A.S. Byatt chronicles the life of the mind with the immediacy other novelists bring to the physical world. So when the graduate-student hero of The Biographer's Tale
announces that he needs "a life full of things
," we take his words with a grain of salt. Yes, Phineas G. Nanson has renounced the "cross-referenced abstractions" of life as a postmodern literary theorist, and vows to ground himself in what he warily calls the "facts" (the quotation marks are definitely in order). Yet he first forays into empiricism by reading a three-volume life of the Victorian traveler, writer, and diplomat Elmer Bole--then immediately undertakes a biography of Bole's biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes.
Things, as Nanson discovers, can prove just as slippery as ideas. His research quickly leapfrogs beyond the biographer to his other subjects: scientist Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts. Meanwhile, our hero continues his forays into the real world. He takes a part-time job with a pair of gay travel agents, who arrange some very specialized vacations, and meets up with a Swedish bee taxonomist named Fulla, who wants to save the world. He also unearths a perplexing series of Destry-Scholes's index cards, full of sketches, facts, quotations, and unattributed lines of verse. These he attempts to shuffle into some kind of order, even as the enigmatic figure of the biographer himself seems to appear and disappear from view.
There are echoes here of Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession, another detective story for the MLA set. Yet The Biographer's Tale is an altogether odder--and chillier--sort of book. It is, in fact, almost terrifyingly learned, and wears its research about as lightly as a pair of Fulla's Ecco sandals. The mystery here is nothing less than the nature of mind, so it's no criticism to say that her characters have little life outside the ideas they represent. What's surprising is that the result is so readable, even beautiful at times. Here, for instance, is Nanson on truth and beauty:
There are a very few human truths and infinite variations on them. I was about to write that there are very few truths about the world, but the truth about that is that we don't know what we are not biologically fitted to know, it may be full of all sorts of shining and tearing things, geometries, chemistries, physics we have no access to and never can have. Reading and writing extend--not infinitely, but violently, but giddily--the variations we can perceive on the truths we thus discover.
The index cards themselves can be painful to read (remember the ersatz Victorian poetry in Possession
?). But persevere, dear reader--meaning emerges through the play of one esoteric piece of information against another, just as it does in real life. Byatt extends her philosophical variations as far as she giddily can, and in The Biographer's Tale
, she has constructed an elaborate, glittering labyrinth at the center of which lie surprisingly simple truths. --Mary Park
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From Publishers Weekly
An intellectual romp that doubles as a detective story, Byatt's new novel finds her as imaginative, witty and provocative as ever. A postgraduate at a nameless English university, narrator Phineas G. Nanson decides to abandon his studies as a poststructuralist literary critic to become a biographer instead. He chooses as his subject one Scholes Destry-Scholes, who himself was a biographer of genius. Destry-Scholes's magnum opus was a biography of the Victorian polymath Sir Elmer Bole, a famous explorer, soldier, diplomat, scientist, travel writer, novelist and poetAin short, almost a caricature of a certain British type. As Nanson searches for clues to Destry-Scholes's life, the novel acquires layers of complexity. Nanson finds fragments written by Destry-Scholes about three men: Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen. Like Nanson, the reader realizes the identity of these figures only gradually, for the fragments are oblique and mystifying. To his dismay, Nanson discovers that the revered Destry-Scholes has taken great liberties with the facts, inventing false incidents and inserting imaginary details. This calls into question the whole issue of biographical accuracy and allows Byatt, who all along has been taking swipes at poststructural literary criticism, to introduce arch observations about the current fad of psychoanalytic biography. The plot broadens when Nanson falls in love with two women simultaneously: one is a Swedish bee taxonomist; the other is Destry-Scholes's niece, a hospital radiographer. This is only one of the many mirror images here, for Bole had also married two women. In addition to the theme of doubles and doppelg?ngers, Byatt's (Possession; Angels and Insects) familiar preoccupation with insects, myths, spirits, metamorphoses and sexuality all come into play. The book is an erudite joke carried off with verve and humor. American audiences may not be quite so patient as the British, however, in indulging Byatt's many tangents. This book will appeal to discriminating readers ready for intellectual stimulation. 7 illustrations. 40,000 first printing. (Jan. 24)
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