The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Byatt

This is not the book for a casual reader looking for a good yarn. As with most of Byatt’s books, this extended rumination on the art of biography repays thoughtful attention and rereading. Admittedly, I am occasionally an inattentive reader, but it is only on this, my second reading, that the book begins to yield up its treasures.

It opens as Phineas G. Nanson realizes that he cannot bear to continue his graduate work in postmodern literary theory. He needs facts, things, not semiotic theories picking away at the veins of intentional and unintentional meanings underlying words and phrases, most of which come to seem an imposition of the analyst’s privileged thoughts on those of the writer.

Uncertain what to do next, he consults a professor, one of the heads of the department, Ormerode Goode, who suggests he read Scholes Destry-Scholes’s three-volume biography of Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson marvels at the breadth of knowledge that Destry-Scholes attains in order to—literally and figuratively—follow in Bole’s footsteps, reading everything that Bole read, going everywhere that Boles went, mastering languages, becoming an expert in Byzantine mosaics, tulip cultivation, and Madagascan lemurs.

Elmer Bole himself devoted at least part of his life to following a 17th century Turkish traveler, Evliya Chelebi, even taking on Evliya’s nickname, Siyyah, the Traveler, thus opening an intriguing hall of mirrors of endless reflections. We are never able to identify the ur-life that started this endless trail of study and imitation. Nanson determines to write a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes and, like his subject, he plans to read everything Destry-Scholes read, go everywhere, and so on. “But no string has an end. Like spider-silk unreeling.” Therefore, Nanson thinks that he will be satisfied—thrilled—to add a few footnotes, a clarifying tidbit based on more recent science to Destry-Scholes’s storehouse of knowledge.

Byatt’s book is short on story and long on jumbled snippets of scholarship as Nanson discovers fragmented research notes on three historical figures, presumably in preparation for writing a joint biography. As Nanson struggles to order and understand these fragments, we are given them intact to make of them what we will, just as we were given chunks of transcripts and stories, and even Frederica’s cut-up journals in earlier books. The mind struggles to hold all the disparate bits and invent a narrative to tie them together, all the while wondering if it is just a fool’s game, like Destry-Scholes’s niece spending hours comparing his collection of marbles to the list of their names, trying to determine which name belongs to which marble.

Such a style of writing reflects our frenetic and fractured world, its hyperlinks and jump cuts challenging our attention and attempts at sustained and critical thought. Since this whirlwind is precisely what I wish to escape when I pickup a novel, it may be obvious that this is not my favorite style. However, I am, as always, seduced by the intelligence behind the games and by the perennially fascinating question of what in fact we can know about another person.

I turned to this book a second time because of its focus on 19th century natural historians and arcane collections, thinking still about cabinets of curiosities. I also wanted to reread it because I have been thinking a lot about the shape of a life and the legacy left behind. We may have the bits and pieces we can learn about a person. We can rearrange these tesserae trying to form a pattern, trying to recreate the person’s thoughts. But ultimately the past is a foreign country and its people strangers to us. We impose our own thoughts on the tracings left behind, creating a palimpsest that may bear no resemblance to the actual person. And of course it is not just the past. Everyone is a stranger to us, even those we think we know well, with stories our only way into their minds and hearts.

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