<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 107 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 30, 2003

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Mischief maker


ALEX CLARK is romanced by AS Byatt's post-modern fairy tale, The Biographer's Tale

The Biographer's Tale
A S Byatt
Chatto & Windus


AS Byatt is a clever writer who has often been accused of being too clever. Whether for her own good or for ours is a moot point, and too frequently her detractors have confused cleverness with intelligence, or more particularly erudition. Her novels, which range from the elegant entertainment of recent years - Angels and Insects, The Matisse Stories, Elementals - to the massive ongoing project that takes in The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower, are fraught with complicated ideas, networks of references and endlessly proliferating interrelated symbols and images.
Her most popular work, Possession, juxtaposed the vanities and concealments of modern academia with the "discovery" of a Victorian literary mystery, but it was also subtitled "A Romance" - a gesture towards the fact that while Byatt may lard her fictions with an enormous array of seemingly extraneous research material, her primary purpose is "romancing", or the telling of tales.
Possession is partly a satire on the machinations of academia and the rise of the biography industry. The title and opening scenes of her latest novel prepare us for a similar sort of wheeze. Phineas G Nanson (along with Professor Ormerod Goode, Elmer Bole and Scholes Destry-Scholes, the latest in Byatt's long line of ripely named characters) may sound like a Victorian gentleman traveller, but he is deeply rooted in the modern world.

We meet him in a seminar on critical theory in which Empedocles finds himself miserably yoked to Lacan; Frankenstein and Freud also make an appearance, with Foucault not far behind. Phineas, all of a sudden, decides he has had enough and must have things, facts, concrete substances. His life as a post-modern scholar is over, and he must find something else to do.
His new research topic arrives immediately, partly through luck and partly through the vaguely sinister managing hand of place-names specialist Ormerod Goode, who directs Phineas towards Destry-Scholes's three-volume life of Victorian polymath Elmer Bole. To both modern scholars, Destry-Scholes's achievement is extraordinary: a masterpiece of objectivity, rigour and detachment that exists quite separately, as Phineas carefully points out to us, from the waves of Freudian biography that have since risen up to engulf - and obscure - the form. Phineas is most impressed by the absence of the biographer himself from the work and sets out, in tentative fashion, to research the life of Destry-Scholes, taking especial care to efface himself from the record of his findings.
Each set of notes seems peculiarly connected, with a puzzling emphasis on mysticism and magic, on solitary and whimsical travelling, on the behaviour and classification of animals. Each problem sends Phineas pursuing a different line of enquiry, only to find himself stalled and halted, his "true intellectual passion for coherence and meanings" run ragged.
In this lucid scenario, Phineas's hitherto vacant life quickly becomes pregnant with new possibilities, thickening and quickening at every turn. He meets Fulla, a Swedish bee taxonomist who helps him out with Linnaeus and seduces him as they watch stag beetles jousting in Richmond Park. He begins an intense, silent relationship with the "shockingly beautiful" Vera Alphage, Destry-Scholes's niece, who takes him into her attic and shows him her uncle's suitcase, crammed full of curiosities (including a trepanning instrument, 366 randomly named marbles and a swathe of spooky composite photographs).
We do not need Byatt to question the notion of literary purity for us, or to point out that a three-volume biography might be translated into a sketchy patchwork of supposition and confession, or to show us the web of fabrications that underpins all writing, fictional and non-fictional. But her exceptionally subtle understanding of these matters, combined with her densely patterned, beautifully weighted prose, make her a romancer we should be loath to do without.

Source: The Guardian, UK




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