While South Africa burns, and the very world threatens to burst apart at its seams, the polite and mannered English novel persists, incredibly. Byatt's fourth deals with the same central figures as her third (The Virgin in the Garden, 1978). Framed by Van Gogh's paintings and letters, by fictional schoolmaster Alexander Wedderburn's dramatization of Van Gogh's ""The Yellow Chair"" and by Gauguin's ""Still-Life, Fete Gloanec 1888,"" the lives of the two Potter sisters through the 1950s are chronicled in episodes representative of daily, middle-class English life. Stephanie, the elder, marries Daniel, a parish priest in the Church of England, has two children, takes in her mother-in-law and her own psychotically crippled younger brother. Reaching under the refrigerator to release a sparrow brought in by the cat, she is electrocuted. Her funeral, Daniel's tramping through England, and reunion with schoolmaster Alexander in London (signifying his return to life) bring the novel to a close. Meanwhile, Frederica, the younger sister, has gone to southern France as an au pair, then become a student at Cambridge, where she has had tea with E.M. Forster (he fell asleep) and heard John Wain lecture. Her quest for self-fulfillment has led her from bed to bed, ultimate Nigel's seeming the best of all. Her life is full of literary types, the bustle of London and such questions as: Should she stay on at Cambridge or take a job with Vogue? The book has no plot, and, technically, it is pretentious: ""I wanted to write a novel as Williams said a poem should be--no ideas but in things."" If they can set aside the inexcusable boredom of many of its scenes, those who are fans of Masterpiece Theater may want to have copies of this book. Or perhaps, with its arts-and-museums title, it would look best on an end table under an orangey lamp in the sitting room of a semi-detached on Clapham Common.