In “A Whistling Woman,” A.S. Byatt’s final installment to a quartet of novels about English life, characters gather around a Christmas tree, but it is not an ordinary one. Trimmed with “gold and silver spirals, abstract lapped cones and Fibonacci angels,” this tree comes with intellectual dazzle.
Consider the angels. They are named for Leonardo Fibonacci, the 13th-century Italian mathematician who worked a sequence of numbers into something marvelous, perfect and infinite. Born in Pisa, the son of a trader, he was able to travel to trading posts in Africa where he learned the Arabic numerals that made his computations possible and allowed him, when he returned to Pisa, to predict the breeding cycles of rabbits. For Ms. Byatt’s tree, one imagines that Fibonacci’s formulation inspired a pattern that set the angels along a trail that has the appearance of a widening gyre.
Like the decoration she has provided for her tree, Ms. Byatt employs a virtual arsenal of interesting facts, symbols, poems, apercus and the like to decorate the rest of her narrative. Sometimes these luscious nuggets show up more than once, sometimes not. The material of each digression is altogether interesting and pithy, but unfortunately these same treats upstage the characters and distract readers from a plot that, more often than not, spirals out of control.
The time is the 1960s and the characters assembled for this holiday celebration sing the “Messiah” and, when the children look blank, one remarks that “No one knows the Bible any more… How can they read Milton and Lawrence and Dickens and Eliot without knowing their Bibles?”
But this is a universe in which characters above all else think. Frederica Potter is the central character, and it is her life in the 1950s and 1960s that is the putative focus of what has come to be known as the “Frederica Quartet,” including “The Virgin in the Garden,” “Still Life,” and “Babel Tower.” Not as widely acclaimed as the hugely successful, Booker Prize-winning “Possession,” the Frederica books are volumes in which Ms. Byatt attempts, and to some extent succeeds, in giving a complete portrait of a woman of this era and of the era itself.
But despite her starring role, it is the minor characters of this book that give it its shape. One of these, Sir Gerard Wijnnobel, is busy “planning a conference on Body and Mind. His desk was covered with neat lists of possible speakers (and listeners.) His mind drove toward inclusiveness. There would be linguists, philosophers, biologists, mathematicians, sociologists, medical men. There would have to be physicists, there would have to be discussion of the way modern physics saw the observer affectingchanging the observed …
“He believed strongly that universities should be what their name implied, places for the study of everything. He had with passion, cunning, and meticulous determination constructed a revolutionary syllabus for his institution, which required all students to study some science, more than one language, an art form.” And so it is that this book, whose narrative moves toward the realization of that conference, includes all manner of discourse on the very subjects that Sir Wijnnobel identifies, and Ms. Byatt seems at home with them all.
However, it is Frederica’s struggles with love, motherhood and career that particularly pale when juxtaposed against such flights of random erudition. And the Sixties, whose cultural topography is filled with plenty to ponder seem more of an adversary than she can comfortably manage. Most of the decade’s preoccupations, as identified here, can be folded under the umbrella of “Revolution,” primarily in academics and woman’s rights. Frederica does in fact, and at last, begin to find a real career, taking a position as a BBC talk show host on a program that covers what else all manner of intellectual discourse on the issues.
A central motif of the novel is the creation by Sir Wijnobbel’s enemies including his wife of an “anti-university” in Yorkshire, where a motley group of characters find themselves bedeviled by emotional demons, cult leaders, potted political drives. They would all be at home in a Ken Kesey novel (or ward).
By the time readers get to the climax of the book, a flashy conflagration that seems a little artificially imposed, the reader is exhausted. How many times can we be expected to contemplate the mysteries of mirrors, how often do we need to read about Lewis Carroll’s Alice to be reminded of her adventure and dilemma? Then there are all the creatures of the natural world to consider, notably birds and snails. Ludwig Wittgenstein does a turn, so too Alan Turing, the computer pioneer. And just in case this isn’t stmulating enough, how about FORTRAN.
But all of this does little to flesh out Frederica or her challenge. She does not move us because she does not weep or laugh or feel. Attired in tidy Mary Quant dresses, it is even hard to believe in her relationship with John Ottakar, a lover who has moved to Yorkshire to teach at a university there. It is even harder to imagine that she gets all of Ms. Byatt’s allusions.
The author opened her book with a folk tale populated by characters with Nordic sounding names. The tale, set in a wood, is italicized and runs for eight pages, and it is terribly hard to follow. Subsequent sequences, appearing throughout the novel do not help. The talking bird who imparts wisdom and warnings to the people is difficult to identify. When the body of the real story begins after this introduction, characters voice their dismay at how this tale has ended. But what does it mean? What is its relationship to the Frederica’s life, and how does it serve the narrative? One never finds out.
The wood tale does reappear midway through the book, and reads: “‘All your book learning will be of no use in the wilderness,’ said the page-boy to the Prince.” In this often captivating but finally unruly book, one has something to say to the page-boy. Ditto for the fiction beyond.
A WHISTLING WOMAN
By A.S. Byatt
Knopf, $29.95, 429 pages