Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A review of A S Byatt’s A Whistling Woman

A S Byatt’s A Whistling Woman is a strange book. At one level it’s a straightforward account of university life, with its politics, affairs and academic pursuit. But then there’s the suspicion that none of this is ever satisfying for those involved. They yearn for something bigger, whilst at the same time trying to deny its significance in their lives. Another strand is the career of Federica, one of the book’s principal characters. Almost by default, she finds herself host of a BBC2-style arts review or in-depth discussion. She is forced via the subject matter of her programmes to re-examine a whole host of assumptions. So while the scientists try to identify a mechanism by which memory is both stimulated and fixed by means of electrical stimulation, Federica, via her television shows, offers apparently ever more arcane subject matter, leaving us confused as to what we think we might believe – or even remember.

And these are just some of the strands of plot and characterisation in A Whistling Woman, certainly one of the more complex novels I have read in many years. I have not read the previous three works in the series. This may have been why I found a number of loose ends that seemed to have strayed and frayed from elsewhere.

And then there’s the alternative university that establishes itself near to the conventional campus of the University of North Yorkshire, whose acronym, obviously, is UNY, implying generality. The alternative people adopt true nineteen sixties postures, preferring question to answer, experience to knowledge, heuristics to instruction. When we recall this hippy, flower power, professedly liberated, free thinking era, it is wise to bear in mind that this is also the generation that elected Ronald Reagan, tolerated support for death squads in central America and fuelled the consumer boom of the later eighties. But at the time, these revolutionaries sought something transcendent in their anti-university and found it in a self-destructing religious sect.

But no matter what people profess, no matter what they research, they still sleep with one another, still get pregnant, still need mutual support. The 1960s complicated all of these things with a superimposed need for personal, transcendental fulfilment and expression, whilst, at the same time, destroying perhaps permanently any possible recourse to established religion. In A Whistling Woman, A S Byatt captures this confusion and dissects it, but she offers us no neat packages of analysis, no simple results by which we might identify its elements.

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