Underlinings

Ruth Scurr

  • The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 224 pp, £14.99, June 2000, ISBN 0 7011 6945 1

Antonia Byatt’s new novel opens with a lecture and a window. Phineas G. Nanson, listening to an exposition of Lacan’s theory of morcellement, looks up at the window and decides to quit academe. He thinks: ‘I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.’ An earlier Byatt novel, Still Life, invoked the well-worn line from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson: ‘Say it, no ideas but in things.’ Still Life is the second in a trilogy of predominantly realist novels about the extended Potter family. It details the cerebral and romantic struggles of the clever middle-class sisters Frederica and Stephanie, educated at Cambridge in the 1950s. In contrast, The Biographer’s Tale is a lush celebration of allusive and imaginative metaphor: rich pickings from at least four centuries of Western civilisation are piled up in a teetering fictional edifice. The novel is like one of those new-old children’s toys through which you can post marbles and watch them ricochet down steps, seemingly out of control. Byatt herself describes it as ‘a patchwork, echoing book’, but the echoes you hear, the walls you hit and the angles you hit them at, have all been decided in advance. This is the point. And the point is underlined, several times.

After the lecture, Phineas G. pops into the dusty office of Professor Ormerod Goode for some sherry. He leaves with a three-volume biography of Elmer Bole (a pseudo-Victorian polymath and adventurer) by Scholes Destry-Scholes (a spoof 20th-century scholar), cumbersomely under his arm. According to Goode, this is a work of genius. But it sounds suspiciously like one of those biographies that Lytton Strachey suspected the undertaker of composing as the final part of his job. Sure enough, the book turns out to contain a photograph of a bust of Florence Nightingale. A little later there is an echo of Strachey’s term for bad writers of bad biographies, the ‘journeymen of letters’. Soon Phineas G. is researching a biography of the biographer Destry-Scholes. Screwing his courage to the sticking place, Phineas G. places an ad in the TLS and rings a few librarians. He leafs through the telephone directory and knocks on doors, but ends up in a Yorkshire cul-de-sac staring at red houses, ‘trying to think what to think’. At this point, he is saved by an archivist who turns up a jumbled typescript that is easy to identify as the work of Destry-Scholes. Its raison d’être is less easy to identify; it seems to concern three previously unconnected lives. Phineas G. gives these the provisional titles ‘L ...’, ‘G ...’, and ‘I ...’, and reproduces the texts of these fragments in his research notebook – which is what The Biographer’s Tale has become. On page 97 it is revealed that these initials refer to Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen, three historical figures woven into this tissue of intensely cross-referenced truths, halftruths and lies.

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