A Whistling Woman
by A S Byatt
A review by Lorraine Adams
In A.S. Byatt's final novel of a tetralogy that she began in 1978, we are constrained
to read about ethnomethodology. We have not only snails, but snails in regard
to Jacobson, Ungar, Hebb, Hagiwara, and J.Z. Young. We have a mentally ill wife
of a university dean quoting Yeats, Vaughan, and Jung. We have untranslatable
words in lost languages, adam te dageram armtet algar algastna, and untranslated
Latin, sortes virgilianae. We have D.H. Lawrence by way of Leavis and caves
by way of Plato. We have preparations of the subesophageal ganglion of Helix
aspersa. We have interactive sessions on chiromancy, oneiromancy, and geomancy.
We have dinner conversations about Cantor's mathematics of infinite sets and Gödel's
ideas about incompleteness. We have heated chatter on Leontes and Polixenes in
A Winter's Tale and religious metaphor in Paradise Lost. We have
a character who says, "I want to solve phylotaxis." We have the Body-Mind Conference,
at which a character named Hodder Pinsky talks about Gestalt and schemata, and
a character named Theobold Eichenbaum talks about instinct and learning in wild
and domesticated animals, and a character named Lyon Bowman talks about the neurochemistry
of memory, and a character named Jacob Strope talks about whether machines think,
and a character named Luk Lysgaard-Peacock talks about slugs and the biological
disadvantage of sexual reproduction, and a character named Griselda Bragge questions
the naturalness of musical intervals, and a character named Edmund Wilkie talks
on Vermeer, Picasso, and the representation of the act of perception, and a character
named Canon Adelbert Holly talks about changing interpretations of the Incarnation,
and a character named Brendan Cleaver talks about consciousness in the "persistent
vegetative state," and a character named Gerard Wijnnobel talks about deep structure,
surface fluency, and ideas of a universal language. And after 427 pages of this,
we learn from Byatt's acknowledgments that Steve Jones and Frances Ashcroft have
been patient with the writer's "queries about snails and genetics, physiology
and cognition," and that Byatt is in the debt of Steven Rose, Helena Cronin, Robert
Hinde, Pat Bateson, Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Antonio
Damasio, Semir Zeki, Marion Dawkins, and Arnold Feinstein "for help with science,"
and of Reverend Mark Oakley and Dr. J.S. Fountain "for help with religion." We
learn also that Byatt is grateful to Leanne Klein, whose "film of gorse was a
Byatt is a writer who struggles mightily to be the undertaker of her own silliness. She buries what George Eliot called "feminine fatuity" under a mountain of bibliographic cavil. Byatt is credited with being a novelist of ideas, but really she is a melodramatic pedant. She sees herself as the granddaughter of Eliot, who taught her, she has written, that characters can "worry an idea, they are, within their limits, responsive to politics and art and philosophy and history." She seems not to have noticed that Eliot's greatness has something to do with her patient tapping out of the individual keys of moral slippage, her intelligent and humane and believable descriptions of complexity, which is never confused with aesthetic and historical filigree. Byatt prefers wiggly surfaces to sure depths. She depends on her readers' exhaustion, or insecurity, to claim Eliot's mantle. Who, after all, could be left standing, in a mood for close reading -- let alone considered thinking -- after ingesting the learnedness with which Byatt lards the four novels of her quartet?
Once the ethnomethodology, the chiromancy, the snails, and the Latin become (as best as they can become) understandable, Byatt turns out to be precisely what she dreads most: a lady novelist writing silly novels. In her writing about Eliot's essay on "lady novelists," Byatt mistakenly concludes that Eliot decries only fluff and flounce. Of course she does; but Eliot is not content with such a pedestrian observation. She knows that girlish silliness takes many forms, and that one of them is pedantry.
A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and the less obtrusive for her knowledge.... She neither spouts poetry nor quotes Cicero on slight provocation; not because she thinks that a sacrifice must be made to the prejudices of men, but because that mode of exhibiting her memory and Latinity does not present itself to her as edifying or graceful. She does not write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that delight them. In conversation she is the least formidable of women, because she understands you, without wanting to make you aware that you can't understand her. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture -- she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.
Byatt's method in the construction of her plots, like her method in her allusions, is a kind of endless mitosis. By the end of the quartet, there are fifty-seven characters. (This number does not include minor walk-ons, or those characters that appear only in the three previous novels.) There are a dozen plots. Will Daniel Orton reconcile with his children? Will Gerard Wijnnobel be humiliated by his insane wife? Will the Ottokar twins lead separate lives? Will nutso Joshua Lamb become a cult leader? Will Lucy Nighby be jailed for murdering her abusive husband? Will Jacqueline Winwar marry Luk? Will Marcus realize he is gay? Will the heroine's divorce-bruised son ever learn to read? Will the antiuniversity radicals riot? Will the academic conference dissolve in petty scandal? Will Frederica have a fulfilling career? With whom will she wind up in bed?
