“Detective work,” someone mutters to an eager graduate student in A. S. Byatt’s latest fictional riff on things Victorian. “What fun.” Well, yes and no. Before her writing career really took off with the huge best-seller Possession, Byatt was a professor of English and American literature; in Possession, a detective story with an academic twist, she managed to graft serious intellectual concerns onto a thriller’s plot. It’s still fashionable in certain critical circles to disparage Possession as a pop sellout, as if being a good read were somehow vulgar; reviewers who dismiss it tend to prefer Byatt’s arid and rather airless novels and short stories of intellectual and emotional life in contemporary Britain (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower). The Biographer’s Tale should make them happy. For while it looks a lot like Possession – it’s a detective story about twentieth-century academics unraveling the truth about nineteenth-century figures – the new book is top-heavy with abstractions but short on writing. It’s not a whole lot of fun.
The Biographer’s Tale begins promisingly enough. On the first page, a diminutive student named Phineas G. Nanson (“small but perfectly formed”) quite sensibly decides, while a pretentious professor drones on about Empedocles and Lacan, to quit graduate school. He immediately seeks career advice from another, rather old-fashioned professor called, hilariously, Ormerod Goode; during their interview, in a paragraph slyly rich in ooh sounds, Phineas obsessively counts the o’s in Goode’s name. (Byatt likes to have a lot of fun with her characters’ names; one here is called Mansfield Parkyns.) Phineas’s discontent with the vaporous absurdities of high-tech literary theory and its insistence that reality is subjective – the object, as ever, of unrelenting parody by this author – has left him with a hunger for “a life full of things,” one devoted to “the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts.” Goode suggests that Phineas try his hand at biography, which he describes as being “an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.” As a model of the genre, the older scholar recommends a three-volume biography of the (fictional) nineteenth-century naturalist, polymath, and explorer Sir Elmer Bole, written by a mid-twentieth-century author called Scholes Destry-Scholes.
About Destry-Scholes himself little is known, apart from the fact that he drowned in the sixties near the Moskenes Current, a.k.a. the Maelstrøm, while doing research for a new biography. As Goode intends, Phineas becomes so obsessed with this mysterious figure that he embarks on what is, however great his disdain for contemporary critical practice, the ultimate postmodern literary project: a biography of the biographer.
Inevitably, Destry-Scholes turns out to be an enigma: The more time Phineas spends studying the man and the few enigmatic relics he’s left behind (a collection of 366 colored marbles, a trepanning instrument, a bunch of photos that come, significantly, without labels), the less he seems to know. That’s Byatt’s ironic point. Unknowability – the idea that our attempts to enumerate and classify and order will always ultimately fail when faced with the complexity and mystery that is an individual human life – is the theme of her book. This theme is repeated and underscored throughout in many ingenious ways, not least by means of a typical Byatt device: the “discovery” by Phineas of Destry-Scholes’s hitherto lost, unfinished biography of three real-life eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures: the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus; Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who thought that eugenics would save humankind; and the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Why these three? Because all, in their ways, were great classifiers: Linnaeus was the father of modern biological taxonomy (remember kingdom-phylum-genus from high-school biology? Blame him); Galton sought to “type” human beings by race, class, and occupation while remaining almost willfully naïve about the uses to which his “science” could – and would – later be put (he considers the isolation of a generic “Jewish type” to be his “greatest achievement”); and Ibsen was the groundbreaking theatrical analyst of hidden psychological motivations.
The problem with, and the irony of, Destry-Scholes’s (and of course Phineas’s) attempt to write about these three is that they themselves turn out to be as unknowable, as unclassifiable, as Destry-Scholes himself is. Indeed, it’s with some alarm that Phineas discovers that in this incomplete biography, Destry-Scholes has actually moved from fact to fiction, from biography to novel, by inventing episodes in his subjects’ lives. This further discovery, along with your realization that Phineas’s own writing becomes less dry and scholarly and more imaginative and novelistic as the book goes on – and along with the fact that Phineas finds himself erotically torn between two highly sexed (and highly symbolic) women, a buxom blonde Swedish naturalist and bee expert named Fulla Biefeld (get it?) and a dark, introspective English photographer named Vera, who’s Destry-Scholes’s niece – provides Byatt with a vehicle to comment on some other favorite themes, not least of which is the tension between fact and fiction, scholarship and creativity, and science and art.
The opposition of blonde and dark women has served Byatt before as a self-conscious symbol of the conflicting claims of nature and art: It did so quite brilliantly in her 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia (later turned into the movie Angels and Insects). In that story, the hero forsakes his fertile, beelike blonde wife for a dark, brooding, secretive artist (and who wouldn’t leave Patsy Kensit for Kristin Scott Thomas?). At the end of the far less rigorous The Biographer’s Tale, on the other hand, Phineas gets to have it all, happily (for him) alternating between Fulla and Vera, nature and culture, science and art. (Much like Destry-Scholes’s subject, the bigamous Bole, who had both English and Turkish wives.) I think Byatt wants to say something here about complexity, about the grandly quixotic interdependence of seemingly opposed disciplines and subjects, but somehow the end of her book merely feels muddled, abstractly notional rather than achieved. You see, rather than feel, what it’s supposed to mean. Much of the fault, it must be said, lies with the long, long excerpts from Destry-Scholes’s triple biography, which feel dutiful rather than inspired, and don’t hold your interest the way the invented poems and writings in the other works do. Nor do you care very much about Phineas and his lady loves.
You could argue that the feeling of something missing, of a vague dissatisfaction, is Byatt’s point – or meta-point. But I’m not sure it works that way. It’s surely true that every individual life, like life itself, is an endless whirling maelstrom in which you can get hopelessly lost (and in which you, like Destry-Scholes, can end up drowning) once you enter it. But that’s just life; art, on the other hand, is supposed be highly structured, with neat patternings and coherences and meaningful orderings of its themes and symbols. It is a surely unintentional irony of Byatt’s knowing, richly ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful book that her novel ends up feeling more like life than like art.