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 Biographers Tale announces that he needs a life full of things, we take his words with a grain ofMoreA.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 Biographers 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 Boles 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Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts.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-Scholess 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 Byatts Booker Prize-winning Possession, another detective story for the MLA set. Yet The Biographers 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 Fullas Ecco sandals.
The mystery here is nothing less than the nature of mind, so its no criticism to say that her characters have little life outside the ideas they represent. Whats 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 dont 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 Biographers Tale, she has constructed an elaborate, glittering labyrinth at the center of which lie surprisingly simple truths.