Byatt obscures her collapse into costumed melodrama not only with her "erudition" and the stoat-like multiplication of characters. She also likes, as she puts it, to "play serious games with the variety of possible forms of narrating the past." She came to this wrinkle-browed Parcheesi after writing the second novel of her quartet, Still Life. Number two made plain her inadequacies as a novelist. It opens in 1954, and its main protagonist is Daniel Orton, a good-hearted, adequately educated clergyman. He falls in love, for the first time, with pretty Cambridge-educated Stephanie Potter, who has returned to the small-town boarding school near Yorkshire where her violently anti-religionist father Bill Potter teaches. Daniel is a believer, but he became a vicar only so as to be useful. He is basically a social worker of moorland tragedies, in the days before psychiatry became therapy and lost its stigma. Stephanie marries this curate her father despises not because she is a believer, but because the portly Daniel is an unaccountably compelling lover. (Still Life is Scenes from Clerical Life with orgasm.) Stephanie tries to write a book about Wordsworth, a carryover from university dreams, but she finds that pregnancy weakens the mind and child-rearing scatters it. After her second child is born, Stephanie dies in a freak accident at the book's end. Her father, at her death, comes to see that he was wrong about Daniel.
The curious thing about this earnest novel is that moral questions never animate its sensible tweed. Bill Potter still attends the wedding. He rants, but then he does no harm. Stephanie's postponement of her ambitions never reaches the grim complexity of Dorothea's embalmment in her marriage to Casaubon. Stephanie's death (she is accidentally electrocuted by her ungrounded refrigerator) is pointless to the point of risibility. Daniel's reaction to it is to go walking, take buses, sleep in ditches. "Won't bore you with all that," he says to a friend. "Don't think I knew where I was going, rightly -- the idea was to finish myself off, tire myself out, like -- go to nothing." Byatt lets his journey happen offstage. The ways in which a good and practical man walks his way through shattering loss and backs away from nothing hold no interest for her.
These are people? Byatt gives an unsatisfactory explanation of her standpoint in a number of her essays. She intended Still Life to be "a bare precise novel, telling things (birth, marriage, death) exactly, recognizably, without metaphor or analogy." But writing straight, no curlicues, "was in fact impossible for someone with the cast of mind I have." When she wrote about a potted cyclamen, she wanted to bring into the novel the cyclamen's literary associations, "some archetypal metamorphosing procession of flowers, from the odor of a rose, through Milton's language-flower, and Mallarmé's language flower, 'l'absente de tous bouquets.'" She came to the conclusion that in writing Still Life without such elaborations, she was "doing violence to something in my own mental constitution."
So she healed herself with Possession. She called it a postmodern romance. She saw it as detective story, biography, medieval verse romance, modern romantic novel, Hawthorne's fantastic historical romance, campus novel, Victorian third-person narration, epistolary novel, forged-manuscript novel, and primitive fairy tale of the three women, filtered through Freud's account of the theme in his paper on the Three Caskets. Byatt claims her interest in character and narrative diminished after Still Life. "I felt a need to feel and analyze less, to tell more flatly, which is sometimes more mysteriously. The real interest of this to a writer is partly in the intricacies of the choice of words from line to line. I found myself crossing out psychological descriptions, or invitations to the reader to enter the characters' thought-process." Byatt also thought that an interest in fairy tales is "something the young have, and the aging rediscover. Analysis of motives and responsibilities is for the middle years when human beings are in the middle of decision-making and choosing partners." Babel Tower, the quartet's third novel, appeared eleven years after Still Life, and it is the perfect product of these pseudo-discoveries.
Babel Tower's unadorned plot is pure soap opera. Frederica Potter, the quartet's heroine, flees the country manor of her violent husband with her four-year-old son, barely escaping his evil grasp in London and narrowly winning custody of their child thanks to the gentle-hearted social worker who finally, after many setbacks, sees how deeply the heroine loves her son. Byatt spikes this sentimental soup with dreary intoxicants: court transcripts, divorce petitions, a children's story, letters, newspaper clippings, poetry, journal entries, and a book written by one of the characters. This book-within-a-book runs for hundreds of pages alongside the present scraps and bits. It is a Marquis de Sade fairy tale, pornography in green britches and white stockings, a sadomasochistic allegory of bull pizzles. As if worried that not even all this will fig her silliness, Byatt then introduces ethnomethodology and the Dewey decimal preoccupations of A Whistling Woman. The cast of characters doubles, triples, replicates unto many digits. The new characters, academics who work in specialized scientific pursuits, take the foreground, while the Potters of the realistic narrative recede.
