Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ByattBlogging 12: The Biographer's Tale

You could look at this book as a departure for Byatt, or as an experiment in voice. It’s told in the first person, by a male protagonist, and the voice of the book follows from that, using the language that’s natural for the narrator. You could also look at it as a self-satire, Byatt’s own parody of Possession. Like that book, the hero is a scholarly male who becomes sceptical of literary theory; who tries to uncover the truth about the life of a dead writer; who finds love during the course of his journey; and who learns to focus on the world of physical fact rather than on scholarly theory. Like Possession, the book is stuffed with other texts, providing other perspectives on the novel’s themes. Unlike Possession, though, the protagonist fails in his quest; rather than become a poet, he abandons writing for the tangible world of things, threatened as it is by human agency; and rather than find love once, he finds it twice.

The tone is different, too. It feels like a satire; Possession, of course, consciously modelled itself after a romance, which almost by definition makes that book ripe for satire. The Biographer’s Tale deals with things like sex and money in a way that’s not so much clear-eyed as perhaps corrective. So the main character doesn’t begin with a girlfriend supporting him. Sex isn’t the end of the story, it’s something that happens along the way, and not always at obvious points. And new texts or diaries or letters aren’t conveniently found to answer questions or suggest new ones.

The Biographer’s Tale is harder to like for all these reasons, but also for deeper reasons as well, I think. The language of the book isn’t as rich as Possession, or most of Byatt’s other work, and while there’s a gain in terms of the depth of character presented, there’s a loss of linguistic felicity which probably wasn’t worth the sacrifice. This was a characteristic of Byatt’s first-person short story “Jael” as well; I can’t help but wish Byatt had tried for the best of both worlds, creating a character who reveals himself or herself through the use of a rich style. Still, at a deeper level, I think The Biographer’s Tale suffers because, hand-in-hand with the (relatively) emptier style, there’s also less going on than in Possession; less incident, less imagery, less variety of character, less thematic richness. The book is still too varied to really gain the intensity of a stripped-down vision, though. In all, it feels like an interesting experiment, but one which, at least in part, never quite comes off.

This is not to say that it’s a bad book, or an uninteresting one. Byatt still layers in a number of clever ideas. Phineas Gilbert Nanson, a postgraduate English student, decides to give up his current scholarship in favour of producing a biography; he ends up choosing to write about Scholes Destry-Scholes, the biographer of a Victorian traveller, romancer and translator named Elmer Bole. So the book, Phineas’s journal, is an autobiography of a would-be biographer of a biographer of a translator — although Phineas resists, for as long as he can, the idea that he’s writing an autobiography. 

Phineas fails to write his biography, unable to gather enough primary source material to unlock the life of the mysterious Mr. Destry-Scholes; he finds other consolations, and ends up moving away from writing to focus on “the too-much loved earth” that “will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it.” Phineas’s rejection of theory leads him to the concrete; no longer thinking of a work of literature as a self-contained structure leads him to focus on language’s inability to completely capture the thing-in-itself, and thus to move beyond language. Presumably, this is reflected in the way Destry-Scholes is a kind of layer between Phineas and Elmer Bole, whose own name identifies him, basically, as a tree, a part of the natural world.

Phineas’s somewhat half-hearted efforts to learn about Scholes Destry-Scholes (School Destroy Schools? Schools Destroy Souls?) lead him to three documents which seem to hint at a work or works Destry-Scholes was planning before his untimely death in the Maëlstrom. They’re fragments of writings about Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen (men interested, in one way or another, with the definition and classification of reality, the depiction and nature of character). Phineas also meets Destry-Scholes’s niece, and finds a set of index cards holding fragments of other texts; also 366 marbles (one, I imagine, for each possible day of a year) and a list of names which may go with the marbles — though each word may fit several marbles, and each marble may fit several words; so names and the things named have a slippery relationship.

Phineas also starts a relationship with another woman, a bee taxonomist named Fulla Biefeld. The novel builds a strong case for the importance of Fulla’s research, for her subject, but Fulla herself never comes alive. We don’t understand what it is that attracts her to Phineas. Nor, for that matter, so we understand the attraction he has for Vera Alphage, Destry-Scholes’s niece (whose name, I suppose, may mean something like “true letter-eater”). At any rate, Phineas continues to sleep with both women through the book, not bothering to inform either one of the other’s existence, not unlike Elmer Bole, who also maintained two households.

If the two-timing makes Phineas sound like an unattractive character, one can only say that this fits the characterisation the book gives us. He’s not particularly intelligent, not particularly good with words, not fast on his feet, not perceptive, not particularly driven or competent at what he chooses to do, not particularly empathic, and lacks a considerable amount of self-knowledge. In other words, he has few definite, positive qualities, for good or ill. It’s a coherent picture, but not, on the whole, either sympathetic or interesting.

The novel could overcome this if its ideas were interesting, or were dramatised in an interesting way; personally, I found that neither was the case. There’s a series of reference to the body, which seems to look ahead to Phineas’s choice for a world of things, and to fragmentation, which seems to be a commentary on the book’s form. These images don’t seem to combine with the felicity with which Byatt usually links her symbols; an early nod to Frankenstein is a good start, but the end of the book suggests merely that the world is full of variety and interest, to much to fit into a coherent order. This may be so, but the fatal weakness of The Biographer’s Tale is that it doesn’t convince us of this fact. For all Phineas’s desire to move beyond writing, the only way for literature to look beyond literature is to succeed as literature. The Biographer’s Tale, while interesting, while not without grace notes, does not. It’s worth reading, but I can think of no way to consider it as other than a minor work in Byatt’s bibliography.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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