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A Whistling Woman

by A.S. Byatt
421 pages,
ISBN: 0701173807


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Whistling Out of Chaos
by Cindy MacKenzie

A Whistling Woman, A.S. Byatt's latest novel, is, as the French say, a casse-tete. Opening it is to enter into a confusing and dream-like world, a cerebral space rich with a wide range of ideas as fully present as the novel's human characters and in fact, often "stronger than individuals," as "they twist, pull and mould" the reader's mind. The appearance of a cast of archetypes of the "collective consciousness" of readers of the Western World¨Freud, Socrates, Darwin, as well as representatives from mythology, literature, philosophy¨results in an intellectual capaciousness in books with "the whole world in them" that we have come to expect from Byatt. She deliberately challenges us and, as a result, the book does require some very slow, thoughtful reading and I freely admit that this book deserves criticism rather than a review. Notwithstanding these difficulties, however, the Byatt reader can continue to enjoy following the adventures of the intriguing and courageous protagonist, Frederica Potter, and the reviewer can suggest some approaches to reading it. Byatt's fourth novel concludes the ambitious cycle of works that begins with The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life and Babel Tower. These books scan a tumultuous and revolutionary period of change stretching from the 1950s to the 1970s. While each can be read on its own, a full apprehension of the complexities of any one of them requires a knowledge of the quartet as a whole. The evolution of the novels' protagonist, Frederica Potter, is analogous to the radical evolution of the "free woman", following the emancipation and education that allows her to earn money and to make choices about sex and reproduction.
In this novel, Frederica, as moderator of a television show, is strategically situated to demonstrate the interplay of emerging ideas during a period in history that was characterized by the destabilization of existing paradigms, and especially those concerning traditional institutions of marriage and family. Byatt thereby provides a smooth transition from the thematic image evoked by her previous novel's title¨the deafening pandemonium of Babel Tower. A Whistling Woman has so many characters and is so multi-layered that it is a challenge to find its unifying principle, indeed, to "translate" the cacophony of its many "voices". However, the novel's three epigraphs (taken from such divergent sources as Lewis Carroll, Andrew Marvell, and Byatt's "maternal grandmother"), its title, and its opening scene immediately point us toward a possible solution with their collective emphasis on bird imagery. The image is sharpened by the opening scene with Agatha Maud's reading of a fable featuring "Whistlers", the strange birds with the ear-piercing high-pitched whistling sound, birds that "no one sees and lives." The mythological implications of the story and its indeterminate ending provides a setting for Byatt's novel that allows for the possibility of such a tale being true and emphasizes the mystery surrounding the existence of different languages amongst the earth's numerous species. When Mark, one of the fable's questers, finds he is able to understand the "words in their whistling," he describes the achievement as "some terrible operation inside his own skull of simultaneous separation and stitching, so that he was, as it were, dividing the two fronts of a leather jerkin and then, between the two parts of his brain, threading them together with a thong of thought." It seems that Mark's ability to "understand" the birds' cries as "beak-words" and "skin-words" (bird and human language) and to answer them with an appeal for "pity" prevents him from dying and, in the end, the "bird-women" lead him and his friends to a safe place. The telling of the fable in Byatt's opening scene offers a foreshadowing of events in the novel and of a group of pervasive images that will guide the reader toward understanding.
The novel's historical context is the counterculture of the 60s, a "psychedelic era", when anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian attitudes were exalting the freedom of individual expression. There emerged a multitude of eclectic, confusing voices; yet somehow, on levels of madness often induced by artificial "highs", the connections between various forms of experience were made. The Anti-University in the novel parallels the emotional-intellectual climate of the era and offers a model for the way in which the mind makes sense of pandemonium by creating the tenuous connections between ideas and experience. The members of the "Faculty" participate in intellectual debates the purpose of which is to destabilize classifications of all kinds and acknowledge the indeterminacy of knowledge. They cast off any illusions about organizational forms and structures that attempt to categorize areas of knowledge. At the Body-Mind conference, Frederica observes that its chairman, Wijnnobel, "was in fact talking about the artificial invisible barriers between disciplines. He said it was natural for the mind to erect them and to work within them¨they were forms, philosophy, bio-chemistry, grammar¨to which the Towers of the University gave a metaphorical solidity. But such forms were scaffolds, he said, such towers were lookouts, from which other forms could be seen, to which other forms could be linked. The world was infinitely multifarious and its elements were simple and could be seen from infinite viewpoints, in infinite rearrangements." The old does not have to be let go¨ parts do not have to dovetail¨thus universities could offer a Study of Everything, a biological-cognitive Theory of Everything. Like the fable's Whistlers who proclaim that they are "both neither one thing nor the other," this Pandemonium University advocates "The One and the Many" in a way that foreshadows postmodern ideas of inclusivity and indeterminacy. The best thinkers, then, as Hodgkiss, a student of Wittgenstein, observes are like "the Architect of Babel. An architect who, contrary to a quick imagining of such a person, was intent not upon chaos, but upon the discovery and communication of extraordinary order."
The author, Byatt, can be thought of as such an Architect in the same way that Frederica discovers F. Scott Fitzgerald's powers in her analysis of The Great Gatsby¨the complex and dynamic operations of the mind that Fitzgerald's novel stimulates. In an epiphanic moment, Frederica discovers the extraordinary principles of metaphorical expression: "What Fitzgerald has done, quickly, briefly, and clearly, is to undo what art and literature have done over and over again, the image of the human mind at home in the beauty of the created garden, with the forms of trees and the colour of the sky and the grass, and the intricate natural beauty of the rose." Byatt describes precisely the intense visceral impact of suddenly "seeing" into the beauty, the aptness of an author's "word-worlds" in the moment that Frederica "caught the full force of the achieved simplicity of every word in that perfectly created paragraph about destruction, that perfectly, easily coherent paragraph about disintegration. [When] she felt something she had always supposed was mythical, the fine hairs on the back of her neck rising and pricking in a primitive response to a civilized perfection, body recognizing mind." Frederica realizes in this moment that she should be a teacher, not a television show moderator, that "smiling at cameras was tawdry, compared to this real skill, which revealed things." Revelling in the "truth"of the moment, she claims it as hers: "For the rest of her life, she came back and back to this moment, the change in the air, the pricking of the hairs, of really reading every word of something she had believed she 'knew'. The setting of words in order, to make worlds, to make ideas."
Perhaps Byatt is the reader's "Whistling Woman" shrieking incomprehensibly into our ears with her confusingly structured plot and diverse characters until we undergo the dramatic shift in the brain experienced by Mark in the novel's opening fable as we learn to understand her language. Or perhaps she is the Architect of Babel connecting the "one and the many" ideas in her novel by her brilliant use of imagery. In either case, she is constantly asking us to think¨and to think hard, casser la tete, literally to break our heads and shatter the brain's familiar ways of thinking¨and reading¨so that we, like Marvell's peacock in her epigraph, can see how her novel, riddling as it is, "waves in its plumes the various Light." ˛
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