Monday, March 2, 2009

Re-Reading Babel Tower

I hesitated before I moved on to A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower.  I disliked this novel the first time I read it and I wasn't eager to get into it again.  But I truly enjoyed re-reading The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life and, while I could have stopped after Still Life, I had always wanted to re-read A Whistling Woman at some point and to do that I needed to re-read Babel Tower.  There seemed no time like the present, so I plunged in.

I still didn't like it, although not with the same intensity that I disliked it the first time.  At over 600 pages, it is a very long novel.  I paused at about the 200 page mark to ask myself what Byatt was trying to accomplish with this novel.  It wasn't a novel about the the characters'  thought processes; it wasn't about the creative process.  And yet there was creation and thinking in it.  It is much more driven by narrative than the first two novels in the quartet.

The story takes place in the early 1960's, six years after the end of Still Life. There are multiple stories, all intertwining. One narrative is the story of Frederica Potter who has made a bad marriage and is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle. The other stories involve a novel called BabbleTower written by an eccentric named Jude Mason: large parts of the actual narrative of that fictional novel are excerpted but there is also the story of the struggle to get the novel published and then an ensuing court case over whether it is obscene.  There is also a side story in which the writer Alexander Wedderburn becomes involved in an education commission that studies and makes recommendations on how children are or should be taught.  And there is a small side story about Agatha, a single mother and Frederica's landlady, who among other things is spinning a long serial fantasy story for the children. And there is the story of Frederica's brother-in-law whose narrative has stopped as he has walked away from his old life and isn't clear what he will do with his new life.

I found Frederica's narrative compelling. Byatt was at her best when writing about the relationship of Frederica with her child, Leo. And also the struggle Frederica had with the expectations of society (or at least a certain type of society) and her own expectations of herself.  I found the back story story of the publication of the BabbleTower novel mildy interesting.  I found I was just as bored with the actual narrative of the BabbleTower novel this time as I was the last time and, just like last time, I had a hard time believing that it would find a publisher.   I was also again bored by the children's story that Agatha was weaving. I found both trials only mildly interesting.

I knew from my prior reading that part of the point of this novel was about the force of narrative, both in fiction and in real life. I knew that by the end of the novel Frederica would see her life reduced to a narrative in legal documents, the content of which was partly untrue and, in any case, incomplete.  In the end, the judge would believe the false narrative and not the truth.  At the same time, the narrative of the Babbletower novel would be rejected as obscene by a jury who could not get past their disgust at the content to see the larger truths that the novel espoused.   This novel was Byatt's first novel published after Possession and part of the story of Possession is that the modern characters feel they are trapped in a traditional narrative and wonder if they are doing things because they want to do them or because they think they should do them.  It seemed to me, when I first read Babel Tower, that Byatt was further exploring that theme of the power of narrative.

But it doesn't take 600 pages to show the power of narrative.  So I always felt that I must have missed something else in this novel the first time around, something else that Byatt was trying to get me to think about. There was simply too much going on in the novel to make it only about the truth of certain human relationships, such as the relationship between a mother and son.

At the 300 page mark I finally gave myself permission to skim or simply skip major parts of Jude Mason's dystopian novel and reading became easier. I also decided to allow myself to skim over Agatha's fantasy story. I have a low tolerance for fantasy novels, although I can tolerate them better when they are meant for children, and I knew the the pages and pages of direct text from those stories were one reason I had disliked this novel the first time.  I remember that each time I would come to one of them I would find it difficult to go on.  Some people say the same thing about all the poetry in Possession. By giving myself permission to skip them or just skim them I kept myself engrossed in the rest of the novel.

I found myself, this time, focusing more on Alexander Wedderburn's story and Frederica's path toward becoming a teacher.  And it finally dawned on me, that was what else this novel was about for me - the importance of learning critical thinking; the effect of learning how to think critically but not being able to use critical thinking because you are stuck at home with children (this was somewhat explored in Still Life); the effect of not learning critical thinking and reading stories only for their face value; the actual process of learning critical thinking and the questions that educators ask themselves about the best way to teach critical thinking.

