The Biographer's Taleby A. S. Byatt
From the award-winning author of Possession comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man’s search for fact.
Here is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real/i>… See more details below
From the award-winning author of Possession comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man’s search for fact.
Here is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real life” by writing a biography of a great biographer. In a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and sensual, Phineas tracks his subject to the deserts of Africa and the maelstrom of the Arctic. Along the way he comes to rely on two women, one of whom may be the guide he needs out of the dizzying labyrinth of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographer’s Tale is a provocative look at “truth” in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“A tenderly funny novel. . . .One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.” –The Baltimore Sun
“Wise, sharp-witted. . . . miss it at your peril.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An impressive achievement, a literary mosaic at once exotic, academic, esoteric, engaging, and disconcerting. . . . A feast for the brain” –The Denver Post
“One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.”–The Baltimore Sun
Read an Excerpt
I made my decision, abruptly, in the middle of one of Gareth Butcher's famous theoretical seminars. He was quoting Empedocles, in his plangent, airy voice. "Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads." He frequently quoted Empedocles, usually this passage. We were discussing, not for the first time, Lacan's theory of morcellement, the dismemberment of the imagined body. There were twelve postgraduates, including myself, and Professor Ormerod Goode. It was a sunny day and the windows were very dirty. I was looking at the windows, and I thought, I’m not going to go on with this anymore. Just like that. It was May 8th 1994. I know that, because my mother had been buried the week before, and I'd missed the seminar on Frankenstein.
I don't think my mother's death had anything to do with my decision, though as I set it down, I see it might be construed that way. It's odd that I can't remember what text we were supposed to be studying on that last day. We'd been doing a lot of not-too-long texts written by women. And also quite a lot of Freud—we'd deconstructed the Wolf Man, and Dora. The fact that I can't remember, though a little humiliating, is symptomatic of the “reasons” for my abrupt decision. All the seminars, in fact, had a fatal family likeness. They were repetitive in the extreme. We found the same clefts and crevices, transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions beneath, no matter what surface we were scrying. I thought, next we will go on to the phantasmagoria of Bosch, and, in his incantatory way, Butcher obliged. I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.
I was sitting next to Ormerod Goode. Ormerod Goode and Gareth Butcher were joint Heads of Department that year, and Goode, for reasons never made explicit, made it his business to be present at Butcher's seminars. This attention was not reciprocated, possibly because Goode was an Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Norse expert, specialising in place-names. Gareth Butcher did not like dead languages, and was not proficient in living ones. He read his Foucault and Lacan in translation, like his Heraclitus and his Empedocles. Ormerod Goode contributed little to the seminars, beyond corrections of factual inaccuracies, which he noticed even when he appeared to be asleep. No one cared much for these interventions. Inaccuracies can be subsumed as an inevitable part of postmodern uncertainty, or play, one or the other or both.
I liked sitting next to Goode—most of the other students didn't—because he made inscrutable notes in ancient runes. Also he drew elaborate patterns of carved, interlaced plants and creatures—Celtic, Viking, I didn't know—occasionally improper or obscene, always intricate. I liked the runes because I have always liked codes and secret languages, and more simply, because I grew up on Tolkien. I suppose, if the truth were told, I should have to confess that I ended up as a postgraduate student of literature because of an infantile obsession with Gandalf's Middle Earth. I did like poetry too, and I did—in self-defence—always know Tolkien's poems weren't the real thing. I remember discovering T. S. Eliot. And then Donne and Marvell. Long ago and far away. I don't know, to this day, if Ormerod Goode loved or despised Tolkien. Tolkien's people are sexless and Goode's precisely shadowed graffiti were anything but. Plaisir, consommation, jouissance. Glee. He was—no doubt still is—a monumentally larger man. He has a round bald cranium, round gold glasses round round, darkly brown eyes, a round, soft mouth, several chins, a round belly carried comfortably on pillars of legs between columnar arms. I think of him, always, as orotund Ormerod Goode, adding more Os to his plethora, and a nice complex synaesthetic metaphor—an accurate one—to my idea of him. Anyway, there I was, next to him, when I made my decision, and when I took my eyes away from the dirty glass there was his BB pencil, hovering lazily, tracing a figleaf, a vine, a thigh, hair, fingers, round shiny fruit.
