bad case of birds on the brain
Byatt brings her monumental survey of 1950s and 1960s England
to a close in a blizzard of symbols with A Whistling Woman.
But can the novel of ideas take this many ideas?
A Whistling Woman
by AS Byatt
Chatto and Windus £16.99, pp422
task which AS Byatt has undertaken in her so-called Frederica
Quartet, of which A Whistling Woman is the final
instalment, is a formidable one: nothing less than the depiction
of the social and imaginative life of England throughout the
1950s and 1960s.
modestly inclined writer, confronted with such a massive historical
terrain, might have settled upon a technique of high-altitude
mapping; noting familiar landmarks and large-scale cultural
contours. Byatt, by contrast, has tried to write history as
seen from ground level, by creating a central character -
the sparky, spiky Frederica Potter - and pushing her forwards
through two decades of English life.
this, by using her skills as a pasticheur and letting her
prose take on the texture of whichever idea, person, or writer
she is describing at a given moment, Byatt has attempted to
bring her readers to feel the past, rather than simply telling
them about it.
back, we can see that the publication of the first novel in
the quartet,The Virgin in the Garden (1978), was
the beginning of a gigantic effort of historiography. Nearly
a quarter of a century on, Byatt's ambition is unmistakable
but the success of her project is increasingly less clear.
For A Whistling Woman, which covers the period from
1968 to 1970, suffers from the same sins which beset its forerunners
- the excessive use of symbols (spiders, spirals, fire, webs,
mirrors), a narrative gnarliness, an overbearing sense of
allegory - but it suffers from them even more acutely.
is too rangy to be usefully summarised, but Frederica Potter
at least makes a financial success of herself in this one:
forging a career as a TV presenter on a cultural discussion
programme. When not in London, the novel spends much of its
time on the Yorkshire moors, where Frederica's intermittent
lover, John Ottakar, has taken up a post in a 'university'.
are also home to a variety of maniacs, dissenters and delusionists,
many of whom harbour an animus towards the university, and
who are designed to represent various aspects of the late-60s
counter-culture. The hostility between these motley elements
and the university leads eventually to the conflagration with
which the book, and the quartet, more or less concludes.
Woman is a novel which, as the blurb says, is 'bursting with
ideas'. 'Bursting' catches it nicely, because there are simply
too many ideas. Every major idea in the years Byatt is depicting
needs a mention before the book can be ended.
never been afraid of a symbol, and the bewilderment which
the book's ideas induce isn't helped by the tropes which proliferate
throughout. Gnomic references abound to twins, mirrors, spirals
(single), helixes (double), fires and birds. Especially birds.
The novel opens with an italicised eight-page fairy tale about
a talking thrush, and the birds just keep on coming after
birds which silently mass on gables and wires in Hitchcock's
film, they begin as an intellectually threatening presence.
Unlike the birds in the movie, they are ultimately neither
memorable nor dramatic, only obfuscating.
infelicities damage the novel, too, including the ludicrous
names of almost all the characters (Luk-Lysgaard Peacock;
Elvet Gander etc - note the avian allusions), and the not
infrequent stylistic botches. At one point, for instance,
two dogs come into a room 'agitating their sterns', which
I presume is a ghastly attempt to say 'wagging their tails'
without, for some reason, saying so.
Whistling Woman is an over-ambitious jumble. Byatt might
well respond that the years she is describing were themselves
both over-ambitious and jumbled and that, as such, her novel
stands in symbolic relationship to them. But that's not enough.
Byatt has always been the most nineteenth-century of contemporary
novelists. A Whistling Woman, however, lacks the
essential clarifying power which narrative can bring to history;
it fails to provide an articulate critical relationship with
the years it treats. Too many symbols, ideas and names compete
for attention and comprehension.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004