Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some More Thoughts on The Biographer’s Tale

I didn’t make clear in my last post (on Biographer’s Tale) that Phineas is a Ph.D. student in English who quits his degree to write the biography; literary interpretation is the backdrop of this novel.  It struck me tonight that, as I was reading the novel, I had a distinct sense that, aside from the humourous pokes at literary critical models (most notably psychoanalysis), the novel’s mass scheme of analogy was making me conscious of, celebrating, and perhaps even slightly mocking my desire to draw analogy and thus find meaning—to impose literary interpretation on “‘disparate texts’”*.  It was an odd mix of feelings, as I remember it now: I was conscious of doing something I had learned—as Phineas learned to do, so far from his ‘simple’ pleasure in Lord of the Rings.  I was doing something that felt almost delusional, given the infinite extension of the resemblances being presented; there were different kinds of resemblances occurring, and connections occurring between those.  I was sort of mystically elated, both by the connections, and by a sensation of delirium, of being carried along; I felt delirious when I didn’t feel as though I were doing something wrong and nonsensical, when I didn’t feel delusional!  And, in contrast to feeling I was doing something I had learned, something constructed, you might say, I also felt I was doing something that was at times very effortless or ‘natural’—which, I think, feeds into the sense of elation and delirium. 

I’m sure Byatt intends all this querying of how we construct meaning.  In the process, she’s pointing to how we assimilate—but perhaps doubt—those things we’ve been exposed to and how they influence our receptions or readings of things: if I had a knowledge of taxonomy, or Ibsen’s life, etc., I might have been able to draw more connections than I did.  Because I’m a student of literature, I got *some* of the literary references, constructed some connections around those, and was perhaps more receptive to the novel as a comment on the act of literary interpretation and its associations.  It’s possible that Byatt takes an angle on education and assimilated knowledge.  For instance, literary interpretation in the novel is inevitably associated with literary criticism—to what extent, I’m not sure—and literary criticism is, in turn, associated with Phineas’s lack of confidence, and is juxtaposed with a validation of his adolescent, naive enchantment with Tolkien.  Reading the novel as a bildungsroman, a novel of development, Phineas’s movement into sexual relationships and self-confidence is perhaps a complex fictional working-out of the idea of literary pleasure—what kind of pleasure has traditionally been allowed in literary criticism, what has been denied, what the rules of inclusion ‘should be.’ 

The other interesting thing about taking BT as a comment on literary interpretation is thinking on how it draws forth interpretation and what this has to say about the idea of literature: this novel can seem sometimes just a series of facts, of documents, things you might pick up in the non-fiction section of your library.  And yet, given the narrative frame that surrounds these, the documents come to life and become ‘thematically unified’—they become the elements of a fictional text.  This reminds me of a statement Woolf made on biography, saying (and I paraphrase) that biography is the only true fiction.  Her comment is linked to ideas of the novel and biography as narratives that concentrate on individual lives.  But I think it can be applied in a more diffuse sense to what Byatt shows us in BT: I think there’s some real interest in facts and how they are represented inherent in interest in literature.  I’m reminded here of something my Victorian Lit. Professor said to my class, applying Thomas Carlyle to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and that is the idea that events have a “density” to them: in BT, a fact or a document has different aspects to it that connect to aspects of other facts or documents—it has dimension and density.  On top of that, there’s the voice in which the fact or document is communicated, and how that affects what connections we make. 

As a minor note, all of this self-conscious literary interpretation makes me think of a Nabokov story called “Signs and Symbols.”  I’ll quote an essential bit here as a taste; you might notice the interesting, permutative, and perhaps darkly humorous reference to pathetic fallacy (descriptions of weather, landscape, etc. that reflect a protagonist’s state of mind).  This passage features the deranged (unnamed?) son:

The system of his delusions had been the subject of a paper in scientific monthly . . . “Referential Mania,” Herman Brink had called it.  In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.  He excludes real people from the conspiracy—because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men.  Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him.  His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees.  Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept.  Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.  (599; The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage International , 1997)


*See my quotation of this in the previous post for context. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

