Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Re-Reading A Whistling Woman

"And that," said Agatha to the assembled listeners, "is the end of the story."
There was an appalled silence.
Leo said, "The end?"
"The end," said Agatha.

AS Byatt's novel, A Whistling Woman, picks up where her novel Babel Tower left off. Frederica Potter, now in legal possession of her son Leo after a bitter divorce trial, is still renting a garden flat from government bureaucrat and single mother Agatha. As the novel opens Agatha is still (still!) spinning the fantasy tale begun in Babel Tower for Leo and her daughter Saskia . But the audience for her weekly story session has expanded to include the two children from across the street as well as Frederica, Frederica's new lover John Ottokar, John's twin brother and Frederica's brother-in-law.

The opening chapter of A Whistling Woman is the final chapter of Agatha's fantasy tale and the adults are as appalled as the children at the way the story abruptly ends. As Byatt says: All these people were both shocked and affronted by Agatha's brutal exercise of narrative power." But Agatha is adamant that it is the end of the story. "That is where I always meant it to end, " she said.

This is, perhaps, a foreshadowing of the end of A Whistling Woman, the fourth and, apparently, the last in the quartet of "Frederica" novels written by Byatt. And just as Leo complains to Agatha, "That isn't an end. We don't know everything," we the Byatt readers don't know everything at the end of A Whistling Woman. But maybe that's ok because, as Frederica remarks, "What's a real end? ... The end is always the most unreal bit ..."

At the beginning of this year I began re-reading and blogging about the earlier novels in the Frederica series: The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. The immediately preceding novel, Babel Tower, explored the power of narrative. Each of those three prior novels had a heavy emphasis on created works of literature (plays, novels, poems). In this fourth novel, A Whistling Woman, Byatt seems to go in a different direction and Agatha's "exercise of narrative power" and her audience's appalled reaction may also foreshadow the direction of the entire novel. In this novel Byatt is very interested in reaction.

There are, to be sure, created literary works in this novel too. Agatha creates and finishes her fantasy tale and it is eventually published. Frederica has a book published that is not a novel but is hailed as "creative." Alexander Wedderburn is back (albeit in a much smaller role) to put on a production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale at the University. But there is no critical analysis of Agatha's novel or Frederica's book or even very much of the production of A Winter's Tale. Byatt does, however, tell us about the reaction of the characters to these works.

Reaction is a much more amorphous concept than critical analysis. Agatha's novel is published with a small first run but eventually, via word of mouth, it becomes a best seller. It seems that everyone is reading it; characters who have little in common with each other are all reading Agatha's novel and reacting positively to it. Frederica's book, on the other hand, gets the full publishing industry push-out but receives no reaction at all from her family. Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale is Bill Potter's least favorite Shakespeare play and he only goes to see it because his granddaughter is in it; but he has a surprising reaction to the production.

Reaction is, to a certain extent (a great extent), subjective but that does not mean that a person's subjective reaction is not (or cannot be) formed by objective thinking. For instance, Bill Potter is objectively aware of all of the production difficulties that productions of A Winter's Tale usually have. His subjective reaction is influenced by his view of how Alexander Wedderburn solved those production problems. Frederica's observation that Agatha's book is going to make her rich, and Frederica's lack of bitterness about this, is formed by Frederica's critical view that Agatha's novel is worthy. Frederica's lack of issue with her family's silence about her own book is formed by her own evaluation of the book as not really worth their interest.

The subjectivity of reaction, and the question of whether a person's reaction is reasonable and whether it is based on some objective criteria, permeates this very complex novel. This novel seems to encompass a broader variety of topics than the previous three Frederica novels. A Whistling Woman is set in 1968-1969. Frederica, who came of age in the 1950's, has reached her early thirties. It is a complicated story that encompasses the student "movements" of the late 1960's, the ever expanding role of television, semi-religious cults and communes, the nature of love, and the changing role of women.

When I first read this novel I was mesmerized by the story of Joshua Lamb/Ramsden, the messianic figure around whom a cult coalesces (with the usual bad end that cults tend to have) and the reaction of the people that follow him and the people who are observing the cult from afar, not to mention my own reaction to him. But in this latest reading of the novel I was really struck by the way Byatt painted the changing role of women and the reaction of her characters, both male and female, to that phenomenon.

