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The Review: The Biographer’s Tale by A. S. Byatt

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I first read The Biographer’s Tale when studying literature as an undergraduate fifteen years ago. I had just discovered that, unlike so many of my peers, my passion for reading was reinforced by having to swing pendulum-like between a myopic focus on classical aesthetics and the postmodern insistence on the denial of beauty, on the joyless vivisection of the delicate sinews that make art possible. I loved my ivory tower, and I loved living inside that pull between the old way and the new; academia seemed a much better destiny than cleaning up sewage-flooded basements or unloading transport trucks by hand in the dead of night, which was how I was paying for the privilege of studying anything at all. A. S. Byatt understands the intellectual tension I lived with at that age better than any other writer I’ve encountered. As a sometime academic attracted to F. R. Leavis’s values but nevertheless fascinated by and invested in postmodern theory, she lives with that tension too, and The Biographer’s Tale is her most direct response to it.

The novel opens with Phineas G. Nanson quitting his life as a graduate student of literary theory because he’s tired of the passionless post-structuralist probing of every text for “the same clefts and crevices, transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions” and equally tired of discovering “the same structures, the same velleities, the same evasions quite routinely in the most disparate texts.” He decides he would prefer a life built more around facts and things; their solidity, stability, knowability. Not sure how to leave literary scholarship behind entirely, he dips his toe into the world of things by writing the biography of biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes. The project doesn’t quite go as planned, and he makes almost no progress; Destry-Scholes left few traces of himself, and Nanson has no talent for the work. He does manage to luck into a few disorganized notecards and manuscript fragments from projects unfinished at the time of Destry-Scholes’s disappearance—biographies (or perhaps some kind of composite biography) of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen—but he doesn’t get much further.

The Biographer’s Tale is littered with what Barthes called biographemes, units of history or biography, such as historical personages or fragments of real documents. They act as a thematic hinge in the novel, allowing for two contradictory but equally, indeed simultaneously, valid readings: first, a traditional Leavisite reading with its emphasis on the aesthetics of realism, where the biographemes serve as anchors around which the fictional world can cohere and be recognizable as a world, reinforced by psychologically complex characters and classical symbolism; and second, a postmodern funhouse mirror of unreliable narrators, outright forgeries passed off as genuine, comical wordplay, and obvious structural manipulations in which the biographemes accentuate the artificiality of the narrative.

Readers might also see The Biographer’s Tale as a critique of Byatt’s own Booker-winning Possession. The plots of both novels feature scholarly research, romance, and competing intellectual frameworks. Possession relies heavily on the idea of the past as knowable and verifiable through sufficiently complete documentation and needs readers to believe in the authenticity, reliability, and easy interpretation of records. The Biographer’s Tale dismantles that premise thoroughly and repeatedly, emphasizing the instability inherent in our knowledge of the past. The novel virtually embodies the need for the systematization, manipulation, and the always imperfect interpretation of facts when making sense of even the least controversial historical events—the need for a guiding consciousness, with its own subjectivity and the biases that come with it.

Unsurprisingly, this is a novel of anxieties and false starts, as Nanson fails at being that guiding consciousness, whether he’s trying to piece together Destry-Scholes’s life or his own. He fails to organize the biographer’s ephemera into any kind of coherent order and can’t even understand the taxonomy of Destry-Scholes’s marble collection. He fails to write a single line of the biography and can’t even finish telling the story of that failure. The Biographer’s Tale closes with its tensions deliberately unresolved. Through his association with two women—one a bee taxonomist, the other a radiographer—Nanson finally finds his connection to things in science, one of the other themes running through nearly all of Byatt’s work. But here science is just another source of intellectual tension, another way of revealing how our understanding is shaped by the artificiality of our systems, no matter how closely tied to what we observe or experience.

The major element of Byatt’s fiction least represented in this novel is, sadly, her obsession with art, and with colour especially. It does surface occasionally, in a casual remark about the lost İznik red pigment that plays a central role in her later novel, The Children’s Book, or in a bit of drive-by symbolism, with the passing mention of translucent Roman scent-bottles repurposed by the French as tesserae for their cathedrals. Even in these we glimpse what makes Byatt one of the most powerful writers on art since John Ruskin. She builds her fiction around colour and light, around paints and glazes and glass, even when they aren’t the explicit subjects of her stories. Her deployment of a word as simple as blue feels richer, clearer, more exact than cerulean or azure ever could. Byatt’s prose, even in this weird little book, is elegant and precise, her ideas so tightly woven that a flaw would seem deliberate, like in the proverbial Persian rug.

Byatt’s work never disappoints, and The Biographer’s Tale, almost the only novel she’s written completely free from the shadow of Iris Murdoch’s influence, deserves to be remembered as one of her finest.

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