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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 25 April 2019

"The Biographer's Tale" by A S Byatt

On a whim, Phineas Gilbert Nanson, a post-graduate research student decides to abandon how work on post0structural literary criticism and begin working for Professor Ormerod Goode on a biography of a biographer called Scholes Destry-Scholes whose masterwork was a biography of Victorian polymath Elmer Bole. In the course of his researches he discovers that SDS's notes towards biographies of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen include deliberate distortions. He spends some time trying to classify a box of index cards and another of photographs at the home of SDS's grand-niece Vera Alphage with whom he has an affair. He also meets bee ecologist Fulla Biefield and works for travel agents Erik and Christophe, fending off the advances of sex tourist Maurice Bossey.

Bonkers names and a bonkers plot. It seemed that Byatt was, perhaps like Brecht, trying to tell me not to take any of this seriously. And yet like Phineas trying to build a narrative from the muddle of SDS's notes I tried to make some sense out of this. I speculated that SDS would turn out to be Ormerod Goode who had written a hoax biography of an eminent Victorian and was not hoaxing his PhD student to research it. But that would require a conventional plot that actually led somewhere. I then wondered whether the whole thing was en elaborate post-structuralist joke and that the point is that there is no coherence to our lives so why do novelists attempt to build a coherent narrative about coherent characters (“I suspect that much of what we stigmatise as irresolution is due to our Self being by no means one and indivisible.” ; p 224; a remark that made me think of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse) There was something in this, I felt, given that this was an analogy with the activities of a number of the characters: Phineas himself, Fulla, trying to understand ecosysterms, and the travel agents specialising in constructing tours that collected together the a number of places connected only by the thread of their clients' whim. So I decided that this was, essentially, a novel 'about' the idea that we discover or construct or impose patterns within the randomness of real facts (if there are such things) and that the journey of Phineas from post-structuralist to travel agent cum beetle researcher was a journey from the chaos of the Maelstrom to the chaos of the Maelstrom interpreted as meaning. As Phineas tells us: 

  • “One of the reasons I had given up post-structuralist thought was the disagreeable amount of imposing that went on in it. You decided what you're looking for, and then duly found it ... This was made worse by the fact that the deconstructionists and others paid lip-service to the idea that they must not impose - they even went so far as half-believing they must not find, either. And yet they discovered the same structures, the same velleities, the same evasions quite routinely in the most disparate texts.” (p 144)

(I had to look up velleity. It is a whim or a desire not sufficiently strong to lead one to actually do something.)

Byatt being Byatt she writes beautifully, if somewhat obscurely at times. Here are some of her great lines:

  • “I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness.” (p 2)
  • “In the late afternoon gloom he was like some demonic owl hooting de profundis.” (p 6)
  • “I often feel that the tableland of sanity, on which most of us dwell, is small in area, with unfenced precipices on every side, over any one of which we may fall.” (p 60)
  • “He even conducted a statistical survey of the longevity of those (queens, princes, bishops) regularly prayed for in churches, to see if the force of prayer improved their life expectancy. It did not.” (p 71)
  • “He had constructed himself to be looked at. Famous men walk behind, or inside, a simplified mask, constructed from inside and outside simultaneously.” (p 79)
  • “Most people die without ever having lived. Luckily for them, they don't realise it.” (p 85)
  • “The true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror - for an escape route, for an expanding horizon, for receding starscapes, for unimaginable monstrosities and incomprehensible (strictly) beauties.” (p 100)
  • “Aimless is the wrong word. I had too many aims, towards all points of the compass.” (p 104)
  • “This creature was living, and will be dead, a photograph says, according to Barthes.” (p 140)
  • “The horror of Mirrors is nothing to the horror of photographs.” (p 140)
  • “I began to think in a mad way that a biography was a kind of snuff movie.” (p 190)
  • “We as yet understand nothing of the way in which our conscious cells are related to the separate lives of the billions of cells of which the body of each of us is composed. We only know that the cells form a vast nation, some members of which are always dying and others growing to supply their places and that the continual sequence of these multitudes of little lives has its outcome in the large and conscious life of the man as a whole. Our part in the universe may possibly in some distant way be analogous to that of the cells in an organised body, and our personalities maybe the transient but essential elements of an immortal and cosmic mind.” (p 225)
  • “Accuracy is not the strong point of artists. They think as much of shadows as of substances.” (p 227)


April 2019; 260 pages

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