Jacqueline Winwar, for example, was a character in Babel Tower but through that novel she mostly seemed to be the "sensible" friend of Marcus Potter. In A Whistling Woman she comes into her own. A graduate student, Jacqueline becomes obsessed with studying the physiology of memory and she approaches a professor with an idea for a research project. He doesn't take her seriously because she is a woman and few women are, in that time, doing serious science. Eventually, he relents. But only after he asks if she has a boy friend. And she answers no - and observes his reaction:

She could see him not asking, why not. She waited. They had been playing some game with eyes and other minute, involuntary movements and probably with smells, she suspected, that she couldn't have played if she'd been a man and also wouldn't have had to play, of course. She tried to see her sex -- with some success-- as a problem and an obstacle, to be solved and surmounted.

This is typical of the characters in this novel involved in science; are who are all observers not only of the world but of themselves.

Of course the professor expects sex from Jacqueline and Jacqueline gives in because she expects he can ruin her career if she doesn't. But it doesn't seem to be the sex that Jacqueline negatively reacts to as much as his saying "Good girl". And when a man who loves her, but whom she doesn't love, offers her food with the phrase "my lady is served" she also reacts negatively. Jacqueline is not a person who thinks about words, as the characters in the previous novels did, but she does react to words - not only the overt meaning of the words but also the other meanings that may attach to them.

Jacqueline is torn by her desire (and need) to do the research that she has become obsessed with and her desire to conform to society's expectations that she marry and have children. This is of course the same issue that confronted the two Potter sisters in the 1950's both of whom took the traditional route of marriage and children: Stephanie (who died before finding the right balance) and Frederica who is now divorced and still trying to find the right balance.

Jacqueline for a while finds herself unable to react to her situation:

She was trying to make sensible decisions about her life -- it was the whole of her life she was disposing of -- and appeared to be unable to make them either rationally or impulsively.

Jacqueline, unlike Stephanie and Frederica, does not fall in love (at least not until the very end of the novel) and is not overcome with the idea (need?) for sex and finally decides to forego what society expects of her and plunge herself into science. Once she decides this, the change in her is palpable. She becomes focused, sharp and, as Frederica notices about her, "The removal of her comfortable persona made her real intelligence visible."

Jacqueline encounters, and must react to, most of the problems that women trying to make their way in a man's world encountered back in the 1960's (and later). The quid-pro-quo sex demands. The difficulty in being taken seriously. The pressure to get married and have a family. The problem of biology (she accidentally gets pregnant and then has a miscarriage; Byatt chose not to confront the idea of obtaining an abortion; Jacqueline knows she will keep the child but is then relieved when she miscarries). She even finds that the professor passes off her many months of research as his own.

Another interesting woman character is Brenda Pincher, a sociologist who has joined the "cult" in order to study it. She writes long (unanswered) letters to her friend (lover) Avram Snitkin in which she records her thoughts, all of which she plans to eventually use in a research paper. Avram is teaching ethnomethodology while at the same time studying the counterculture. Brenda, in her first letter, describes the dilemma sociologists often face:

I think you are fortunate in that, in the context in which you find yourself, you are at least doing what you appear ostensibly to be doing. You are part of the Anti-University. If you are observing and analysing it, this is only to be expected by all concerned. Whereas here, I am to some extent, to a great extent, playing a part, presenting myself as what I am not, at least by default. I present myself as a person desiring to participate in a group, indeed to be a member of that group. I do not present myself as a sociologist studying the methodology by which the group defines itself, pursues its aims, achieves its coherence, etc. etc. If I did so, I would change the dynamics of the group so that it was not what I was observing, or what I wished to observe. However, it could be argued that my very presence as a group member is not neutral. I am a visible woman, not an invisible "bug" on the wall of the jury room. As such, I am faced continually with little conflicts of interest.

