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  • Written by A.S. Byatt
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A Novel

Written by A.S. ByattAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by A.S. Byatt

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On Sale: May 15, 2001
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-41342-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the award-winning author of Possession comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man’s search for fact.

Here is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real life” by writing a biography of a great biographer. In a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and sensual, Phineas tracks his subject to the deserts of Africa and the maelstrom of the Arctic. Along the way he comes to rely on two women, one of whom may be the guide he needs out of the dizzying labyrinth of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographer’s Tale is a provocative look at “truth” in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

I made my decision, abruptly, in the middle of one of Gareth Butcher's famous theoretical seminars. He was quoting Empedocles, in his plangent, airy voice. "Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads." He frequently quoted Empedocles, usually this passage. We were discussing, not for the first time, Lacan's theory of morcellement, the dismemberment of the imagined body. There were twelve postgraduates, including myself, and Professor Ormerod Goode. It was a sunny day and the windows were very dirty. I was looking at the windows, and I thought, I'm not going to go on with this anymore. Just like that. It was May 8th 1994. I know that, because my mother had been buried the week before, and I'd missed the seminar on Frankenstein.

I don't think my mother's death had anything to do with my decision, though as I set it down, I see it might be construed that way. It's odd that I can't remember what text we were supposed to be studying on that last day. We'd been doing a lot of not-too-long texts written by women. And also quite a lot of Freud-we'd deconstructed the Wolf Man, and Dora. The fact that I can't remember, though a little humiliating, is symptomatic of the "reasons" for my abrupt decision. All the seminars, in fact, had a fatal family likeness. They were repetitive in the extreme. We found the same clefts and crevices, transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions beneath, no matter what surface we were scrying. I thought, next we will go on to the phantasmagoria of Bosch, and, in his incantatory way, Butcher obliged. I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.

I was sitting next to Ormerod Goode. Ormerod Goode and Gareth Butcher were joint Heads of Department that year, and Goode, for reasons never made explicit, made it his business to be present at Butcher's seminars. This attention was not reciprocated, possibly because Goode was an Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Norse expert, specialising in place-names. Gareth Butcher did not like dead languages, and was not proficient in living ones. He read his Foucault and Lacan in translation, like his Heraclitus and his Empedocles. Ormerod Goode contributed little to the seminars, beyond corrections of factual inaccuracies, which he noticed even when he appeared to be asleep. No one cared much for these interventions. Inaccuracies can be subsumed as an inevitable part of postmodern uncertainty, or play, one or the other or both.

I liked sitting next to Goode-most of the other students didn't-because he made inscrutable notes in ancient runes. Also he drew elaborate patterns of carved, interlaced plants and creatures-Celtic, Viking, I didn't know-occasionally improper or obscene, always intricate. I liked the runes because I have always liked codes and secret languages, and more simply, because I grew up on Tolkien. I suppose, if the truth were told, I should have to confess that I ended up as a postgraduate student of literature because of an infantile obsession with Gandalf's Middle Earth. I did like poetry too, and I did-in self-defence-always know Tolkien's poems weren't the real thing. I remember discovering T. S. Eliot. And then Donne and Marvell. Long ago and far away. I don't know, to this day, if Ormerod Goode loved or despised Tolkien. Tolkien's people are sexless and Goode's precisely shadowed graffiti were anything but. Plaisir, consommation, jouissance. Glee. He was-no doubt still is-a monumentally larger man. He has a round bald cranium, round gold glasses round round, darkly brown eyes, a round, soft mouth, several chins, a round belly carried comfortably on pillars of legs between columnar arms. I think of him, always, as orotund Ormerod Goode, adding more Os to his plethora, and a nice complex synaesthetic metaphor-an accurate one-to my idea of him. Anyway, there I was, next to him, when I made my decision, and when I took my eyes away from the dirty glass there was his BB pencil, hovering lazily, tracing a figleaf, a vine, a thigh, hair, fingers, round shiny fruit.