Why did Byatt, who so loves George Eliot, philander with fairy tales and leave her great heroine for the pleasures of pastiche? The answer lies partly in Byatt's morality, which is unimaginative. It is, essentially, good girlism. She thinks that the 1960s push for "relevance" in education, which did away with rote learning and the memorization of literature, was wrong. She thinks it is wrong, too, that men, despite all the social change that the 1960s wrought, have legal and social advantages over women. She thinks it is wrong to advocate complete freedom: her Sadeian tale is a parable with that lesson, as is the cult led by the madman Joshua Lamb, and the sophomoric inconsequence of the anti-university radicals. We need rules, and without them we flounder and ultimately decay.
And so we do; but this wisdom may not be enough to build a novel on. The Sadeian tale, the cult, the student rebels: from the start, we know that they are doomed and foolish. The 1960s, it is now safe to say, did not change human nature. And the inanity of the decade makes it less interesting for the purposes of art. It is certainly hard to sustain four novels totaling 1,858 pages on such panegyrics to probity. A novel needs, well, real feelings. But Byatt is ashamed of them. It cripples her mind. It leaves her heroine Frederica Potter with little to be but silly.
When first we see Frederica, she is seventeen, and the year is 1952. We are in the north of England, at a rural university. Frederica is a virgin. Her deflowering is the main subject of The Virgin in the Garden. Frederica stars in a play about Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. She falls in love with its playwright. Its rich producer pursues her. She decides to lose her cherry, in a gynecologically instructive but only nominally sexual evening, to a visiting Cambridge intellectual who travels by motorcycle. Frederica, like Byatt, suffers from the delusion that she is what she reads. She thinks that she is flirting when she tells the lusting producer: "Well I know Phèdre and Le Misanthrope and Vol de Nuit and Hamlet and The Tempest and Paradise Lost IX and X and Keats (1820) and Wuthering Heights and Kubla Khan and Goethe's lyrics, a selection, and Tonio Kröger and Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, and I will know Persuasion and something by Kleist because those are my A Level set texts. Oh, and some Ovid and Tacitus and Aeneid VI." (Not if she were the last woman in the world, any self-respecting man would scream.)
Byatt makes Frederica annoying, exasperating, skinny, red-headed, high-strung, vain, "menacing," "greedy, strained, overpainted." She believes that because Frederica is not idealized, she is complicated. Frederica narrows, consistently through all four books, into two thin strands: a love of reading and a love of fucking, which she likes because "people like me, who think too much, are so glad, so grateful, at least at first, to be overcome by thoughts of lips, hands and eyes." Frederica is also, as Byatt reminds us often, "well-educated," but without a "first-rate mind." And that, alas, is Byatt's condition as well.
There are moments, especially in the beginning of the quartet, when psychological acuity, as Eliot had it, seems nearby. But as the reader rounds the corner Byatt leaves a figurine, instead of the fairly good, fairly known soul that is devoutly wanted. One of the most important of these moments occurs in The Virgin in the Garden, when Frederica is "suffering from a generalized wrath" provoked by wanting to lose her virginity. (She is also angry that her Cambridge-educated sister Stephanie is marrying the fat clergyman Daniel Orton.) Frederica takes a bus to Goathland, "hoping vaguely for the sense of disembodiment a good journey can confer." She finds the "disembodiment" not in the journey, but in an internal monologue about why Racine and Shakespeare are different. She concludes, after much Byattian intricacy, that if you look at characters or recurring images, the two bards are similar. The difference, she decides, is that Racine writes in alexandrines and Shakespeare does not. This is, to put it mildly, a starved and precious analysis, one that empties Shakespeare's plays of their humanity. But Frederica misses this, and Byatt, unless she is ridiculing her heroine, does too.
A man named Ed sits next to Frederica on the bus, and she learns that he sells dolls. She has a drink with him at a pub and he diddles her, stopping short of deflowering, on his raincoat under "a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush." (In Byatt, a bush is never just a bush.) He then tells her a story about a whore fellating a donkey in a Cairo brothel. Ed and Frederica part ways. By coincidence, she wanders into another tryst, this one between the playwright she is in love with, Alexander, and his married lover, Jennifer, who are copulating in the back seat of Alexander's car.
She thought, hard. Her day had been bitty, but full of things.... Taken together, as they undoubtedly could be, these things had alarming aspects. If, for instance, you took ... Ed, and Ed's hot swollen tongue to the donkey's hot swollen tool, and those to Alexander, and if, for aesthetic elaboration you pressed, in a military sense, the Cathy-Heathcliff aspects of moorland, the crude Freudian view of the upthrust of the spire of Calverley Minster, you had what could be called an organic image that was, there was no question, extremely depressing, if undoubtedly powerful.
