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the Complete Review
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Babel Tower


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Title: Babel Tower
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996
Length: 622 pages
Availability: Babel Tower - US
Babel Tower - UK
Babel Tower - Canada
Babel Tower - India
La Tour de Babel - France
Der Turm zu Babel - Deutschland
La torre di Babele - Italia
La Torre de Babel - España

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Our Assessment:

A : well-written heap of a book, but not for everyone.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B- 15/6/1996 .
Entertainment Weekly A 31/5/1996 Megan Harlan
The LA Times D 16/6/1996 Nick Fox
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 30/11/2004 Alexandra Kedveš
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 9/6/1996 Ann Hulbert
The NY Rev. of Books . 6/6/1996 J.M.Coetzee
The Observer B 5/5/1996 Kate Kellaway
Salon A- 24/5/1996 Laura Miller
The Spectator A+ 11/5/1996 Philip Hensher
Time B 20/5/1996 Paul Gray
TLS . 10/5/1996 Lorna Sage
The Village Voice . 11/5/1996 .
The Washington Post . 12/5/1996 Shashi Tharoor

  From the Reviews:
  • "The '60s blew us into the age of Babel, whether we like it or not. The going got weird (pace Hunter Thompson), the weird got going, the world got weird, we all got weird, and the world kept going, keeps going. Babel Tower is an attempt to contain the flow. Byatt's defense against what she sees as the Walpurgisnacht '60s is to heap language like cement into something more studiedly irrelevant than any tower of ivory; she has built a Maginot line--600 pages long--with the heavy machinery of a literary technique derived from academic autopsy; her apparent motivation recalls King Canute who, a thousand years ago, set his throne on an Englishbeach and forbade the tide to come in." - Nick Fox, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Aber was A. S. Byatt auf über 800 Seiten entwirft, reicht weit über die einfachen Kompliziertheiten einer klassischen Ehekatastrophe vor der Frauenbefreiung hinaus. Die grosse Stimmenkünstlerin (...) beweist nicht nur erzählerisches Raffinement auf höchstem Niveau" - Alexandra Kedveš, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In her restless intelligence and scrupulousness of mind, and her steadily growing sense of herself as a being formed not only by books but by larger narratives of family history and national history, the Frederica of Babel Tower is one of the more interesting characters-in-progress in contemporary fiction, both as woman and as social type (.....) Babel Tower is in fact far too long a book, at 622 pages, for its material." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "In Babel Tower, she shows her usual impressive command of slippery ideas and the solidest of details, which sit less earnestly than ever on her pages; they mix and move with new energy, even abandon. Ms. Byatt, a relentlessly talky novelist, has met a good match in the larger-than-life 60's." - Ann Hulbert, The New York Times Book Review

  • "She demonstrates that no story is definitive, no structure firm and no judgment finite but is intent that nothing should be allowed to slide into unquestioning subjectivity. She holds subjectivity hostage. To do this she shifts perspective and experiments with distance. Distance has its dangers. A fictional debate about a fictional book puts everything at two removes; and the arguments occasionally seemed the equivalent of talking through a muffler." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "This is the sort of fat, serious, passionate book that George Eliot and Thomas Hardy wrote, a good read and an ambitious creation by an author who behaves as if James Joyce never existed -- and gets away with it." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "It is a remarkable book, of exceptional gravity and serious charm. Like its predecessors, it juggles themes and ideas across its comments on writers and art, its intense, realistic drama of characters and passions; it balances an acute sense of the values of art and intellect with an imaginative sympathy. Its ambition is almost unique in the English novel." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "If nothing else, Babel Tower suggests a reason that not very much thrilling fiction has been written about the workings of education committees. Byatt's interests here are more philological than dramatic." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "(T)his is a key to the plot of Babel Tower the liberation of the language of desire from its own prophets. In Byatt's 1960s fable, the sexual imagination set free all too often enslaves others." - Lorna Sage, Times Literary Supplement

  • "To read this novel is to be immersed in an overwhelmingly literary experience, an experience about literature at its most self-conscious. (...) Babel Tower, in other words, offers strenuous intellectual fare: To clamber onto its pages is to mount a fictionist's Stairmaster for the mind. But as even the most addicted exerciser knows, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing." - Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post

  • "I think in time the third volume, Babel Tower, will come to be seen as at least as significant a moment in the novel of the 1990s. That one, too, rather puzzled reviewers, and it is still very underrated, but it is both a novel of daunting virtuosity and a statement of grand moral and historical force. (...) Just as an argument, Babel Tower is a compelling piece of work, but what I think will ultimately propel it into a key position in the literature of the decade is its extraordinary and innovative technique." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator (7/9/2002)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       While Babel Tower continues the story of Frederica, begun in The Virgin in the Garden and continued in Still Life, it readily stands on its own. It is a large book, and its sprawl is not necessarily inviting. It does not offer itself as easily to the reader as, say, Possession did, and so our praise comes with the warning that this is not for everyone. The setting is the 1960's, and it is a novel about that decade -- though from a very intellectual point of view (a vista that has not provided many insights into the decade, as even the intellectuals preferred to pretend they were mucking about as everyone else was). Intertwined are the stories of Frederica and her messy divorce from her completely unsuitable husband and Babbletower, a book from which we are presented extensive excerpts.
       Babbletower is written by the obscure Jude, a man who lives at the fringes of society and whom Frederica befriends. Frederica is to some extent responsible for getting the book published. It is soon banned on grounds of indecency, and a sizable portion of the novel is devoted to the court proceedings. (Another courtcase, over custody of her son, is also a prominent part of the novel).
       Byatt is at her best when she devotes herself to questions of literature and art. Her arguments, interjected forcefully into the novel as a record of the court proceedings, are well-reasoned and interesting, though not all readers enjoy such debate in the pages of their novels. Her characters, though rich, also have some unsatisfactory voids. Worse is that Byatt spends considerable amounts of space on certain characters and they then just fade away, without our knowing what comes of them. Perhaps they'll reappear in the next volume ?

       We enjoyed the book, but it can try one's patience. It is well written, and it is a thoughtful book. It is an important contribution as a picture of the 60's (really -- we haven't seen this particular view so well presented previously). It is also a book that is very well constructed -- she is a clever writer -- and it lends itself to a second reading, to enjoy the pleasure of uncovering all the connections she has artfully built in.

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Babel Tower: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt lived 1936 to 2023. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she was the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She was the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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