Byatt: biography as a despised art

January 28, 2001|By Ken Tucker | By Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

"The Biographer's Tale," by A.S. Byatt. Knopf. 307 pages. $24.

Toward the very end of this tenderly funny novel about writers who find pleasure in writing about writers, A.S. Byatt's narrator states a personal rule: "You don't write about happiness." The writer asserting this is Phineas G. Nanson, a melancholy Englishman, a post-graduate student who has decided to write the biography of a biographer -- one Scholes Destry-Scholes, author of the definitive biography of Sir Elmer Boles, himself a biographer, historian, and amateur scientist. ("A Victorian polymath," is how Nanson describes Boles, "among... many other things he studied leaf-cutter bees near Troy." And you can bet that by the time the assiduous Nanson is through with you, you'll know something about leaf-cutter bees, too.)

Deploying some of the same quiet, recondite wit and fondness for literature-within-literature strategies she used in her best-known novel in America, 1990's "Possession," Byatt wants in "The Biographer's Tale" to explore the suspicions many of us have when we read even (or perhaps especially) the best biographies -- that the author is relying on factors other than facts, on guesses and hunches, and pursuing his or her own critical agenda, in ordering the details of the life that's under scrutiny.

Rather than find these notions troubling, however, "The Biographer's Tale" suggests that it is these decisions -- some of them made after prolonged consideration, some on a whim -- that can give the juice of vitality to what might otherwise be a dry biography.

"The art of biography is a despised art," says one of Nanson's professors, "because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts." Nanson himself refers to biographies as "tales told by those incapable of true invention." He intends to write a transcendent example of the biographer's art, and in the process, he discovers that he himself has been leading a dull life -- a life, it might be said, of "arranged facts": fixed habits and limited social contact.

And so over the course of "The Biographer's Tale," Nanson falls in love, takes a job in a store that sells odd antique items and generally disrupts the scholarly life he'd assumed he'd always lead.

Nanson, with his musings on everything from academic politics to semiotics to the ways in which the Internet has turned biographical verities into often-unprovable factoids zipping through cyberspace, is an engagingly modest hero who readily admits, "I am not very good at codes in real life, or any even glaring semiotic systems," but still manages to launch an ambivalent affair with Destry-Scholes' niece, Vera Alphage, even as he worries that "this does not mean that we had become -- conversationally, so to speak -- intimate."

As low-key and modulated as its tone is, "The Biographer's Tale" is one of Byatt's most exuberant books, mingling annotations from real authors, most prominently Henrik Ibsen, with ones she's made up, to achieve a happily confusing creation -- a meditation on biography, a parody of its best effects and worst excesses, all wrapped in a toasty-warm narrative.

Ken Tucker is a critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music, and a music critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.

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