All of Brenda's letters contain her analysis of, and her reaction to, the goings on of the cult. But her identity as a woman adds a certain level of difficulty to her situation. Gideon Farrar, one of the leaders of the cult, is one of those charismatic figures who Brenda suspects is having sex with other cult members. Elvet Gander is a psychiatrist who is a member of the cult. As Brenda describes her situation:

Gideon Farrar has stroked my buttocks repeatedly; and once accused me in a confessional session of being "numb" and "dumb." Elvet Gander has stared "mesmerically" into my eyes and told me I am "an enigma." This is tiresome, as I don't want to draw attention to myself. You see my dilemma, Avram, which is not without its methodological interest. ... I cannot perhaps, behave perfectly normally, as an undercover observer of a therapeutic group/religious community. I have to ask myself whether, if I was "for real" I would have to either a) repel the advances of priest and doctor or b) give in to them, on the assumption that the dynamics of group life would carry me along in that direction. If I was "for real" and was repelled by them, it is likely that I would leave the group, and be no longer in a position to observe it.

If I were to succumb, for my own research purposes, I should be dramatically shifting and deflecting the group dynamic.

Brenda manages to stay with the cult, observing it, and her ability to react to an emergency and keep her head ends up saving many of the cult members from a dangerous situation at the end of the novel.

As for Frederica, she is still trying to figure out what she really wants to do. It wasn't completely clear at the end of the novel that she has it figured out, but she has a better idea. She is still trying to balance being a mother with being an intellectual. She is battling her biology which "wants" to get pregnant again. Like Jacqueline, she too gets unexpectedly pregnant but does not miscarry and must decide how she feels about that. (It is a bit of an oddity in a novel about the 1960's that neither of the two female characters who are the most "modern" are on the pill.)

A large part of the novel concerns Frederica's new career in television. She has become a talk show personality, hosting a program called Through the Looking Glass. I had a hard time picturing this program. Not because I couldn't picture the Alice in Wonderland cutouts appearing on the screen (I did, after all, live through 1960's television) but because my experience of 1960's television was as a child and did not rise to the level of Jack Paar. So I find it hard to imagine long, intelligent conversations on the television because it really hasn't happened much in my adult life. Byatt, in fact, doesn't create real dialog for those conversations but creates summaries (and then he said ... and then he responded ...). I found that rather maddening and it, perhaps, contributed to my inability to really imagine it. But I did enjoy the chapters where she had other characters watching Frederica's program and reacting to it. And, specifically, reacting to Frederica.

Byatt manages to capture the reactions of otherwise sensible, reasonable and well educated men who have a viscerally negative reaction to Frederica - a woman who isn't acting the way they assume (even subconsciously) a woman should act. Because these are educated men they try to justify their subjective reactions with what they think is objective analysis. For instance, Professor Vincent Hodgkiss, a friend of Marcus Potter, watches the show and dislikes Frederica - viscerally dislikes her. He decides that he dislikes her because she seems self centered and that she must be self-centered because her parents showered attention on her as a child at the expense of Marcus, who got no attention despite being very obviously intellectually superior to Frederica. Hodgkiss is, of course, completely wrong about the background of the Potter children. He doesn't know about Stephanie at all and he doesn't know about Marcus' breakdown or the role Marcus and his breakdown played in the death of Stephanie. Or how all of this affected Frederica. But he is convinced of the rightness of his dislike.

But the real fun lies in the reactions of Luk Lysgard-Peacock, a scientist who is not particularly sexist (for his time) and is, in fact, in love with Jacqueline. Reading his reactions to Frederica's television appearance, I was reminded of the reaction that Hillary Clinton evokes in otherwise reasonable men. Here, Luk and Jacqueline are watching an episode of Frederica's show when suddenly Luk says:

"Self-satisfied bitch," said Luk.
"What?"
"I don't like her. I don't know why."
"Lots of people don't," said Jacqueline. "I should think by now hundreds of thousands of people don't. She puts people's hackles up. They like to dislike her. She'll be a success."
"What a fate," said Luk, missing the right tone of mock-scorn.

Luk is not happy with many things that are going on in his life and, Byatt says, "he found her a useful focus for his fury." She also says that he "enjoyed the intensity of his dislike of her."

Like all television watchers, he saw the faces first and the ideas as functions of the faces. An aggressive female, an insistent voice, too long a neck, a mistaken coquettish tilt to the chin.

The emphasis on aggressive is Byatt's.

Of course, when Luk finally gets to know Frederica it turns out that they get along just fine. In fact, they become lovers. It is unclear at the end of the novel if they will stay together but there is an implication that this is entirely possible and that their relationship will be a very modern and adult relationship. I'd like to think that Byatt is saying that rational men can get used to women acting in ways they don't automatically think are appropriate, although I found it annoying that they ended up in bed together. Surely there has to be a middle ground?