I found myself walking away beside him, down the corridor, when it was over. I felt a need to confirm my decision by telling someone about it. He walked with a rapid sailing motion, lightly for such a big man. I had almost to run to keep up with him. I should perhaps say, now, that I am a very small man. "Small but perfectly formed" my father would say, several times a day, before his disappearance. He himself was not much bigger. The family name is Nanson; my full name is Phineas Gilbert Nanson—I sign myself always Phineas G. Nanson. When I discovered—in a Latin class when I was thirteen—that nanus was the Latin for dwarf, cognate with the French nain, I felt a frisson of excited recognition. I was a little person, the child of a little person, I had a name in a system, Nanson. I have never felt anything other than pleasure in my small, delicate frame. Its only disadvantage is the number of cushions I need to see over the dashboard when driving. I am adept and nimble on ladders. But keeping up with Ormerod Goode's lazy pace was a problem. I said, into his wake, "I have just made an important decision."
He stopped. His moon-face considered mine, thoughtfully.
"I have decided to give it all up. I’ve decided I don’t want to be a postmodern literary theorist."
"We should drink to that," said Ormerod Goode. "Come into my office."
His office, like the rest of our run-down department, had dirty windows, and a dusty, no-coloured carpet. It also had two high green leather wing-chairs, a mahogany desk and a tray of spotless glasses which he must have washed himself. He produced a bottle of malt whisky from a bookcase. He poured us each a generous glass, and enquired what had led to this decision, and was it as sudden as it appeared. I replied that it had seemed sudden, at least had surprised me, but that it appeared to be quite firm. "You may be wise," said Ormerod Goode. "Since it was a bolt from the blue, I take it you have no ideas about what you will do with the open life that now lies before you?"
I wondered whether to tell him about the dirty window. I said, "I felt an urgent need for a life full of things." I was pleased with the safe, solid Anglo-Saxon word. I had avoided the trap of talking about "reality" and "unreality" for I knew very well that postmodernist literary theory could be described as a reality. People lived in it. I did, however, fatally, add the Latin-derived word, less exact, redundant even, to my precise one. "I need a life full of things," I said. "Full of facts."
"Facts," said Ormerod Goode. "Facts." He meditated. "The richness," he said, "the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts. Every established fact—taking its place in a constellation of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy—every established fact illuminates the world. True scholarship once aspired to add its modest light to that illumination. To clear a few cobwebs. No more."
His round eyes glowed behind his round lenses. I found myself counting the Os in his pronouncements, as though they were coded clues to a new amplitude. The Glenmorangie slid like smooth flame down my throat. I said that a long time ago I had been in love with poetry, but that now I needed things, facts. "Verbum caro factum est," said Ormerod Goode opaquely. "The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts. By far the greatest work of scholarship in my time, to my knowledge, is Scholes Destry-Scholes’s biographical study of Sir Elmer Bole. But nobody knows it. It is not considered. And yet, the ingenuity, the passion."
I remarked, perhaps brashly, that I had always considered biography a bastard form, a dilettante pursuit. Tales told by those incapable of true invention, simple stories for those incapable of true critical insight. Distractions constructed by amateurs for lady readers who would never grapple with The Waves or The Years but liked to feel they had an intimate acquaintance with the Woolfs and with Bloomsbury, from daring talk of semen on skirts to sordid sexual interference with nervous girls. A gossipy form, I said to Ormerod Goode, encouraged by Glenmorangie and nervous emptiness of spirit. There was some truth in that view, he conceded, rising smoothly from his wing-chair and strolling over to his bookcase. But I should consider, said Ormerod Goode, two things.
Gossip, on the one hand, is an essential part of human communication, not to be ignored. And on the other, a great biography is a noble thing. Consider, he said, the fact that no human individual resembles another. We are not clones, we are not haplodiploid beings. From egg to eventual decay, each of us is unique. What can be nobler, he reiterated, or more exacting, than to explore, to constitute, to open, a whole man, a whole opus, to us? What resources—scientific, intellectual, psychological, historical, linguistic and geographic—does a man—or a woman—not need, who would hope to do justice to such a task? I know, I know, he said, that most biographies are arid or sugary parodies of what is wanted. And the true masterpiece—such as Destry-Scholes's magnum opus—is not always recognised when it is made, for biographical readers have taste corrupted both by gossip and by too much literary or political ideology. Now you are about to reconstitute yourself, he said, to move off towards a vita nuova you could do worse than devote a day or two to these volumes.
I was somewhat distracted by counting the Os—which included the oo sounds represented by Us—in Ormerod Goode's words. In the late afternoon gloom he was like some demonic owl hooting de profundis. The sonorous Os were a code, somehow, for something truly portentous. I shook myself. I was more than a little slewed.
So I nodded solemnly, and accepted the loan of the three volumes, still in their original paper wrappers, protected by transparent film. They filled the next two or three giddy days when, having decided what I was not going to do and be, I had to make a new life.
