Piecing together a life
"We are held together by threads of dependence," writes A. S. Byatt's protagonist, Phineas G. Nanson, in her new novel The Biographer's Tale. This idea, as it applies to the characters' interlaced lives, underscores both the structure and narrative trajectory of Byatt's spiraling plot. Phineas, a postgraduate student in England, becomes disillusioned with academic abstractions, so he decides to strike a new course. After reading a biography of Elmer Bole, Phineas refocuses his energies toward writing a biography of Bole's biographer, and his pursuit of information makes the novel resemble a set of Chinese boxes; each life that Phineas examines opens up doors to the lives of several others.
Phineas struggles at first to find any information about biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, who seems to have left almost no trace of himself behind except two shoeboxes full of notes and photographs. Vera, Destry-Scholes' niece, keeps these boxes in her attic, and when she answers Phineas' advertisement, a strange relationship evolves between them. This is later mirrored by Phineas' other relationship with a woman Fulla, a taxonomist who initially translates and answers questions for him.
With the help of these two women, Phineas eventually pieces together a triptych of Destry-Scholes' research: before Destry-Scholes disappearance, he had been gathering information on Carl Linnaeus, the legendary taxonomist; Francis Galton, whose unfortunate contribution to science was the field of eugenics; and Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. Phineas concludes from Destry-Scholes' notes on these figures that he had intended a project that combined the lives of all three.
In this clever but demanding novel, Byatt shows that we are not isolated individuals, but rather the sum of each others' lives. Though Phineas often protests (too much): "I am not interested in myself," The Biographer's Tale ends up being wholly about him while simultaneously focusing on others in his life and research. In the spirit of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, Byatt's blur of multiple biographical accounts demonstrates both our commonalities as human beings while also showing, in strong relief, how we can never truly know each other, or ourselves, with any degree of certainty.
Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.