the biographer's tale

the biographer's tale

   It is difficult to recall the state of febrile excitement I was in over my own release from a life of theoretical pedagogy. I did nothing about my new future. I sat in my little flat, or walked about in bare feet, and occasionally completely naked, to mark my new state, but this brought me no nearer any sort of future. Perhaps because my own life was a fluid vacuum, I became obsessed with the glittery fullness of the life of Elmer Bole. Compared to the busy systems, the cross-referred abstractions, of the life I had renounced, the three volumes loomed in my mind as an almost impossible achievement of contact with the concrete world (always eschew the word "real" is an imperative I have carried over from my past) of arrangement of things and events for delight and instruction.

On each re-reading I transferred more of my attention from the myriad-minded Bole to his discreet historian. It was a surprise that Bole knew the morphology of Mediterranean solitary bees, the recurring motifs of Turkish fairy tales, the deficiencies of the supply-lines of the British army. It was, on reflection, even more of a surprise that Scholes Destry-Scholes knew all that Bole knew, had tracked down his sources and corrected his errors, where necessary (they were frequent). Not only that, Scholes Destry-Scholes was able to satisfy the reader's (that is, my) curiosity in that he knew more of Bole's subjects than Bole did, or could. He had the benefit of Paul Underwood's exemplary revelations at the Church of the Chora. He had read the secret military telegrams--including those about Bole's activities--which Bole had no access to.

It is true that the force, the energy, the first fierce gaze of desire, the first triumphant uncovering or acquisition were Bole's. He was a free agent, Destry-Scholes followed in his footsteps. (I found myself in my wilder moments of naked abandon chanting "King Wenceslas" to myself on hot summer evenings, a can of beer in one hand, The Voyager in the other. "Mark my footsteps, good my Page, Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter's rage, Freeze thy blood less coldly.") Destry-Scholes's work was a miracle of metamorphosis. Bole was always Bole. Even his Burtonian versions of seventeenth-century Turkish had a Bolean ring, so to speak. But Destry-Scholes was subtle. He could write like a connoisseur of faience, like a brisk strategic analyst, like John Addington Symonds or even like George Eliot, where it was appropriate--some of his accounts of Evangeline's attitudes to Bole's curious mystical beliefs could have come out of Daniel Deronda.

He could write, as I have suggested, like a good literary critic, pointing out salient words and echoes of other texts. He could describe alien cultures in a supremely tactful and intriguing paragraph--his own account of the Turkish hamam, the bathhouse, is not, as far as I can ascertain, derived from Bole, but from other sources, or from personal knowledge.

Or from personal knowledge. This faceless writer constructed this edifice of styles, of facts, and even wrote in the first person where it seemed to him appropriate to do so. Sometimes it seemed as though he thought he was doing journeyman-work, making a record, simply. Sometimes there appeared to be a glimpse of pride in his own mastery, his art, you might even say. I had a vision of him sitting over a desk in lamplight, deftly twisting a Rubik cube into shape. Or, in a more complex vision, selecting the tesserae--blue, green, ivory, white glass, gold and silver, laying them at different angles on their bed of colour to reflect the light in different ways.

The project may have come to me in a dream. I am not being fanciful, simply precise. I woke one morning and thought, "It would be interesting to find out about Scholes Destry-Scholes." I had a vague memory of a dream of pursuit through dappled green and gold underwater caverns. Of rising to the surface and of seeing a pattern of glass balls, fishermen's floats, on the surface of the sea, blue, green, transparent.

"I could write a biography," I said to myself, possibly even aloud, "of Scholes Destry-Scholes." Only a biography seemed an appropriate form for the great biographer. I never had any doubt about that. I had discovered the superiority of the form. I would write one myself.

I made an appointment to discuss this idea with Ormerod Goode. He gave me dark, syrupy sherry on this occasion, Oloroso. I was offered no choice, though the half-full bottle of the spirituous Glenmorangie stood amongst the clean glasses. I had brought the three volumes to return to him, and explained my project. He smiled mildly, and said I could keep them until I had contrived to procure copies of my own, which could easily be done from good second-hand bookshops. He said that it might be possible to continue to hold my postgraduate scholarship, if I were to change subjects and transfer to Goode himself as supervisor. This--although it lacked the drama of renunciation--seemed a prudent course of action. He asked about the dissertation I was about to abandon--had abandoned. Its title was "Personae of female desire in the novels of Ronald Firbank, E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham." I sometimes thought it should have been "Female personae of desire in the novels of Firbank, Forster and Maugham" and could not make up my mind as to whether this changed the whole meaning completely, or made no difference at all. I did not discuss it with Goode, who simply nodded solemnly when I told him, and remarked that there was certainly no one else in the department who would be interested in a biographical study of Scholes Destry-Scholes.

"You must understand," he said, "that I have no particular competence in the field either. I am a philologist, a taxonomist of place-names. I met the man, but it cannot be said I knew him."

"You met him?" I said, swallowing my excitement. "What was he like?"

"I hardly remember. Blondish. Medium-sized. I have a bad memory for faces. He came to give a lecture in 1959 on the Art of Biography. Only about half a dozen students attended, and myself. I was deputed to manage the slide projector. I invited him to a drink, but he wouldn't stay. Of course, when I heard the lecture I hadn't read the biography, didn't realise it was out of the ordinary, or I'd have pressed him harder, perhaps. I had a problem I wanted to get back to, I remember. I was waiting for him to go away. He probably noticed that."

We looked at each other. I sipped the unctuous sherry. He said, "Come to think of it, I can give you your first research document. He left his notes. Well, a carbon copy of the notes of his lecture. I put it in a drawer, meaning to send it to him, and didn't. It was only a carbon, I expect he had the top copy. I'll hunt it out."

His filing-cabinet was orderly. He handed me the desiccated yellow paper, with the faint blue carbon traces of typing. Three foolscap sheets. "The Art of Biography." The full-stops had made little holes, like pinpricks. I put it in my bag, with the returned biography. I said, "How do you suggest I set about finding out about his life?"

"Oh, the usual ways, I suppose. Go to Somerset House, look up his birth and death. Advertise in the TLS and other places for information. Contact his publishers. Publishers change every three or four months these days, but you may find someone who remembered him, or some letters in an archive. That's the way to begin. I've no idea if he was married or anything. That's for you to discover. All I know for certain is how he died. Or probably died."

He poured more sherry.

"Probably died?"

"He drowned. He drowned off the coast of the Lofoten Islands. Or at least an empty boat was found, floating."

I didn't know where the Lofoten Islands were. I vaguely assumed they must be not far from the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, the haunts of Bole.

"The Lofoten Islands, you know, off the north-west coast of Norway. He may have had an idea of taking a look at the Maelstrom. There was a small item in the press‹I remembered, because I had read the book, I had an interest. The Norwegians said they had warned him, when he set out, about the dangerous currents. He was on a solitary walking holiday, the press said. I was a bit surprised. It's my stamping-ground, I thought, not his, full of nice linguistic titbits and old legends. He was never found, but then, he wouldn't have been."

My imagination wouldn't form an image of the Lofoten Islands.

"You'll have to find out what he was doing there, too," said Goode, cheerfully. "Detective work. What fun."

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Excerpted from The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt. Copyright © 2000 by A.S. Byatt. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.