The reaction of the characters to television and the changing nature of television is an important focus of the novel. Joshua Lamb/Ramsden is asked to opine if their commune-like community should allow television-watching, and he says:

It is not a trivial thing, though trivial people choke it with trivial chatter and meaningless material concerns. It is not trivial, but terrible. It will change the nature of our consciousness, that of the wise, as much as that of the ignorant and foolish. It will show our world to us. When our world ends we shall watch with it the towering advance of the last tidal wave, or the red roar of the final fire, until its eyes drown, or melt, with the rest of us. We cannot and should not ignore it.

This prescient viewpoint comes from a character who is mad and "sees" disturbing visions. The downfall of Joshua Lamb/Ramsden comes when he "sees" visions in the gray and white television static that used to come on late at night in the days before 24 hour television broadcasting.

The title of A Whistling Woman seems to come from an old saying:

A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen
Is neither good for God nor Men

Byatt creates creatures called "whistlers" in the Agatha's tale, creatures who are part bird and part woman. Creatures who fit in nowhere and of whom people are afraid but who can, in fact, be kind. Creatures who do not want to return to their old way of life when they were "just" women, but who would like to visit their family and friends now and then. It is a bit of a heavy handed metaphor but, since it comes at the very beginning of the novel, it more or less works. And the women in the novel do influence what happens with Joshua Ramsden's cult (God) and what happens at the University (Man).

The changes of the 1960's included changes in education, a process that Byatt began exploring in Babel Tower. In A Whistling Woman the focus is mostly on college level education (although there is a poignant section of the book where Frederica seeks the help of her father because Leo, an otherwise very smart little boy, cannot read). Although at the beginning of the novel Frederica is still teaching literature at the Samuel Palmer School, she is becoming more and more frustrated because it is becoming harder and harder to teach.

All that summer in 1968, the students marched and held meetings, made banners and discussed the nature of things. They barricaded the administrative offices. They wrote long documents with endless clauses, demanding both to be released from the oppression of imposed ideas and establishment-structured concepts, and to be better prepared for the "total environment" they were to enter. "Total environment" meant the world of employment.

Frederica's reaction to the chaos is to quit teaching, at least for a while.

Byatt paints a complicated picture of 1968-1969. At one point she directly asks the reader, "What do you remember of 1968?" I remember 1968 vividly but I remember it from a child's point of view. Frederica (like Byatt) is an adult in 1968. So neither the author, the main character nor the reader (in my case) were a part of the protesting generation. And I didn't, and Byatt doesn't seem to, have much sympathy for them in general, although all of us seem (and in my case are) willing to admit that in a few specifics they were right and that they certainly did change the world, for good and ill.

I found some of Byatt's stereotypical depictions of the student organizers fairly (and I assume intentionally) humorous:

Late one afternoon, Ross, Tod and Deborah Ritter were sitting in the kitchen, smoking, burning incense, chopping onions, and discussing the withering of the bourgeois state and the transfiguration of the proletariat.

A large part of the novel is set at the fictional North Yorkshire University where an outside group has set up something called the "Anti-University." Byatt is careful to present their points of view as containing certain truths but she also captures the lack of direction, including the long, LONG, esoteric conversations that probably made sense to those whose consciousness was "raised" by the drugs they were taking but just sounded boring to everyone else.

Luk asked what was taught at the Anti-University. Hodgkiss said that there had been a 13-hour-long discussion, led by, that was, initiated by, Avram Snitkin, on whether anything at all should, or could, be discussed in artificially constructed forums of the kind they might at that moment find themselves in. There had also been an enthusiastically attended teach-in against exams, and a course on "de-sanctification of oppressive structures." And a 36 hour television-watching orgy, "against passive consumerism" at the end of which the television had been hammered to bits and burned to ashes.

Byatt's portrayal (and my memory) is, of course, selective. Her portrayal of University life is equally selective. In Byatt's world universities are populated by earnest TRUE students like Marcus Potter and Jacqueline Winwar who want to learn and will do whatever it takes to learn. There are no slackards in her university. There are no monied children killing time until it is time to take over daddy's business. And the University administration is full of eminently reasonable people who are truly committed to their students and not the almighty dollar (or pound).

