Book Beat April 11 2001 (1)

A.S. Byatt’s new novel, The Biographer’s Tale, is precisely what one might expect from a Cambridge educated commercial/literary novelist of a certain age, whose audience “simply loved” the early ’90s frisson of Possession, but was “disappointed” in the film of Angels and Insects and never really finished Babel Tower — that is, a tale of moderate length that flatters the reader’s erudition without a trace of late-career calculation. Indeed, if all this sounds somehow, in critical parlance, “overdetermined,” that is probably just about right; for the style and mode of this “brilliant” book are spectacularly underachieved.

The project is modest and charming. Phineas G. Nanson, an earnest graduate student bored with post-structuralist dogma and suffering from academ-anemia, leaves school to find “real life,” taking with him only what he needs to do that particular kind of research and, presumably, the portentousness of his name. His pursuit of “real life” leads him at length to the surprising conviction that he must write a biography of a forgotten biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes. And it is that meta-quest that compels Phineas to inquire into his own biographical character, to “write” his own official tale. His life becomes interlaced with inflection from Scholes’ odd history. And all these are triangulated in his struggle to find the one woman who can retrieve him from his dislocation and interject him among the “real things” of the world proper:

“She [Vera Alphage] is young — in her late twenties — and quite beautiful. You do not notice this at first because she keeps her head down, and her fine black hair, including a falling fringe, is very long ... I formed the immediate impression that she shunned bright light — her windows were veiled with lace curtains as well as shaded by tendrils of creeper.”

One forms the immediate impression that Byatt is either hopelessly priggish or has never met a heterosexual man. But these are quibbles. The novel drifts along harmlessly and is punctuated, like a forgettable dream, with moments of dim delight and half horror. Phineas finds exquisite liberation in the notion that there exists no final narrative of his personal tale, expect perhaps that which he chooses to celebrate. He solves all the necessary riddles, corrects the trajectory of his life and learns all good things from women.

Byatt remembers that her audience found Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine books “fabulous” and “really interesting.” Naturally, she wants only to keep the love flowing. The Biographer’s Tale is, thus, her oblique way of saying: “My new book is cool like that and, um, ‘thank you.’ “??