Volume i, A Singular Youth, had a frequently reproduced print of a view of King's College, Cambridge, on the cover.
Volume ii, The Voyager, had a rather faded old photograph of the Bosphorus.
Volume iii, Vicarage and Harem, had a brown picture of some stiff little children throwing and catching a ball under some gnarled old apple trees.
It was all very uninspiring. It was like a publishing version of the neighbour who insists on showing you his holiday snaps, splashes of water long smoothed out, ice-creams long digested and excreted. I flicked through the pages of old photographs reproduced in little clutches in the middle of each book. Scholes Destry-Scholes had been sparing with visual aids, or maybe they had not been considered important in the late 1950s and early '60s. There was a photograph of Sir Prosper Bole, MP, looking like God the Father, and one of the three buttoned-up and staring Beeching sisters with scraped-back hair—"Fanny is on the right." I assumed Fanny was Bole's mother. There was a very bad drawing of a youth at Cambridge, resting his head on his hand. "Elmer (Em) drawn by Johnny Hawthorne during their Lakeland jaunt." There was a map of Somaliland and a map of the Silk Road, and a picture of a ship ("The trusty Hippolyta") listing dangerously. Volume ii had a lot more maps—Turkey, Russia, the Crimea—a cliche of the Charge of the Light Brigade, another of the Covered Bazaar in Constantinople, a photograph of a bust of Florence Nightingale, a ridiculous picture of Lord and Lady Stratford de Redcliffe in fancy dress as Queen Anne grandees receiving Sultan Abdulmecid, and what I took to be Sir Elmer's wedding photographs. He appeared, in a grainy way, to have been darkly handsome, very whiskered, tall and unbending. His wife, who also appeared in a miniature silhouette, in an oval frame ("Miss Evangeline Solway at seventeen years of age"), appeared to have a sweet small face and a diminutive frame. Volume iii was even less rewarding. There were a lot of photographs of frontispieces of Victorian books, of poetry and fairy stories. A lot more maps, vicarage snapshots and more conventional views of the Bosphorus. They all had that brownish, faded look. I looked on the back flap, then, for information about the author himself. I think most readers do this, get their bearings visually before starting on the real work. I know a man who wrote a dissertation on authors' photos on the back of novels, literary and popular. There was no photograph of Scholes Destry-Scholes. The biographical note was minimal.
Scholes Destry-Scholes was born in Pontefract, Yorkshire, in 1925. He is working on further volumes of this Life.
Volumes ii and iii added critical encomia for the previous volumes to this meagre description.
And so I began reading, in a mood at once a grey-brown smoky penumbra, induced by the illustrations, and full of jagged shafts of bright lightning on purplish vacancy, induced by my own uncertain future. Odd lines of Scholes's description of Bole's life have become for me needle-like mnemonics, recalling alternate pure elation and pure panic, purely my own, as Bole prepares to fail his Little Go, or sneaks out to stow away on a vessel bound for the Horn of Africa. Most of these mnemonics are associated with Volume i. For it has to be said that as I progressed, the reading became compulsive, the mental dominance of both Bole and Destry-Scholes more and more complete. I do not pretend to have discovered even a quarter of the riches of that great book on that first gulping and greedy reading. Destry-Scholes had, among all the others, the primitive virtue of telling a rattling good yarn, and I was hooked. And he had that other primitive virtue, the capacity to make up a world in every corner of which his reader would wish to linger, to look, to learn.