Biography Cosmography

I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale (Chatto & Windus, 2000): I will say, because it occurred to me so solidly as I was two-thirds of the way through the novel, that I give it 88%.  I don’t mean to assign the book a grade by way of reviewing it for whoever reads this post.  Rather, I think the percentage reflects my sense of the novel as wholly conceived in a sometimes deeply satisfying way, and yet as also marked by eccentricities and gaps that almost irritated me.  I understand the novel is intended to be in some measure fantasy, particularly in the context of the surreal quality of the novel’s dominant theme of seemingly infinite analogy (between people, facts, fiction).  But at times elements of this fantasy veered into a too-pointed whimsicality.  Or else into a literary self-referentiality that sometimes came off as self-reference for its own sake.  The self-referential, self-critical passages play into a number of thematic lines: the novel’s pokes at literary theory; the analogy between the world of the reader and that of Phineas, the first-person narrator; the presence of multiple voices in the text, and in Phineas, as well; Phineas’s insecurity and self-consciousness, and his consciousness of these things as he makes his way to some happier, more comfortable state; Phineas’s (eventual) consciousness of writing his life, figuring BT as (fictional) shadow autobiography; the role of self-awareness in modifying statements, in gesturing toward the “precision” something like biography tries to get at (“precision” being an “ideologically unloaded idea” Phineas uses—drawing from his spiritually impoverished critical inheritance—“to avoid the problem of the decay of belief in the idea of objectivity” (250)).  That’s all I can think of right now (I know there is more, but I lost some of it while writing.)  To re-route, à la BT, to my point about what I did not enjoy about this novel: the whimsicality and Phineas’s self-referential comments on what he writes (or narrates) sometimes result in preciousness.*  I should, however, distinguish between self-reference in the novel and what are often beautiful self-aware moments of meta-commentary. 

The cohesiveness of BT is often called forth by such statements.  I say this meaning to invoke the novel’s sometimes mystical atmosphere, as well as the possible analogy biography bears to calling forth—as a stirring of all things connected to the biographical subject.  This brings me to the book’s cosmic vision, something one of the characters summarizes as “dangerous”: “False analogy . . . and the desire to construct a theory of everything from received ideas close at hand” (156).  The novel, as its epigraph, from Goethe’s Elective Affinities, suggests, becomes a dream-like series of suggestions of analogy after analogy.  Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen become refractions of the elusive Scholes Destry-Scholes, the subject of Phineas’s attempt at biography—Phineas G. Nanson himself becoming Phineas “‘Nanson, son of Nanson,’” triads leaping out (248) (the novel’s characters can be divided into sets of two or three, depending on how you consider the relations between them).  Phineas’s inadvertent self-(re)production in the act of attempting biography—of constructing another—mirrors that Phineas reads into Destry-Scholes.  And all who research and write from the standpoint of the person in control, the person who surveys, composes, composites, the biographer, the eugenicist, the taxonomist, are themselves subsumed by another of their kind.  There was something almost mesmeric about reading this novel; what began as challenging allusions to naturalist history gradually resolved into a grand poetic scheme of taxonomy and relations: Phineas lays facts and fictions beside one another, as Destry-Scholes once did, and it becomes impossible not to “find the same structures, the same velleities . . . in the most disparate texts” (144). 

There are, of course, things I haven’t figured out about the novel, things I suspect may fall outside this scheme or that belong to secondary (?) themes.  The Ibsen passages in the novel are particularly enigmatic.  There are some lurking father/son and mother/son patterns and a pervert, Maurice Bossey, that serve more than  as simply pokes at or allusions to psychoanalytic literary interpretation.  Maurice Bossey may, I think, be some kind of anti-Phineas.  (It can certainly be argued that he’s a kind of foil to Phineas.  At the same time, in the multiplicitous spirit of the novel, it can also be argued that Maurice is a foil to Erik and Christophe, or to that mysterious satyr-like man Christophe sports with in the park).  I’d also like to think more about the structure of the novel, with its first third or so fixed firmly on Destry-Scholes’s biography of Elmer Bole, another figure I suspect has a more complex significance than is immediately apparent. 

But I should stop now.  So I’ll just say that what intrigues me most about what I understand of BT in a more general way is how the novel opens up from being a series of statements on the nature of (writing) biography into being a somewhat mystical enquiry into the idea of order; it can be a very beautiful book.


*I cringe a bit at other things that contribute to the fantasial quality of the novel—marbles, affected menus (something from American Psycho, if that helps you to imagine what I mean), somewhat two-dimensional female characters, considering the amount of time spent on them.