I found myself walking away beside him, down the corridor, when it was over. I felt a need to confirm my decision by telling someone about it. He walked with a rapid sailing motion, lightly for such a big man. I had almost to run to keep up with him. I should perhaps say, now, that I am a very small man. "Small but perfectly formed" my father would say, several times a day, before his disappearance. He himself was not much bigger. The family name is Nanson; my full name is Phineas Gilbert Nanson-I sign myself always Phineas G. Nanson. When I discovered-in a Latin class when I was thirteen-that nanus was the Latin for dwarf, cognate with the French nain, I felt a frisson of excited recognition. I was a little person, the child of a little person, I had a name in a system, Nanson. I have never felt anything other than pleasure in my small, delicate frame. Its only disadvantage is the number of cushions I need to see over the dashboard when driving. I am adept and nimble on ladders. But keeping up with Ormerod Goode's lazy pace was a problem. I said, into his wake, "I have just made an important decision."

He stopped. His moon-face considered mine, thoughtfully.

"I have decided to give it all up. I've decided I don't want to be a postmodern literary theorist."

"We should drink to that," said Ormerod Goode. "Come into my office."

His office, like the rest of our run-down department, had dirty windows, and a dusty, no-coloured carpet. It also had two high green leather wing-chairs, a mahogany desk and a tray of spotless glasses which he must have washed himself. He produced a bottle of malt whisky from a bookcase. He poured us each a generous glass, and enquired what had led to this decision, and was it as sudden as it appeared. I replied that it had seemed sudden, at least had surprised me, but that it appeared to be quite firm. "You may be wise," said Ormerod Goode. "Since it was a bolt from the blue, I take it you have no ideas about what you will do with the open life that now lies before you?"

I wondered whether to tell him about the dirty window. I said, "I felt an urgent need for a life full of things." I was pleased with the safe, solid Anglo-Saxon word. I had avoided the trap of talking about "reality" and "unreality" for I knew very well that postmodernist literary theory could be described as a reality. People lived in it. I did, however, fatally, add the Latin-derived word, less exact, redundant even, to my precise one. "I need a life full of things," I said. "Full of facts."

"Facts," said Ormerod Goode. "Facts." He meditated. "The richness," he said, "the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts. Every established fact-taking its place in

a constellation of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy-every established fact illuminates the world. True scholarship once aspired to add its modest light to that illumination. To clear a few cobwebs. No more."

His round eyes glowed behind his round lenses. I found myself counting the Os in his pronouncements, as though they were coded clues to a new amplitude. The Glenmorangie slid like smooth flame down my throat. I said that a long time ago I had been in love with poetry, but that now I needed things, facts. "Verbum caro factum est," said Ormerod Goode opaquely. "The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts. By far the greatest work of scholarship in my time, to my knowledge, is Scholes Destry-Scholes's biographical study of Sir Elmer Bole. But nobody knows it. It is not considered. And yet, the ingenuity, the passion."

I remarked, perhaps brashly, that I had always considered biography a bastard form, a dilettante pursuit. Tales told by those incapable of true invention, simple stories for those incapable of true critical insight. Distractions constructed by amateurs for lady readers who would never grapple with The Waves or The Years but liked to feel they had an intimate acquaintance with the Woolfs and with Bloomsbury, from daring talk of semen on skirts to sordid sexual interference with nervous girls. A gossipy form, I said to Ormerod Goode, encouraged by Glenmorangie and nervous emptiness of spirit. There was some truth in that view, he conceded, rising smoothly from his wing-chair and strolling over to his bookcase. But I should consider, said Ormerod Goode, two things.

Gossip, on the one hand, is an essential part of human communication, not to be ignored. And on the other, a great biography is a noble thing. Consider, he said, the fact that no human individual resembles another. We are not clones, we are not haplodiploid beings. From egg to eventual decay, each of us is unique. What can be nobler, he reiterated, or more exacting, than to explore, to constitute, to open, a whole man, a whole opus, to us? What resources-scientific, intellectual, psychological, historical, linguistic and geographic-does a man-or a woman-not need, who would hope to do justice to such a task? I know, I know, he said, that most biographies are arid or sugary parodies of what is wanted. And the true masterpiece-such as Destry-Scholes's magnum opus-is not always recognised when it is made, for biographical readers have taste corrupted both by gossip and by too much literary or political ideology. Now you are about to reconstitute yourself, he said, to move off towards a vita nuova you could do worse than devote a day or two to these volumes.

