With her latest novel, A.S. Byatt returns to some of the elements that made “Possession” a bestseller and Booker Prize winner in 1990: an attempt to unearth the secrets of a dead writer, a parody of postmodern literary criticism, a passion that springs from scholarly collaboration and a prevailing sense that the writers, artists and thinkers of the past lived more deeply than we do today. Yet this is an imp of a novel in light of its predecessor, for it’s hard to imagine a book that more insistently and craftily undermines all the old-fashioned satisfactions of “Possession.”
Is it possible for someone who loves the earlier novel to also savor this book, which is its antidote — or, I suspect Byatt believes, its cure? Yes, but it will take a flexible and unsentimental reader. “The Biographer’s Tale” is as inventive, playful, brainy and wonderfully written as “Possession,” perhaps even more so, but it’s a bit like a plain, sardonic younger sister overshadowed by her sunny, beautiful older sibling; it’s less charming, but more honest, and in its own way just as good company.
The biographer of the title is Phineas G. Nanson, a British postgraduate student who realizes, in the midst of a lecture on Empedocles and Lacan, that he has had enough. He decides to turn away from post-structuralist theory to pursue “a life full of things … full of facts.” Those two terms are carefully chosen, for to the fastidious Phineas, whole territories of thought and vocabulary have been declared off limits: His theoretical training has taught him to eschew such words as “real,” “identify” and “persons.” By the end of his adventures, however, he will consider himself “addicted to forbidden words, words critical theorists can’t use and writers can.”
The key to Phineas’ escape, the source of those salutary facts, is Scholes Destry-Scholes, a scholar who in the 1950s wrote a three-volume biography of one of those astonishing Victorian polymaths — an explorer, master of disguise, diplomat, soldier, naturalist, linguist, historian and bon vivant who knocked off a few novels whenever he wasn’t otherwise engaged. Phineas’ advisor persuades him to become the biographer’s biographer, and Byatt’s tale is set in motion. In the course of pursuing the elusive Destry-Scholes, Phineas will become entangled with an earthy female bee taxonomist and an ethereal X-ray technician; get a job at Puck’s Girdle, a fantastical travel agency run with “a Fourieriste ambition to cater to all tastes,” according to one of its gay proprietors; tangle with a sinister gentleman who wants to see just how far that Fourieriste philosophy will extend in the arrangement of “special” holidays; and discover two caches of enigmatic documents written by his even more enigmatic subject.
The first cache, excitingly enough, includes biographical writings on three unnamed men, whose identities Phineas eventually decodes (a legendary naturalist, a less well-known one and a playwright — all genuine historical figures, by the way). However, each of the biographical fragments contains certain fabrications, all of a particular nature. Then there’s the box of index cards and photographs Destry-Scholes left behind (along with a pouch of beautiful antique marbles) before he disappeared in the vicinity of the Maelstrom, a whirlpool off the coast of Norway.
“The Biographer’s Tale” simmers with ideas, including forays into some of Byatt’s abiding preoccupations — insects, sadism, the Victorians, utopianism and “In Memoriam,” Tennyson’s orgy of poeticized grief; it’s a feast for the mind without ever losing its momentum as a story. The book’s prevailing questions, however, concern the possibility of ever understanding the dead, particularly if they preferred to remain unknowable. (Phineas can’t even locate a photograph of Destry-Scholes.) In writing about his quest, Phineas tries mightily to avoid the sin of autobiography, a form he considers “repulsive. I was brought up as a child to believe in self-effacement, and as a student to believe in impersonality.” All the while, of course, he is ferociously stamping his own character onto the book with statements like that one.
“The Biographer’s Tale” won’t leave most readers with the gratifying sense of closure granted by “Possession,” and it isn’t exactly a love story either; there’s plenty of sex but no great romance. It’s a rigorous novel that refuses to coddle us and warm our hearts, but at the same time it lavishes riches upon its readers. So perhaps it’s fitting that “The Biographer’s Tale” is about giving up not just literary criticism but literature itself; it’s Byatt’s most heartfelt paean to the natural sciences. “The too-much-loved earth will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it,” writes Phineas (though, please note, he’s still writing). “It is all we have.” The final, sly irony in that is how it took such a sumptuously literary novel to tell us so.