But if you kept them separate. If you kept them separate, in many ways you saw them more truly....
One could let all these facts and things lie alongside each other like laminations, not like growing cells. This laminated knowledge produced a powerful sense of freedom, truthfulness and even selflessness, since the earlier organic and sexual linking by analogy was undoubtedly selfish.
Assuming that one could, how would keeping these "things" -- a donkey's "hot swollen tool" and the "crude Freudian view" of a church spire -- "alongside each other," in thin stacked layers, make them more free, truthful, or selfless? "Laminations" is a muddled metaphor taking the place of insight into a character's inner psychological state -- in this case, a young woman's sexual awakening.
In Still Life, apart from a wrong-headed attempt to see "laminations" in Ezra Pound's Cantos, we are spared more laminations piffle. In Babel Tower, Byatt trots out laminations when genuine thought is needed -- as, for instance, when Frederica examines why she married her abusive husband. She married "to get it over with, to stop thinking about whether to marry or not." She remembers her day on the moors, when
a word hit her as a description of a possible way of survival. Laminations. She had been young, and greedy, and acting Princess Elizabeth, the Virgin in Alexander's play, who had had the wit to stay separate, to declare, "I will not bleed," to hang on to her autonomy. And she, Frederica, had had a vision of being able to be all the things she was: language, sex, friendship, thought, just as long as these were kept scrupulously separate, laminated, like geological strata, not seeping and flowing into each other like organic cells boiling to join and divide and join in a seething Oneness. Things were best cool, and clear, and fragmented, if fragmented was what they were.
Frederica decides then and there to write a book called Laminations, which then begins to appear within Babel Tower. The novel's second book-within-a-book opens with prescription instructions for the Pill, a passage from Cinderella, a quote from Elizabeth I, a court excerpt from a murder trial, a story about a disturbed student of Frederica's named Stone, a newspaper column on a murder. Later in Babel Tower, Frederica realizes that what she has written
will not work. The story of Stone is one thing. The legal cut-ups are quirky new objects. But the moment she tries to write anything tinged with her own feelings, she is disgusted, as though she had touched slime, a metaphor she undoubtedly finds because of her temporary contact with Helix hortensis. If she writes what she feels truly -- Leo's strangling arms, the memory of Nigel's blows, John Ottokar's blood-stained belly, disgust overcomes her at its falsity; it is false because it is banal, a cliché.
That is the clearest description of Byatt's mind to be found in all the essays and novels she has written all these last thirty years.
Byatt seems to hope that including some criticism of herself in her novels will neutralize her shortcomings. So she has Frederica's book Laminations published in the middle of A Whistling Woman. The reviews have these headlines: "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to doing your own Writing in your Spare Time." "I Ching for intelligent chicks." "Only Disconnect." "A Scissors-and-Paste World." Both positive and negative reviews call it "clever." The hostile reviews add "facile" and qualify clever with "merely clever," "irritatingly clever." Byatt adds, "The friendly ones compared the cut-up technique to Burroughs and Jeff Nuttall, but said that the woman writer lacked the lunge for the jugular or the absolutely subversive intention of these models. They asked if the whole added up to more than the sum of its snipped-off torn-up parts and concluded that on the whole, it probably didn't, it was just very clever."
The epiphany of Byatt's novel, and the quartet, comes when Frederica must make a decision about her future at the close of A Whistling Woman. Should she continue to host her television talk show, or should she return to academia? When her lover, Luk Lysgaard-Peacock, delivered a speech at the Body-Mind Conference about snails and the disadvantages of sexual reproduction, she saw that the world "was bigger" than an "English Department." On her television show, she can have people such as Luk, who talk about "Amazon flora and fauna ... explaining genes, and chromosomes and the language of the DNA." Frederica excitedly calls these the "new metaphors." Her lover says that the show is "a lot of nonsense, and a lot of mind-twisting and advertisements and political haranguing." She counters that it's "interesting, it's what is." Then she gets confused and says, "I'm a mess." Luk remarks that she is making her choice too difficult. She objects.
"It's harder for a woman."
"And so? You must just whistle harder. Louder. You won't do either perhaps quite as successfully as you would have done a straight university 'career.' But you'll know more."
"That's what matters."
And if he had said, you are lovely, and if he had said, I want you exclusively to be mine, and if he had said again, "thank you," Frederica would not have been so perturbed in body and mind. The laminations were slipping. Fire was re-arranging them in new patterns. She was full of life, and afraid.
But the laminations, insofar as they slip, have slipped entirely. The lady, in the end, is unafraid, and quite dead.
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