I was somewhat distracted by counting the Os-which included the oo sounds represented by Us-in Ormerod Goode's words. In the late afternoon gloom he was like some demonic owl hooting de profundis. The sonorous Os were a code, somehow, for something truly portentous. I shook myself. I was more than a little slewed.

So I nodded solemnly, and accepted the loan of the three volumes, still in their original paper wrappers, protected by transparent film. They filled the next two or three giddy days when, having decided what I was not going to do and be, I had to make a new life.

Volume i, A Singular Youth, had a frequently reproduced print of a view of King's College, Cambridge, on the cover.

Volume ii, The Voyager, had a rather faded old photograph of the Bosphorus.

Volume iii, Vicarage and Harem, had a brown picture of some stiff little children throwing and catching a ball under some gnarled old apple trees.

It was all very uninspiring. It was like a publishing version of the neighbour who insists on showing you his holiday snaps, splashes of water long smoothed out, ice-creams long digested and excreted. I flicked through the pages of old photographs reproduced in little clutches in the middle of each book. Scholes Destry-Scholes had been sparing with visual aids, or maybe they had not been considered important in the late 1950s and early '60s. There was a photograph of Sir Prosper Bole, MP, looking like God the Father, and one of the three buttoned-up and staring Beeching sisters with scraped-back hair-"Fanny is on the right." I assumed Fanny was Bole's mother. There was a very bad drawing of a youth at Cambridge, resting his head on his hand. "Elmer (Em) drawn by Johnny Hawthorne during their Lakeland jaunt." There was a map of Somaliland and a map of the Silk Road, and a picture of a ship ("The trusty Hippolyta") listing dangerously. Volume ii had a lot more maps-Turkey, Russia, the Crimea-a cliché of the Charge of the Light Brigade, another of the Covered Bazaar in Constantinople, a photograph of a bust of Florence Nightingale, a ridiculous picture of Lord and Lady Stratford de Redcliffe in fancy dress as Queen Anne grandees receiving Sultan Abdulmecid, and what I took to be Sir Elmer's wedding photographs. He appeared, in a grainy way, to have been darkly handsome, very whiskered, tall and unbending. His wife, who also appeared in a miniature silhouette, in an oval frame ("Miss Evangeline Solway at seventeen years of age"), appeared to have a sweet small face and a diminutive frame. Volume iii was even less rewarding. There were a lot of photographs of frontispieces of Victorian books, of poetry and fairy stories. A lot more maps, vicarage snapshots and more conventional views of the Bosphorus. They all had that brownish, faded look. I looked on the back flap, then, for information about the author himself. I think most readers do this, get their bearings visually before starting on the real work. I know a man who wrote a dissertation on authors' photos on the back of novels, literary and popular. There was no photograph of Scholes Destry-Scholes. The biographical note was minimal.

Scholes Destry-Scholes was born in Pontefract, Yorkshire, in 1925. He is working on further volumes of this Life.

Volumes ii and iii added critical encomia for the previous volumes to this meagre description.

And so I began reading, in a mood at once a grey-brown smoky penumbra, induced by the illustrations, and full of jagged shafts of bright lightning on purplish vacancy, induced by my own uncertain future. Odd lines of Scholes's description of Bole's life have become for me needle-like mnemonics, recalling alternate pure elation and pure panic, purely my own, as Bole prepares to fail his Little Go, or sneaks out to stow away on a vessel bound for the Horn of Africa. Most of these mnemonics are associated with Volume i. For it has to be said that as I progressed, the reading became compulsive, the mental dominance of both Bole and Destry-Scholes more and more complete. I do not pretend to have discovered even a quarter of the riches of that great book on that first gulping and greedy reading. Destry-Scholes had, among all the others, the primitive virtue of telling a rattling good yarn, and I was hooked. And he had that other primitive virtue, the capacity to make up a world in every corner of which his reader would wish to linger, to look, to learn.
A.S. Byatt

