A.S. Byatt
The Biographer's Tale
London: Chatto and Windus, 2000. Pp. 265. $34.95
Reviewed by Jane Campbell

The Biographer's Tale, Byatt's latest novel, continues this distinguished author's inquiry into the processes of fiction. Like Possession (1990), this book shows twentieth-century characters attempting to imagine the lives of their predecessors; here, however, there are stories within stories, all incomplete, and the narrative curiosity, rewarded in Possession, remains unsatisfied. Here, as in "The Conjugial Angel," one of the two novellas that make up Angels and Insects (1992), Byatt combines historical figures with imagined ones, but in this new novel her research covers more years and extends beyond England, and she provides two twentieth-century researchers, who belong respectively to the earlier and later twentieth century and play off one another.

Byatt's hero, the diminutive, reticent Phineas Nanson, tells his story in the first person. This is only the third time Byatt has used first-person narrative and, as it did in "Sugar," the method signals a personal involvement in the search. Phineas begins by impulsively abandoning his graduate work in post-structuralist theory; he is bored and disgusted by the insistence of the significantly named Professor Butcher that all texts be analyzed in terms of Lacan's theory of dismemberment. Hungry for a world of "things," Phineas takes up the suggestion of Professor Goode, who, at the opposite end of the scholarly spectrum, studies Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse place-names, and turns to biography. He embarks on a study of Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose life of Sir Elmer Bole, a nineteenth-century explorer, translator, and romance writer, Phineas comes to see as a model of exactitude and solidity. But Phineas finds that almost nothing can be known about his subject: the man's birthplace holds no clues, and even his name is a fabrication. Some papers that appear to be part of three new biographies-or a composite biography-of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen are untitled fragments lacking beginnings and endings and filled with the author's inventions and falsifications. Phineas's inquiries lead him to Destry-Scholes's niece, Vera Alphage, a radiographer. Vera has no memory of her uncle but gives Phineas access to Destry-Scholes's possessions: a shoe box full of disorganized file cards, another containing unlabelled photographs, and a bag of marbles, together with a list that Vera takes to be the individual names of the marbles. Meanwhile, Phineas has become acquainted with a bee taxonomist, Fulla Biefeld, whose approach to the enterprise of naming is opposed to the one he has been pursuing. Phineas labours to organize the file cards and integrate them with the three biographical pieces, in order to put an identity to Destry-Scholes, and Vera works at naming her uncle's marbles. But Fulla knows that names, though useful in her profession, are merely arbitrary; she is concerned with the destruction of the world's ecosystems; hers is the world of "things" that Phineas longed for. The literary and cultural images which Phineas studies-he once wrote a paper relating fear of the bomb and ecological destruction to seventeenth-century fear of evil spirits-are, she says passionately, "neither here nor there" (120) in the face of the fact of the destruction of species.

Byatt's reader, who may grow impatient with Destry-Scholes's texts and cards, inclined to skip some of the descriptive passages, and weary of proliferating examples of the instability of texts (Byatt's central image, the mosaic, represents the variety of discourses blended here), will, if he or she perseveres, become increasingly more sympathetic to Phineas when he begins to have a life in the real world. And this, of course, is Byatt's point. Phineas starts to have adventures of his own. He embarks on affairs with both Vera and Fulla, refusing to choose-he is, after all, a postmodern hero-and thus extending further the motif of doubleness that pervades the narrative. He acquires a pair of employers, homosexuals who run a travel business that caters to specialized tastes. Confronted by the suspicion that a "Strange Customer" wants to be provided with a tour of child brothels and, soon after, by a gift of sadomasochistic Easter bunnies from his employers, Phineas discovers that he has a capacity for rage and for verbal and physical violence. He is made more aware of suffering, comforting Vera when her X-rays show a patient the text of his own death, and helping Fulla to observe the ferocious battles of stag-beetles. He gives up the Destry-Scholes project, admits that he is now writing autobiography, a form he had detested, and begins to write in the lyrical mode. He even has what he admits is an epiphany of the 1920s "writer's story" kind. After failing as a semiotician when shown the Strange Customer's snuff-box, he now reads a flock of parrots in a park as a double sign: he should either stay in England or travel. Predictably, he ends by doing both, and by putting his new-found passion for writing to practical use in aid of ecologically focused tourism.

The Biographer's Tale explores poststructuralist questions about the relation of biographer to subject, the boundaries between scholarship, plagiarism, and fabrication, and, of course, the definition of a text. Phineas is saved from despair because he cannot abandon the ideas of self and meaning altogether; like the "primeval reader," he needs these outmoded concepts. His research has yielded only a fragmented narrative, a faceless central figure, and the knowledge that all texts distort and falsify. By the end of his tale he robustly asserts that the natural world exists independently of our structures; it is both fragile and beyond language. "As long as we don't destroy and diminish it irrevocably, the too-much-loved earth will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it. It is all we have" (259). So, just as he had put the still unorganized cards back in the shoe box and, with Vera, heaped the unnamed marbles in a glass bowl to catch the light, he now puts away his notebook.