Share this article

print logo

BYATT TELLS A GRAND STORY, WHEN SHE GETS DOWN TO IT

The Biographer's Tale
By A.S. Byatt
Knopf
305 pages, $24

No one ever accused British novelist A.S. Byatt of being especially accessible. (Or, to put it in the deplorable parlance of the computer age, "reader-friendly.") Rewarding, yes; original, yes; inspired, at times, yes.

But a breezy read? Nobody who has slogged through the more arcanely academic portions of "Possession" (Byatt's wonderful novel, her magnum opus which won the 1990 Booker Prize) would allow such a suggestion. And that's perfectly all right because, in all of Byatt's work, there is so much to balance its challenges -- insight, humor and story-telling skill, not to mention extraordinary verbal chops.

So it goes, too, in Byatt's newest work, "The Biographer's Tale."

The best elements of Byatt are here: the intriguing plotlines, the devastating portraits of academic types, the resonant insights into human behavior.

But here, too, we revisit all the most irritating elements of "Possession." They are gathered here in unhappy abundance, as if invited to a grotesque reunion: the esoteric poems, the dusty bits of imagined literary trivia, the sentences that might be parsed, but only by an especially erudite Oxford don.

To read this tale of a disenchanted graduate student turned literary sleuth is to be grateful -- grateful, of course, for the unusual quality of Byatt's writing; but also grateful to be far away from the halls of British academia where obfuscation seems to triumph over sense, and where all give homage to the postmodern virtue of incomprehensibility.

Our appealing hero is Phineas G. Nanson, a graduate school dropout turned would-be biographer. His literary prey is a master biographer himself, Scholes Destry-Scholes.

In the poststructuralist era, what could be more appealing than to become the biographer of a forgotten biographer? Think of the delicious possibilities: The layers upon layers of insignificant detail! The ultimate lack of meaning! The impossibility of drawing any real conclusions!

Nanson embarks on his quixotic quest undaunted by knowing that virtually no information is available on Scholes Destry-Scholes. Along the way, inevitably, things happen. He gets a job at a strange travel agency. He becomes involved with two women, one of whom is the biographer's niece.

He finds -- quite unfortunately for the reader who is attempting to pan the gold in these particular literary hills -- his subject's notebooks on three historical figures. (They turn out, wouldn't you know it, to be Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, English scientist Sir Francis Galton, and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.)

The notes are produced at some length, and explicated at even greater length. I will venture to say that only Byatt's next of kin will read them with the interest and scrutiny they no doubt deserve.

Like Phineas, we press on bravely, hoping for the clear light of comprehension -- just a ray, at times, would be so welcome -- or, at least, for a return to the plot.

And it comes. It comes. The notebooks give way to Nanson's personal odyssey -- his spiritual growth, his literary exploration. Here, the reading is compelling.

Byatt tells a grand story, when she gets around to it. She knows relationships, especially those between the sexes. And she is unparalleled at describing the academic milieu and its characters.

"I thought I knew her type," says Phineas on meeting the bee taxonomist of his dreams. "Earnest, covered with natural body hair, intent on organic living, opposed to modern machines and comfort, believers in Gaia and beyond that in a whole-wheat Whole Earth...."

These are the bracing blasts of insight that make it all worthwhile.

At one point, Phineas describes what drew him to literature. He was, he recalls, a literary schoolchild, and that wasn't easy. Well-meaning sorts wanted him to "discover himself" through reading, by identifying with literary characters -- Robin Hood, say, or Hamlet. That misses the point hugely, he reflects.

"The true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror -- for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties."

Wonderful stuff. Byatt's talent and skills are estimable, and moments of real humor and universality come leaping over the hurdles of arcana. One can only wish that these moments were more frequent, and the hurdles lower.