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.