"There were giants in those days." Bole used that phrase frequently—in his speculative work on the Hittites, in his history of the Ottomans, in his work on Cromwell. Bole himself crammed more action into one life than would be available to three or four puny moderns—and I include, amongst action, periods of boredom in a consular office in Khartoum, periods of studious seclusion in Pommeroy Vicarage in Suffolk, working on his translations, romances, and poems. He travelled long distances on sea and land—and along rivers, exploring the Danube as a student and the Nile as a middle-aged grandee. He went to Madagascar and wrote on lemurs. He travelled the Silk Road from Samarkand. He spent years in Constantinople, the city which, perhaps more than any human being, was the love of his life. He conducted secret negotiations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in Cairo and Isfahan. He was—and this is soberly attested—a master of disguise, could pass himself off as an Arab, a Turk or a Russian, not to mention his command of Prussian moeurs and Viennese dialect. He fought in the Crimea, and gave moral and practical support to Florence Nightingale, whom he had known as a young woman, frustrated by family expectations in the days when his great friend Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) had wanted to marry her. He was part of Monckton Milnes's dubious circle of Parisian sexual sensationalists, as Destry-Scholes proved conclusively with some fine work in the archives of Fred Hankey and the Goncourts in Paris. He had known everyone—Carlyle, Clough, Palmerston, George Henry Lewes and George Eliot, Richard Watson Dixon, Swinburne, Richard Burton . . . And yet, beside this incessant journeying, political activity, soldiering and dining out he had found time to write enough books to fill a library. Nowhere had been visited without a record of his travels, which would include an account of the geography and climate, the flora and fauna, the history, political and military, the government, the beliefs, the art and architecture, the oddities and distractions of places as diverse as the Sudan and Austria-Hungary, Finland and Madagascar, Venice, Provence and, always returning, Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, Stamboul. He wrote histories—one of the great days of Byzantium, one of its fall, one of the Ottoman rulers, one of the reign of William the Silent, as well as his more technical works on Cromwell's New Model Army and military organisation under Louis XIV. If he had done nothing else—as Destry-Scholes points out—he would be remembered as a great translator. His collections of Hungarian, Finnish and Turkish fairy tales are still current in reprinted forms. His loose translation of the early eighteenth-century divan poetry of the great Tulip Period "boon companion," Nedim, once rivalled Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam in popularity, with its haunting rhythms and hedonist chants. He translated the Arab chivalric romance, The History of Antar, all thirty-three volumes, as well as several erotic oriental works for the furtive presses of Fred Hankey and Monckton Milnes.
The most exciting of these translations—Destry-Scholes certainly thought so, and conveys the excitement—was his version of the travels of the seventeenth-century Turkish traveller, Evliya Chelebi. Elmer Bole's translation included those passages expurgated by the Ritter Joseph von Hammer, the first Western translator, who had felt it proper to omit, for instance, Evliya's initiation into "all the profligacies of the royal pages, the relation of which, in more than one place, leaves a stain upon his writings." Bole had also followed Evliya through bath-houses where the Ritter had stopped at the door. Evliya Chelebi had, it appears, had a vision of the Prophet, in his twenty-first year, in which, stammering as he was, blinded by glory, he had asked, not as he meant to, for the intercession of the Prophet (shifaa't) but for travelling (siya'hat). Travelling had been granted, in abundance. Elmer Bole, undertaking his dangerous journeys disguised as a Turkish bookseller, had used Evliya's other name, Siyyah, the Traveller, and Evliya's dream-stammering, written in Arabic, transliterated according to William Jones's system, appeared on the front pages both of Bole’s account of his Syrian escapade, and of Destry-Scholes's second volume, The Voyager. I was delighted, as humans are delighted when facts slot together, when I saw the significance of these lines.
Bole wrote many romances of his own, all popular in their day, all now forgotten. A Humble Maid at Acre, Rose of Sharon, The Scimitar, The Golden Cage of Princes, A Princess Among Slaves are a few of the titles. He also wrote verse, also now forgotten. A verse-novel, Bajazeth, collections of lyrics—Shulamith, How Beautiful Are Thy Feet, A Spring Shut Up, The Orchard Walls. The lyrics are conventional, and the novels are wooden, melodramatic and stilted. This judgement has its importance, beyond the unmournable disappearance of the romances, because it has a bearing on what is generally (in this, as in everything I say, of course, I follow Destry-Scholes) acknowledged to be Elmer Bole's literary masterpiece.
This was his translation, if it was a translation, of Evliya's account of his travels through Europe, his exploration of “the seven climates,” setting off from Vienna, where he had been secretary to Kara Muhammad Pasha's embassy in 1664, travelling through Germany and the Netherlands, as far as Dunkirk, through Holland, Denmark and Sweden, returning through Poland, via Cracow and Danzig, to the Crimea, after a journey of three and a half years. This European exploration was well attested, and constantly referred to by Evliya in his accounts of his Middle Eastern travels. The problem was that no manuscript existed, and experts, including the Ritter von Hammer who had searched salerooms and bazaars, had come to believe that he never wrote the European volume being, as the Ritter puts it, "probably prevented by death when he had completed his fourth volume."
Elmer Bole, however, claimed to have found the manuscript of Evliya's fifth volume, wrapped as packing round a seventeenth-century Dutch painting of tulips, in an obscure curiosity shop deep in the Bazaar. He had compared it to that manuscript of Eusebius which was in use as a cover for a milk-pitcher. Scholars, including, especially, Scholes Destry-Scholes, had made exhaustive attempts to rediscover this lost manuscript, in Istanbul, in London, in the libraries to which Bole's papers had been bit by bit dispersed, in the attics and dusty ottomans of Pommeroy Vicarage. It had never come to light, and many scholars, both Anglophone and Turkish, had concluded that it had never existed, that the Journey Through Seven Climates was an historical novel, a pastiche, by Bole himself.
