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Babel Tower [Hardcover]

A.S. Byatt
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Hardcover, Nov. 17 1998 --  
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Book Description

Nov. 17 1998
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 at 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, Babbletower, which is tried for obscenity; her broth 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 J F 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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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From Amazon

Babel Tower follows The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life in tracing Frederica Potter, a lover of books who reflects the author's life and times. It centers around two lawsuits: in one, Frederica -- a young intellectual who has married outside her social set -- is challenging her wealthy and violent husband for custody of their child; in the other, an unkempt but charismatic rebel is charged with having written an obscene book, a novel-within-a-novel about a small band of revolutionaries who attempt to set up an ideal community. And in the background, rebellion gains a major toehold in the London of the Sixties, and society will never be the same. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

One does not usually associate Byatt, who has often worked on a small-even miniature-scale, with the notion of an epic novel; but that, in terms of scope and ambition, is just what she has created here. It is an invigorating spectacle, as well as a welcome reminder of how a fine novelist can illuminate a whole era in ways not even the most skilled social historian can. Set in England in the mid-1960s, the novel focuses on Frederica, an attractive, highly intelligent and bookish young woman who cut a swath at Cambridge University, then married Nigel Reiver, a well-to-do member of the landed gentry with a country house, two doting sisters and a way of life that soon seems utterly stifling to Frederica. Her small son, Leo, passionately loved by both parents, is soon the only vital element in her existence; and when friends from her former life come calling, and are rudely rebuffed by Nigel, Frederica rebels. When Nigel, ever apologetic, but convinced it is for her own good, starts knocking her about, Frederica flees to London, with Leo clinging to her in desperation. Thereafter, the book is an account of the drawn-out custody battle over Leo, climaxing in a divorce hearing that exquisitely renders the issues of a woman's independence. More impressively, it is a riveting account of changing mores, as England begins to emerge from its ancient certainties into the shifting priorities, freedoms and follies of the "Swinging Sixties." Among the manifestations of such changes is a book written by an eccentric, Nietzschean acquaintance of Frederica's-a fantasy, with sado-erotic overtones, about the pleasures and limits of freedom. This book (a reprise of the book-within-a-book device Byatt employed in Possession) becomes the focus of another court case when its author is prosecuted for obscenity. Through the two cases (which leap from the page much more enthrallingly, convincingly and thought-provokingly than most legal thrillers) Byatt represents a whole society trying to come to terms with new values. The narrative is mesmerisingly readable, except for long excerpts from Babbletower, the prosecuted novel, and Frederica's own rather hermetic attempts at self-expression-though even these are perfectly believable in their own right. In many ways, this is a book about language, and how it is used to conceal and reveal (there is a wonderfuly satirical subplot about a commission examining English educational methods). But it also employs language, brilliantly, to create a large cast of characters whose struggles, anxieties and small triumphs are at once specific to a time and place, and universal. Simultaneous Random AudioBook; author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it, it's great May 14 2002
When people talk about Byatt, they tend to dwell on her academicism, on her allusions and quotes, on her historicism. But if this were all there were to Byatt, no one would read her. What makes Byatt a wonderful writer is that she has a tremendous sense of how the world works, how situations and relationships that seemed promising slowly unravel, how smart people can do stupid things, and how things and people who at first seem hopeless can wind up being wonderful. She understands process, and she understands complexity.
Babel Tower is about how people devoted to the life of the mind can survive in a society which is hostile to that life. Much of the book is taken up with trials, because a major character in this book is "society", which may be personified by juries, by expert witnesses, by journalists. Her character, Frederica, escapes from a marriage which first stultifies her mind, and then threatens to kill her. On a meagre living, she constructs a life and a support system that will give her young son what he needs, mentally and physically. But her husband is wealthy, and what he offers the boy seems superficially more wholesome, so in the trials for divorce and custody, Frederica is judged essentially for her surface, for what her life looks like from the outside.
In a parallel subplot, the writer Jude Mason has written a book that is judged for obscenity. But Mason wrote it as a moral book which tells the lessons he has learned in life. He is a vagrant. He was sexually abused in childhood. He understands how people torture those they love. In the book's obscenity trial, Mason, his neuroses, his appearance, and his intentions are judged and condemned; when his book is banned, he himself is banned.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and affected March 4 2002
By A Customer
This novel focuses on Frederica Potter's attempt to regain her autonomy after a stifling marriage and Jude Mason's "pornographic" novel and the trial against it. The relationship between these two stories is strained, and neither is especially compelling.
Frederica's position in life is one that many readers can, and want to identify with. In many ways, however, Byatt is not successful in making Frederica an appealing character. She is smart, but not emotional, and her rebellion lacks self-awareness. She seems to neither know nor care how her various relationships with men will be viewed by the outside world. Her love for her son Leo does appear to be genuine, but overall, she comes across as selfish rather than heroic or brave.
