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[Book reviews]

Byatt’s bios
Novel investigations

BY RICHARD C. WALLS



THE BIOGRAPHER’S TALE

By A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 305 pages, $24.

In the acknowledgments at the back of her new novel, A.S. Byatt refers to it as “a patchwork, echoing book.” That’s a good description, though in a mood of assessment one might add “playful, lugubrious, lyrical, and prolix.” Readers of Byatt (Possession: A Romance, Babel Tower, Angels and Insects) will find some familiar things here — literary ventriloquism, scholars in turmoil, lapidary descriptions of both the organic and the inanimate world — but may be surprised by the book’s experimental heart, by its odd weightlessness. Its tail-chasing narrative is both amusing and chock full of compelling asides. It reads like a very complicated prank.

The novel takes the form of an investigative notebook compiled by one Phineas G. Nanson, an academic immersed in postmodern literary criticism who is on the verge of abandoning his dissertation — which, he tells us, is titled “ ‘Personae of female desire in the novels of Ronald Firbank, E. M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham.’ I sometimes thought it should have been ‘Female personae of desire in Firbank, Foster and Maugham’ and could not make up my mind if this changed the whole thing completely, or made no difference at all.” Too much learning of a particularly analytical kind has made Nanson neurotically and comically imprecise in his pursuit of precision. He’s vaguely aware of this and wants to be done with theory. “I need,” he says, “a life full of things. Full of facts.”

Salvation, or escape (but really neither), comes in the form of a three-volume biography of the outrageously accomplished Victorian polymath Elmore Bole that’s written by the noted biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes. Boles (a Byatt invention) is impressive, but what fascinates Nanson is Destry-Scholes (another Byatt invention) who, writing in the late ’50s and early ’60s, is free of the worrisome deciphering of postmodernism and who writes of Boles’s life as a series of outwardly knowable events, places, and things related with confidence, a touch of speculation, and little interpretation.

Inspired by Scholes Destry-Scholes’s mastery of the biographical genre, Nanson decides that he will write a biography of the biographer. Initial research yields little until he comes across three fragments left behind by Destry-Scholes (who vanished some years earlier in the great Maelstrom off the coast of Norway), apparently sketches for a biography, or a combined biography, of the 18th-century taxonomist Carl Linnæus (the father of eugenics), Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen. These fragments, a combination of quoted writings from the historical personages and comments and embellishments (and flat-out lies) by Destry-Scholes, are the novel’s centerpiece, Byatt’s tour de force of learned erudition and storytelling. Linnæus is a compulsive cataloguer of outer nature, Galton of inner. Where Ibsen fits in only slowly (and never wholly) becomes clear.

Nanson’s pursuit of Destry-Scholes leads him to a pair of eccentrically romantic encounters, first with the late biographer’s niece, the ethereal Vera Alphage, and second with Fulla Biefeld, an Earth Mother type and bee taxonomist he (literally) runs into at the Linnaeus Society’s library. He gets a job at an impossibly accommodating travel bureau called Puck’s Girdle, where he encounters the satanic Strange Customer, who is looking for unsavory escape. Things become not only patchwork but fairly picturesque. One hopes that by the end there’ll be something to hold this together beyond just a skein of elaborate metaphors and echoing references.

At one point in his jottings Nanson, who is not given to bold statements, makes one of a helpful, summary nature: “Looking back on my own times, what most strikes me is that we have developed endlessly subtle styles and techniques to reveal the secret meaning behind the apparent meaning, to open up the desires and assumptions behind what people say and explain about what they feel and believe. And all that can really be read into what we write is our own desire to translate everything, everyone, all reasoning, all irrational hope and fear, into our own Procrustean grid of priorities. The world is very old, and modern theories of the mind and its politics are very recent and very local. They have not stood the test of time.”

Nothing is knowable without the intervening self, which tends to obscure and distort and shape everything into a coherence whose template is forged on an individual, cellular level. Byatt’s method of elaborate pastiche disguises the overarching story of a small wisdom gained. The fantastic adventures of Phineas G. Nanson — begun as a search for specificity, for things — lead him to the black hole of his own singularly (as the novel progresses his writing becomes more traditionally “creative”). He leaves his books and embraces nature in the form of his symbolic lovers (one earthy, the other airy), encounters unfashionably pure evil, and loses the thread of biographical truth in Destry-Scholes’s subtle blending of fiction and fact. In the end he’s left with joining Vera and Fulla in the naming and categorizing of things, which is solid and specific if neverending work. And he seems, as far as can be determined, happy.

A.S. Byatt reads this Friday, February 23, in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum Auditorium, 485 Broadway, off the northeast corner of Harvard Yard, at 6 p.m. Call 661-1515.