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.

As he stumbles around on the trail of Destry-Scholes, Phineas G. – short, spotty and socially inept – improbably acquires not one but two sexual partners: a sun and a moon goddess (as he puts it to himself). The solar goddess is Fulla Biefeld, a Swedish-speaking bee taxonomist whom Phineas G. picks up in London at the Linnean Society. In her acknowledgments, Byatt thanks the librarian of the Linnean Society ‘with whom I was briefly enclosed in the strong room in the dark’. In the novel, this episode is transformed into a power-cut, during which Phineas G. experiences an attack of claustrophobia and ends up lying on the floor looking up the skirt of hairy-legged Fulla, reflecting: ‘Linnaeus knew nothing about pheromones.’ Fulla is the out-of-doors type. She thinks that many of Phineas G.’s problems stem from chronic under-employment, and succeeds in partially distracting him into helping with one of her own projects, monitoring stag beetles in Richmond Park. Phineas G.’s other lover, the lunar one, is a radiologist who answers his TLS advertisment. Vera Alphage is a niece of Destry-Scholes and an inheritor, as it turns out, of the familial taste for obscure academic pursuits. Phineas G. and Vera spend many happy hours together while he goes carefully through Destry-Scholes’s index cards and she tries to fit a list of eclectic names to her uncle’s old marble collection: ‘I thought Bum couldn’t be hard to identify. I thought one of these must be Bum.’

To keep himself solvent, Phineas G. takes a job in a specialist travel agency called Puck’s Girdle, where he organises quirky literary holidays for ordinary people, until he receives a menacing visit from the ‘Strange Customer’. This person arrives dressed in black, his face in shadow, acting a bit like Gandalf; he then reveals his interest in snuff movies and paedophilia. At this point, the owners of Puck’s Girdle return from one of their holiday tours with a basket of Easter eggs for their little ‘dogsbody’ two fluffy rabbits in leather and chains are suspended from the basket. Phineas G. concludes (and for once who can blame him?) that it is time to get back to his books. He resumes his research with the hard-won and incompletely convincing insight that biography itself may be a kind of snuff movie.

What is this novel saying about biographers and biographies? When the first thirty or so pages of The Biographer’s Tale were first published (in New Writing 8, 1999), the extract was called ‘Brief Lives’. So a good starting point might be John Aubrey, but perhaps it would be better to begin with Anthony Powell, the standard biographer of the first great English biographer. In his introduction to Aubrey’s Brief lives, Powell points out a significant difference between his approach to biographical writing and that of Lytton Strachey:

  In Elizabeth and Essex, Lytton Strachey writes of Francis Bacon: ‘an old man, disgraced, shattered, alone, on Highgate Hill, stuffing a dead fowl with snow.’ The story of stuffing the hen with snow is Aubrey’s, and may be read here. Bacon was certainly an old man at the time of the incident; he was ‘disgraced’, he may have been ‘shattered’ no doubt at times he was ‘alone’; but Aubrey’s story of stuffing the fowl on Highgate Hill shows Bacon, accompanied by the King’s Physician, conducting a serious experiment to test the preservative properties of snow; and, on becoming indisposed, finding accommodation in the house of the Earl of Arundel. If Aubrey’s story suggests anything, it is that Bacon’s intellectual faculties were anything but ‘shattered’ and that he was not ‘alone’. This is a trifling instance, though it illustrates how a fragment of a ‘Life’, combined with juxtaposition of epithets, may be used to convey an oblique hint; a method, incidentally, never employed by Aubrey himself.

Even if Powell really thought that it was impossible to be alone in the presence of physicians and wealthy acquaintances, Phineas G. is aware, if not approving of Freud’s impact on the biographical genre, and could certainly have put him straight. As Strachey saw it, an oblique hint about another person was the best you could hope for. But Aubrey, Strachey and Powell, despite their obvious differences, were fine with the idea of a fact. And so, to begin with, is Byatt’s Phineas G., as he reads his way through the second volume of Destry-Scholes’s biography of Elmer Bole: ‘I was delighted, as humans are delighted when facts slot together, when I saw the significance of these lines.’ A few pages later, though, and facts are out of the window: ‘It took me longer than it should have done ... to realise that I was acquiring only second or third-hand facts. I was not discovering Destry-Scholes, beyond his own discoveries.’ Byatt’s drift seems to be that biography, like fiction, like language itself, is a kind of net repeatedly, perhaps compulsively, thrown out over a regressing reality. Most of what is really important will always elude the net, and the biographer would do well to remember that where she stands, others have stood before.