In the novel, the University's academic year leads up to an academic conference on Body and Mind (in direct comparison with the lack of planning of anything by the Anti-University other than planned anarchy by some of the leaders). The forces behind the Anti-University use the conference and the questionable background of some of the presenters as an excuse to launch a huge, well-planned violent, disruptive and destructive protest. Even students who are reasonable get swept up in it; for instance the leader of the student union, Nick Tewfell, smashes an artifact in front of the (eminently reasonable) Vice-Chancellor just to smash it.

Many years later, when Tewfell was a minister in Tony Blair's government, he would still wake at night and remember that moment, the unbroken box, the bright unbroken beakers, the broken box, the splinters of glass, the dark-faced tall man with his bleeding fingers, the strange dancing light in the room, which was the torches outside, and the flaring behind his own eyes. The odd thing was, that the Vice-Chancellor had never said anything to anyone about who had broken the glasses. And for a few years, he had hated him for that. And then, as he grew older, he had almost loved him. He had, he saw, come in a way to resemble him.

But despite Byatt's unsympathetic portrayal of the counterculture, they do work change on the University because the University is forced to react to them.

In every other novel in the Frederica Quartet Byatt reflected a world peopled with persons who think it is normal to think in words and to think obsessively about words and who spend much time thinking about how to express thoughts with the right words. In A Whistling Woman, words are neither right nor wrong, but they are something that can cause a reaction. Even an individual word can evoke a reaction due to the metaphorical nature of some words. The metaphorical nature of Joshua Lamb/Ramsden's name lends itself to his sense that he is a sacrificial offering. The metaphorical nature of words used to describe scientific concepts is a big topic at the Mind and Body conference. Words are, then, not necessarily objective; they can evoke subjective reactions.

Byatt doesn't seem to be saying that subjective reaction is, in itself, bad. But the "good guys" in this novel are not authors or playwrights or artists or critics. They are scientists. People concerned with the objective, not the subjective. Or, at least they think they are.

Byatt peoples A Whistling Woman with scientists and mathematicians who want to look at the world objectively: Marcus (who was an outsider in the other novels because he didn't think in words but now no longer seems an outsider), Jacqueline and Luk (who distrusts words and has no interest in fiction). And alongside them she creates people who want to bridge the gap between science/math and literature (words): the (eminently reasonable) Vice Chancellor and Vincent Hodgkiss are two of those people.

During the Body and Mind Conference, listening to Luk's paper and the papers of the other scientists and then listening to the papers of the literature professors, Frederica comes to a realization:

She had grown up in a narrow British educational system which divides like a branching tree, and predestines all thirteen-year-olds to be either illiterate or innumerate (if not both). She had grown up with the assumption that to be literary is to be quick, perceptive and subtle. Whereas scientists were dull, and also -- in the nuclear age -- quite possibly dangerous and destructive. She thought of F.R. Leavis' Education and the University, which she had studied, and which had said that the English Department was at the centre of any educational endeavor. This suddenly seemed, as she listened to Lawrence's dangerous nonsense abstracted from Lawrence's lively drama and held up for approval, to be nothing more than a Darwinian jockeying for advantage, a territorial snarl and dash.

What is important, she thought, is to defend reason against un-reason.

Defending reason against un-reason and trying to determine what is reason and what is un-reason is, I believe, the chief theme of this novel. The Vice-Chancellor is a man of reason; his wife Eva is a studier of astrology and symbolizes unreason. The cult has men and women of reason in it and yet they are swept away by unreason. And perhaps there is not so much a dichotomy between objective and subjective as there is between the reasonable subjective and the unreasonable subjective. It is an interesting idea and may bring me to re-read this novel again in a few years.

I began the series again because I couldn't remember much about Virgin and had some extra time in my life to revisit it. When I got to the end of it I realized that it didn't have a real ending and that I needed to re-read Still Life to get to a real(er) ending. I hesitated before attempting Babel Tower again because I hadn't liked it the first time I read it, but I remembered that I had very much liked A Whistling Woman which I wanted to read again. To do that I knew I should really re-read Babel Tower first. So I ploughed through Babel Tower.

And then I stopped.

I don't know why it took me so long to pick up A Whistling Woman again. I finally knew I had to get to it when I saw that Byatt had a new novel coming out. I am so glad I went back to re-read this novel. I think that it is second only to Possession in being my favorite Byatt novel.