want to.

This book obviously involves ideas around intertextuality, female identity, and layers of literature. There is skill Byatt is displaying in the dramatically different narration styles, and the interweaving of characters’ lives and cultural ideas, but this was not enough to counter balance the truly dreadful characters.  Pretentious and artificial, I simply could not stand the Babel Tower sections of the story.  And while I loved the idea of a group of old university friends, their lives revolving around literature, firstly, it wasn’t enough to sustain the drudgery of Babel Tower sections, and secondly, as fully-developed characters they were a little flat as well.

It was a dinner-party conversation with my partner and university friend that finally got me to leave this book behind.  We read because we’re passionate about the fantastic writing out there, and how much you can get from that.  It is just ironic that a book on a pleasure-seeking Tower of Babel community gave no pleasure to me.

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