Jude Mason's story of an utopia gone wrong is not particularity original and the flowery language keeps the reader at distance. The connection between Mason and Frederica does not become apparent until over half way through the book, but which point the reader has either missed important information or has decided she/he doesn't care. Mason's character is not fully explored, such as his relationship to Daniel and the phone center, further weakening this section of the novel.
Overall, this is not Byatt's strongest work. It is not a unique story and is not particularly well told.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Psyched Fugitive Dec 7 2001
Psyched Fugitive
Reflections on Byatt A.S's work ---Babel Tower
The huge book with the cover of 'Sade' cluttered with a motely of trans-human figures opens eerily, as one traverses through the translyvanian pages.
The opening isn't daunting anymore; the lamb bleats in the silence of an ordinary setting that starts of the story.
The thread idylic in discourse is a beginning so mellow and placid- the threads, rummage, pilferand plunder themselves to a scavenging in a myriad of narratives, arched in differences but seemingly in themselves to a oneness that wants to be called source.
The sheer beauty of each word in prose and poetry, lulls the reader to stay captivated and confused, trying hard to pierce the damoclian tips gorging itself in moments but does not, as the looking seems to be glasses many in oblivion.
The vison of cambridge hangs heavily on Fredirica, knitting the fabric of a cloak that is replusive to commerce, subversive in its attachment to the stratified part of the status called culture. The boorish Nigel and the intelllectual Fredrica are chaotically brought to a oneness of the body flowing in a wave of juices. The drying out is constant in wearying out of the body with the intellect in personas unreconciled. The minds and bodies weren't forced to attraction but attracted as unlike forces repeling like ones.
Semiotic underpinning of Nietzsche's theology -'Death Of God' is an excorsist translated into the existential of "Birth Of the Body"; The "Birth Of the Body" weaves through the penelopian folds of the labile, circumambulating into Sade's garden of mid-wifery.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Odyssey for Frederica March 28 2001
Compared with her Potter siblings Stephanie and Marcus, Frederica as the academically ambitious, sexually liberated egoist of A.S. Byatt's earlier The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life seemed to be cruising with aesthetic success through life's trials and errors, slowed only by the occasional adolescent speed bump. In Babel Tower she finally comes in for her own dark night of the soul, ablaze with the tracer bullets of a critical and unrelenting crossfire of personal conflicts. Byatt keeps Frederica the sensuous intellectual in a state of disequilibrium while providing Frederica the self-reflective observer with fresh clues and views toward solving the multidimensional puzzle of modern life. How will Frederica Potter, that scrappy perverse redhead who is suddenly looking a lot like Everywoman, find her way in a world where all the compass needles are spinning? Interweaving Frederica's experiences with the novel-within-a-novel Babbletower in a narrative structure which owes more to Possession than to the earlier Potter family sagas, Byatt considers the paradoxical failure of the permissive society to facilitate authentic self-expression. Familiar characters from the Yorkshire and Cambridge years join more exotic new acquaintances in 60's London for a thematically linked "happening" featuring an array of public and social institutions - education, law, religion, family, literature, art, mass culture - each of which, through its structures, vocabularies and rituals, influences the individual's efforts to author his/her own story. In the A. S. Byatt tradition, this enjoyable narrative slice of the life of the mind is formed with vivid description and studded with gems from literary greats.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious, good mirror of the times
As with all of A. S. Byatt's books, this is a tour de force, provoking strong reactions and emotions from most readers. Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2001 by Martha E. Nelson
4.0 out of 5 stars Redefined Language for Me...
It was fun to read but around the last hundred pages it just got a bit dense, especially the obscenity trial with the flow of experts. Read more
Published on March 8 2001 by JB
4.0 out of 5 stars Enormous...
This book is huge. Not in page numbers, although its not exactly an overnighter, but in everything else. The story, or rather, the two stories, encompass a huge swathe of humanity. Read more
Published on Sept. 28 2000 by "in_the_sky"
4.0 out of 5 stars For lovers of literature...
Byatt indulges her readers' fascination with literature in this novel about a woman on trial for her intellectualism and a talented (although repulsive) author whose novel is on... Read more
Published on Sept. 9 2000 by J. England
4.0 out of 5 stars For lovers of literature...
Byatt indulges her readers' fascination with literature in this novel about a woman on trial for her intellectualism and a talented (although repulsive) author whose novel is on... Read more
Published on Sept. 9 2000 by J. England
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Talkin' bout My Generation
Boy, if there was ever a book to expose my lack of classical education, it's this. Clearly Byatt is incorporating the Persephone myth and the Tower of Babel into her tale of one... Read more
Published on Aug. 30 2000 by A. Ross
5.0 out of 5 stars Byatt's treatise on censorship
In Babel Tower, AS Byatt treats us to the question of authority in literature. Authority to express rampant sexuality and basic carnal desires versus the duty to romanticize... Read more
Published on Aug. 24 2000
1.0 out of 5 stars A Tower Deserving of Deconstruction
Like many of the reviewers, I loved Possession. Unfortunately, this mish-mash was a solid disappointment. Hyped as a book of the 60's, it is about no 60's I ever lived through. Read more
Published on Aug. 19 2000 by Kenneth E. Fletcher
4.0 out of 5 stars If you loved "Possession" or "Angels and Insects"...
...then this book will provide you with an experience typical for anyone who has loved a book and is seeking to repeat the experience of reading that book anew through one of the... Read more
Published on July 10 2000 by Chris from San Francisco
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