More to the point, others have used the ruse of a fictional biography to draw attention to the instability of what anyone can know as fact. Orlando is The Biographer’s Tale’s most dashing predecessor, and the comparison with Virginia Woolf brings out something important about Byatt as a writer. Orlando was conceived as a ‘writer’s holiday’ and pitched with beautiful buoyancy against the dead-weight of historical, literary and biographical tradition. The interest for Woolf and for Orlando, is in the writing process itself. When a writer such as Shakespeare appears in the novel, Orlando imagines him at work:

Sunk for a long time in profound thoughts as to the value of obscurity, and the delight of having no name, but being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea; thinking how obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite ... he thought, Shakespeare must have written like that, and the church builders like that, anonymously, needing no thanking or naming, but only their work in the daytime and a little ale perhaps at night.

In contrast, when Shakespeare appears in the thoughts of Phineas G., he is always an author of established and resonating texts:

‘But in the dark, imagining some fear,/How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!’ So A Midsummer Night’s Dream which contains a lucid dissertation on the mental construction of the lunatic, the lover and the poet. Shakespeare must have had a lively interest in mental imagery. Both Hamlet and Anthony discourse upon shapes, whales or dragons, discerned in the random configuration of cloud formations.

This clunking prose and the geeky intelligence behind it does not belong to Byatt herself. But it does present her with a serious technical problem. Her protagonist is an avid consumer of literary texts and the imaginative emphasis of the novel is on the consumption as opposed to the production of prose. It is true that the upshot of all this is a new novel. But it is one in which we are constantly asked to consider ourselves as readers of books, archives, footnotes, index cards and photographs. Here, for example, is the beginning of one of Destry-Scholes’s index cards, number 99 in the ordering that Phineas G. imposes: ‘I suspect that much of what we stigmatise as irresolution is due to our Self being by no means one and indivisible, and that we do not care to sacrifice the Self of the moment for a different one.’ Psychological incoherence is interesting enough, but why display it on an index card rather than putting it in a character’s mouth? Byatt has chosen to write a novel that reads like a research notebook. But how different is a novel that resembles a haphazard notebook from a haphazard notebook itself?

Towards the end of the novel, Phineas G. switches his attention from the pursuit of Destry-Scholes to the story he has told in his notebook and its only elaborately sustained character, himself. ‘In terms of writing – of the way this story has funnelled itself into a not unusual shape, run into a channel cut in the earth for it by previous stories (and all our lives are partly the same story, beginning, middle, end) – in terms of writing, this looks like a writer’s story.’ Substitute ‘reading’ and ‘reader’ for ‘writing’ and ‘writer’ and you get much closer to the truth. This is the story of an obsessive reader, someone very like Frederica Potter, ‘doomed to be intelligent’. Before growing up to be a narratologist in Babel’s Tower, the student Frederica in Still Life ‘never walked past the cows across the Cam from King’s without hearing: “The cow is there. She is there, the cow. Whether I’m in Cambridge or Iceland or dead the cow will be there.” ’ The danger in an echo chamber of a mind or novel like this is that all those other writings and images we are incessantly asked to remember will, sooner or later, become distracting. Reading The Biographer’s Tale you may be fine until you come across this: ‘His voice was clear and belling. Not like those voices in Fitzgerald, full of money, but full of a thick-blooded mixture of confidence and desire (a word used, partly at least, in the sense of my Post-Modernist French theory).’ Suddenly you need to hear one of those voices in Fitzgerald.

Byatt’s anxieties and interests have always been most gripping when extreme: the sudden presence of cruelty in her fiction, for example. It is hard to forget the burnt child in Still Life who fell (and was repeatedly pushed) into a domestic fire; or the hideous electrocution of Frederica’s sister Stephanie, who crawled under a fridge to rescue a sparrow; and the long cold stare of Stephanie’s small son, who pressed his cheek against the fridge that had killed his mother and said nothing at all. Byatt can make you cry. It’s an unsettling effect: the sudden flash of utter misery in the middle of all the verbal and intellectual play. There is a particularly good example of this in The Biographer’s Tale: Phineas G.’s lunar lover, Vera Alphage, comes home one evening from her hospital job and has a nervous breakdown. This has been triggered by an interview, earlier that day, in which a consultant oncologist showed a young man the certain progress of his cancer through a set of beautiful pictures produced by Vera. Vera became hysterical and was carried from the room as the dying man watched her with undisguised contempt: ‘she was alive, and making an unnecessary scene, and he was vanishing down a tunnel out of touch.’