About A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt - The Biographer's Tale

Photo © Michael Trevillion

A.S. Byatt is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Her books include Possession and the quartet of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. She was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
Praise

Praise

“Elegant . . .witty . . . intelligent.” –The Washington Post

“A tenderly funny novel. . . .One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.” –The Baltimore Sun

“Wise, sharp-witted. . . . miss it at your peril.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“An impressive achievement, a literary mosaic at once exotic, academic, esoteric, engaging, and disconcerting. . . . A feast for the brain” –The Denver Post

“One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.”–The Baltimore Sun

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale. With this novel, Byatt again turns to scholars and seekers of the past, to the libraries and intellectual detective work which yielded such richly romantic results in Possession and Angels & Insects.

About the Guide

The Biographer's Tale is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who, yearning for reality, decides to abandon his arcane studies in postmodern literary theory and write a biography, for what could be more concrete than a biography, the "art of things, of arranged facts"? As he follows the traces of his subject, the biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, Phineas finds that the facts of Destry-Scholes's life prove to be elusive. Scholes Destry-Scholes's niece has found a box of her uncle's papers and note cards, which seem to be pieces of a project on three historical figures: the taxonomer Carl Linnaeus, the statistician and eugenicist Francis Galton, and the dramatist Henrik Ibsen. But these fragments of Destry-Scholes's works in progress turn out to be a pastiche of fact and fiction, with fantastic elements written in by the supposedly scrupulous seeker after truth, Destry-Scholes himself.

In the meantime, Phineas has taken a job working at Puck's Girdle, a travel agency run by a gay couple who caters to a clientele with educated, aesthetic, and otherwise highly specialized tastes. Here Phineas is alarmed by the repeated appearance of Maurice Bossey, who seems to want Phineas to arrange a tour designed to satisfy Bossey's pedophilic propensities. Back on the track of Destry-Scholes, Phineas becomes involved with Fulla Biefeld, a golden-haired Swedish bee taxonomer, as well as Destry-Scholes's beautiful niece Vera--and soon finds himself in love, with a plenitude of experiences he never dreamt of in the university's dusty seminar rooms. He also finds, much to his surprise, that in seeking to write a life of Destry-Scholes he has slipped into writing an autobiography--and that his own life is now his primary interest. For the reader, too, the story of Phineas's journey from the shadow-life of scholarship into a well-rounded contentment is deeply satisfying.

About the Author

A. S. Byatt was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1936. Her novels include Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990) and the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels & Insects, and four collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Her nonfiction works include a book on the nineteenth century, Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, a collection of essays and book reviews, Passions of the Mind, a book on the novelist Iris Murdoch, and, with Ignes Sodre, Imagining Characters. Educated at Cambridge, she was a senior lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. She lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. Because of his tiny size, Phineas is an unlikely romantic hero: "I was a little person . . . I have never felt anything other than pleasure in my small, delicate frame. Its only disadvantage is the number of cushions I need to see over the dashboard when driving" [p. 6]. Is Phineas meant to be a comic character? Is he more suited to the role of scholar than that of lover?

2. Phineas decides to stop pursuing his work as a postmodern literary theorist a week after his mother's funeral. Elsewhere he mentions, in an offhand way, his father's "disappearance" [p. 6]. Thus as the story opens, Phineas has just become an orphan, a person with no attachments. Why are his parents not referred to at greater length as he tells his story? How does Phineas compare with other orphaned protagonists of autobiographical fiction, like Pip of Dickens's Great Expectations, or David Copperfield in the novel of the same name? Why is it relevant to his self-creation that he is an orphan?

3. On page 45, Phineas begins to read through the full text of "the three documents" written by Destry-Scholes. Byatt has chosen to make the reader of the novel mirror Phineas's reading, and thus the reader, too, performs an act of scholarship for the next sixty-six pages. Why is it necessary to read through the three documents in order to come to an understanding with Phineas of his own conclusions about Destry-Scholes and hence, about the meaning of his own undertaking? Why does Byatt want the reader to track Phineas's reading, and what does this decision suggest about her expectations of her readers?

