Resuscitating the forgotten Sixties

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Take your desires for reality"; "we are realists, we want the impossible".By the time French students were spraying such slogans on the walls of the Latin Quarter, in May 1968, London had acquired its own, somewhat different version of Sixties excess, one that was to underwrite the lasting cliche of the permissive society. What A.S. Byatt does in Babel Tower (Chatto Pounds 16.99) is to take a part of the Sixties and illuminate it as a pivotal cultural moment.

Her central questions here are about what we mean by freedom and our understanding of what is "natural". These lead into explorations of authority and institutions, censorship and literature, theories of language and education, and whether individual needs can fit with collectivity.

Babel Tower has a motley cast of recognisable types as well as a developed central character, Frederica Potter, heroine of two earlier Byatt novels. Everything connects with Frederica's story. Cambridge-educated and now escaping from a violent marriage, she re-enters the literary world, reviewing books, teaching the 20th century novel, reading for a publisher and beginning an experimental work that employs different fictional registers through a cut-up technique - not unlike Byatt's own construction of this novel, which includes sections of a Sadean fiction, Babbletower, eventually the subject of an obscenity trial.

Frederica, clever though not always wise, owes more to the women of George Eliot than to Lawrence or Forster in claiming her right to the life of the mind as well as that of the senses. What surprises this un-maternal intellectual is the passionate strength of her bond with her child - one of many ironies with which Byatt answers her own questions.

Babel Tower's 600-odd pages delight with their inventiveness, yet this is a serious account of a period in flux. It is also very English, and self-consciously so, in its concern with freedom as the decade's key word. Exchange London for Paris and the slogans of May 1968 also read as rallying cries for equality and fraternity - something that is often forgotten about the Sixties.

The Nigeria of the post-civil war Seventies in which Ben Okri's Dangerous Love (Phoenix House Pounds 15.99) unfolds seems remote from that Europe, but Okri is lucid in his indictment of colonialism for his country's legacy of corruption and injustice.

An unconscious act of mourning begins the novel, as the young painter Omovo leaves the barber's shop with a shaven head, a sign of bereavement. His painting of a squalid ghetto scene is confiscated by the military, a drawing is stolen, and graver shocks follow until, bereft, he has learned that it is the artist's role to see what is obscured by poverty and disempowerment.

Okri writes well about the creative process and its promptings, and here the growth of the artist's powers is a progression from the literally seeing eye and what is rendered naturalistically to the visionary dimension of sight and the heeding of dreams and portents, Omovo's recognition that "in dreams begins responsibility".

Russell Hoban's Fremder (Cape Pounds 14.99) is set 56 years hence, in a future full-blown with the breath of present terrors and technologies, its urban and interstellar landscapes reminiscent of Blade Runner's messy darkness, its tyranny of surveillance Orwellian and familiar. Dislocated spaceman Fremder shines out of this twilight with a melancholy brightness, his head busy with Rilke and Kant, Chopin and Greek myth, the Bible and the movies.

Culture has become consolatory memory, a set of cryptic tools as Fremder strives to answer the riddle of his birth and the death of his mother, Helen Gorn, inventor of flicker-drive. With this intergalactic travel can be brought about in seconds.

Accidents do happen though, like one that left Fremder stranded in deep space without the means to stay alive, yet surviving; a mystery that sets him on the trail of metaphysical whodunits and questions about parallel universes.

There are lots of ways to read Fremder, which is short but linguistically rich and lively with allusions. One is as a parable about wombs and leaving them. "Reality is the responsibility of those who perceive it", our hero is told, and he has wit enough to hold on to what is real to him in the end.

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