Destry-Scholes came down, cautiously, arguing every inch of his conclusions, on the other side. His argument, a delicious example of 1950s pre-theoretical intuitive criticism, derives in part from the extraordinary deadness and badness of Bole's acknowledged fictions. They are vague, verbose and grandiose. Bole's Evliya, like the earlier Evliya, is precise, enumerative, recording buildings, customs, climates with scrupulous (and occasionally tedious) exactness. He notices things about the personal cleanliness (or lack of it) in Germany, about the concealed ostentation of rich Dutch burghers, the behaviour of women servants in Stockholm and Krakow—things which, as Destry-Scholes points out with effortless comparative cultural knowledge, would have been those things a Turk in those days, far from home, would have noticed. The account is full of lively action, dangers from pirates and footpads, amorous encounters with mysterious strangers, conversations with connoisseurs and savants, discussions of the price of tulips and the marketing of new strains from the Orient, comparisons of Turkish and Dutch tastes in these precious bulbs (the Dutch prefer closed cups, the Turks pointed petals like daggers). How, asks Destry-Scholes, could Bole have known all this well enough to inhabit it imaginatively with such concrete detail, such delightfully provocative lacunae. He remarks on the fact that Bole's translation is written, not in high Victorian English but in a good approximation of seventeenth-century prose, the prose of Aubrey and Burton, Walton and Bunyan. When I have one of my frequent fits of wishing to disagree with Destry-Scholes, I tell myself that his "voice," this put-on vocabulary, this imaginative identification, were perhaps in themselves enough to transmute Bole the banal follower of Scott and Lytton into Bole the inventor of Evliya Chelebi. But it is hard to disagree with Destry-Scholes for long. He knows what he is talking about. It was his belief that Evliya's manuscript was given to the young Nedim, who may have taken it on his own travels. I am getting ahead of myself. I have not got to Nedim.
Another possible argument for Bole's authorship—also, it has to be said, carefully considered by Destry-Scholes—is his capacity to soak up knowledge, to make himself an expert on matters of historical or linguistic or aesthetic scholarship. His knowledge of Ottoman court ceremonies, of religious tolerance and intolerance under successive rulers of the Sublime Porte, his study of the weaponry of Cromwell's forces, his investigations into British military hygiene, are remarkable—as of course, in another vein, is his study of pornographic Roman jars, or his famous collection of phalloi, from many cultures. He read, and wrote, as the great Victorian scholars did, as though a year could contain a hundred years of reading, thought and investigation. I have often wondered what has happened to my own generation, that we seem to absorb so pitifully little. I have strange dreams of waking to find that the television and the telephone have been uninvented—would those things, in themselves, make the difference? Would it be desirable?
Like Destry-Scholes, I was most drawn to Bole's monographs on Byzantine mosaics and on Turkish ceramic tiles, especially those elegant and brilliant tiles from Iznik, with the dark flame-red (tulips, carnations) whose secret has been lost. Where did he find time to travel to Ravenna and Bulgaria, to spend so long staring, I ask myself (and Scholes asked himself, before me). Scholes permits himself to express surprise that Bole did not rediscover, or claim to rediscover, the chemistry of the Iznik red. He certainly haunted potteries, in Iznik and in Staffordshire, discussing glazes with the Wedgwoods. One of the most beautiful things I have ever read is Bole's account of the creation of light in the mosaics of Hadrian's Villa, Ravenna and Sancta Sophia, the rippling fields of splendour created by the loose setting of blue glass tesserae at various angles to catch the light, the introduction into these fields of light of metallic tesserae (first gold, then silver), the effect of candlelight and polished marble to make soft, fluid, liquid light . . .
I say, the most beautiful thing I have read is Bole's account, and so it is, I stand by that. But it is displayed and completed by Destry-Scholes's account both of Bole's research (into the colour and composition of the beds of red glass on which the gold was set, into vessels of layered glass, with leaves of gold foil sandwiched between them) and of Christ in the church of the Chora in Istanbul, covered in plaster and unknown in the days of Bole's study. Destry-Scholes writes as though he were looking with Bole's eyes, describing in Bole's measured yet urgent paragraphs. Yet he introduces, tactfully, integrally, modern knowledge, modern debates, about perspective, about movement and stasis, which do not supersede or nullify Bole's thought, but carry it on.
From the Hardcover edition.
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