4. Ormerod Goode says, "The richness, the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts. Every established fact--taking its place in a constellation of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy--every established fact illuminates the world" [p. 7]. Are facts a cure for life's uncertainties? Does Phineas get to work with facts at all? Does Byatt imply that facts pertain only in the realm of science? Which characters in the novel deal most directly with facts?

5. As in her previous novels, Byatt takes extravagant delight in the naming of her characters. What ideas, images, or connotations are attached to the names of Phineas G. Nanson, Vera Alphage, Fulla Biefeld, Maurice Bossey, Scholes Destry-Scholes, Elmer Bole? Are names accurate signifiers of character?

6. What is the role of Eros, or desire, in The Biographer's Tale? In all of Byatt's novels, fiercely intellectual characters are also involved in romantic or erotic adventures. How are intellectual yearnings and yearnings for love and sexual fulfillment related? Does Phineas learn to expand his conceptions of pleasure, adventure, and life's possibilities through his work at Puck's Girdle?

7. In a recent interview Byatt said, "The more I have read, and the more I have written, the more I have come to understand that Coleridge was right when he said that the purpose of art was pleasure first, and everything else added." She added, "I do know that thinking and understanding are also almost always a form of pleasure." The intellectual puzzles that occupy Phineas may raise difficulties for some readers, but clearly Byatt intends that working through the puzzle to be pleasurable. Do the personal and scholarly parts of Phineas's life make up two different but interrelated kinds of pleasure for the reader?

8. Why are the professional specialties of Vera and Fulla relevant to the novel? Is Byatt contrasting science and literature? Are the sciences ultimately more useful, more clearly purposeful, than the humanities? How does Fulla's concern with global biodiversity, for instance, relate to Phineas's effort to write a biography of a biographer?

9. The novel's title plays with ideas about biography (which as Phineas points out, is a branch of history) and the telling of tales (fiction writing). Byatt is writing a novel, and Phineas discovers that, while trying to write a biography, he has written an autobiography. He also discovers that Destry-Scholes has mingled fictions with his facts. Does Byatt imply that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is fluid? Can any biography claim to be accurate and entirely truthful?

10. Why is there a strong dichotomy between the two women Phineas loves? Vera is associated with the moon, the sea, cool colors, and glass, Fulla with the sun, fertility, pollen, and fields. Why has Byatt chosen to give Phineas not one but two lovers? How does this element of Phineas's story relate to Elmer Bole's red and green apples? Why does Byatt not make Phineas choose between them, even as the novel closes?

11. What is interesting in the fragments Byatt has written on the three historical figures Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen? What are the thematic connections between the three documents? How does Byatt's interest in pastiche relate to Galton's interest in the composite photograph?

12. How do Destry-Scholes's notes on "The Art of Biography" [pp. 31<ETH>34] reflect the troubling nature of working with "facts"? Is Destry-Scholes's entry into fictionalization a natural response to the frustrations of encountering gaps in knowledge? Does the novel imply that, through the act of supplementing the facts, the imagination can make things more interesting than the truth could ever be?

13. Ormerod Goode tells Phineas that Destry-Scholes vanished on a visit to the Maelstrom, in Norway, where "an empty boat was found, floating" [p. 28]. Is there any indication of why Destry-Scholes might have wanted to end his life? Or is his disappearance the most fitting image for the mystery that he represents, and of the scholarly dead end that Phineas has to face?

14. "Plaisir, consommation, jouissance. Glee" [p. 5]. Thinking of these words so central to the work of French literary theorists, Phineas walks down the hall with Ormerod Goode, toward his new life as a seeker of facts. Phineas is an expert on the concepts indicated by these words (roughly translated as sexual pleasure, consummation, and delight), but he experiences their non-theoretical meanings--their actuality--only through his love for Vera and Fulla. This seems to be an irony that Byatt intended as she constructed the beginning of her novel. Is the movement from theoretical pleasure to real pleasure just what Phineas has wished for himself? And has Byatt created, in this sense, a story with a deeply satisfying outcome, fulfilling also the reader's desire for the hero's happiness?


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