CLARK is romanced by AS Byatt's post-modern fairy tale,
The Biographer's Tale
A S Byatt
Chatto & Windus
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
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
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.
The Guardian, UK