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A S Byatt: The Biographer’s Tale

Byatt has a joyful intellectual romp in this novel, whose main theme might be E M Forster‘s dictum Only Connect!. She writes a post-modern novel, which starts off with the hero rejecting post-modern litcrit. She then dissects biography as well as most of the main strands of post-modern criticism (feminism, deconstruction, semiotics, intertextuality, structuralism, thingness – don’t worry if you don’t know what these mean. No-one else does.), leaving us at the end with – what else? – sex and nature. But her main theme is how we humans try to make connections where there might not be any connections or where we are unable to find any connections. At the end of the day, however, trying to make sense of what has no sense, we are left with what all creatures are left with – reproducing the species.

Our hero, Phineas Nanson, is a post-modernist critic who abandons post-modernism and is advised to go into biography. He is given a copy of Scholes Destry-Scholes’ monumental but relatively unknown biography of Elmer Bole, a fictitious Richard Burton-like character – a Victorian traveller and polymath. He is impressed enough to want to write a biography of Destry-Scholes. Initial research, however, is relatively unrewarding. He comes across three fragments of writing left behind by Destry-Scholes. These three fragments seem to be about three characters – CL, FG and HI, soon identified as Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen.

Nanson pursues his research and gradually finds out that these fragments of sort-of-biography may well be fictitious but he is led first to the Swedish bee expert, Fulla Biefeld, and then to Destry-Scholes’ niece, Vera Alphage. He manages to have an affair (simultaneously) with both of them, with Fulla teaching him about the birds and the bees (his most important lesson) and Vera showing him some random index cards left behind by her uncle. Vera and Nanson try to put some order in the cards but, of course, come up only with different orders. Is there an order there? Perhaps but ultimately it is Fulla’s earthy sexuality that wins the day and that is really all that matters, isn’t it?

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Chatto and Windus