This theme is mostly seen through the study of literature.  Again, as in the other novels, the study of literature is key to Byatt's characters and is represented by the storytelling for young children and Frederica's frustration at not being able to go back to school and the adult education classes held after long hours of work in church halls.  It culminates in the jury's bewilderment at being asked to look beyond the literal story of BabbleTower to what message the novel might have for society and why it was important that authors be able to create works that might, on their face, be judged obscene.  Byatt seems to be saying that critical thinking is important when you are looking for the truth --whether you are judging obscenity or judging a divorce/custody fight.

If critical thinking is a doorway to truth then learning how to think critically is the key to opening that door.  And this novel ends up being a novel about learning or, more specifically, a novel about education.  This novel asks all the questions that were being asked about education in the 60's.  Can we educate ourselves or do we need to be led by a teacher?  Do we need basic skills to understand (and write) literature?  Grammar, for instance.  Does grammar come naturally or does it need to be taught? (It blows my mind that this was ever a real question.) What is the best physical environment for children to learn in?   Do you teach children by rote memorization or by freeing them to learn what they want and what do they lose when you take one of those methods away?

One of my favorite moments is a disagreement on Alexander's committee about the importance of rules.  The committee had visited a school in which the children learned nothing by rote, not even the alphabet.  One of the committee members asks how they navigate the dictionaries that they carry and the teacher says she just shows them, until they eventually know it.  Later, one of the committee members says he:

is not in favor of new educational methods which attempt to promote discovery at the expense of learning a few facts.  He thinks children are being cheated by being made to discover all sorts of things they could actually simply learn about and then go on to discover more interesting things. Rules facilitate. Rules create order, and without order is no creativity.  The poor little children who didn't know the alphabet are wasting hours looking through their dictionaries at random. 

He concludes that the need for rules is a deep human need.  In response, one of the other more "modern" committee members retorts "That's what the Fascists said."   The whole conversation brought back to me my life as a child in a 1960's elementary school and the wasted year of 5th grade as the teacher took away all structure and just let us learn.  Or not.

But this novel also reminded me of the best of my teachers.  Here is Frederica teaching D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love:

"At the centre of Women in Love," says Frederica, "is a mystery, an emptiness.  The two women are wonderful both as real women making decisions about love, about sex, about the future, and as myths, as mythic beings willing life or death.  But what are we to make of Birkin, who in many ways is Lawrence, in many ways is the central consciousness of the whole tale? We are told, and mostly forget, that he is an Inspector of Schools.  Indeed at one moment, we actually see him inspecting a school, when he discusses with Ursula the sexuality of hazel catkins.  But mostly we do not believe in him as an Inspector of Schools. He has the entree both to the upper class society of Nottinghamshire and to the Bohemian artistic world in London.  There is no reason why this should be so.  It feels wrong."

Frederica is discussing this with her students because it is a problem that she has been trying to work out in her own mind.  Why there is an emptiness - because, she thinks, Lawrence has written Birken as an Inspector of Schools who sees the world as if he were a novelist writing a book.  But he isn't a novelist.  Writing a novel is not part of of the narrative of Birken and that's why certain things feel wrong.

Frederica, who has never wished to teach, discovers that she is a good teacher. And that is important - for the students and for Frederica.  As one of the members of the Committee on Education comments after some school visits, there were two schools they found that were exemplary but those schools were, perhaps, exemplary because of the individual skills of the particular teachers.  Good teaching depended on the skills of the teachers.  And I said aloud, "duh."

But of course the best teacher still works within the confines of an educational system.

The theme of the novel is very much, among other things, education and differing ideas about the best way to educate children.  In Frederica's divorce trial, she ends up with custody of her son in part because she emphatically disagrees with her husband that their seven year old son should be sent off to boarding school.  Unexpectedly, the judge agrees with her.  He was sent away at the age of seven. 

And in the obscenity trial of BabbleTower the author's upbringing in a boy's boarding school is an issue.  There is a question as to whether or not he was abused. As we read novels like Harry Potter we shouldn't forget that not all boarding school experiences were good ones.

So, in the end, although I still didn't like the novel I am glad that I re-read it.  It sets me up to re-read A Whistling Woman which I remember enjoying tremendously and it gave me many things to think about.