Books: Facets of a Life Less Ordinary ; Michele Roberts Observes an Intriguing Copulation of Science with Fiction
Roberts, Michele, The Independent (London, England)
The Biographer's Tale by A S Byatt Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99, 261pp AS BYATT'S writing, always concerned to enshrine precise descriptions of the natural and social worlds, is sometimes characterised by an intriguing tension between intellectual and sensual attitudes and subjects. No wonder she is tugged two ways, between objectivity and lyricism, since she is a novelist who has been a university teacher and who considers that scientific themes are just as much grist to her mill as family relationships or love affairs.
Our culture tends to separate intellectual from sensual knowledge, as it splits mind from body, and this conflict crops up frequently in Byatt's fiction. She has often chosen to deal with intellectual concerns in novels and sensual ones in short stories. Yet Possession, her Booker Prize winner, gained much of its energy from the way in dealt with both, mixing literary criticism with poetry, history with fantasy. That novel embodied a paean of praise to the act of reading.
The Biographer's Tale is similarly concerned with reading and, more radically, with forcing the reader to consider what a novel might or ought to be. Foregrounding a young scholar's rejection of literary theory and his subsequent search for factual meaning, it has little conventional plot and consists mainly of learned notes inscribed on index cards.
It has no characters in the old-fashioned sense. The narrator, Phineas Nanson, may recount his quest in the first person but gives away little of his past or himself. At work on a biography of an early 20th-century biographer, he worries when the tale of his research slides into "an autobiography. I detest autobiography... I was brought up as a child to believe in self- effacement, and as a student to believe in impersonality."
Other personages are equally shadowy, blazing up momentarily, then swiftly vanishing. Phineas has sex with two women, for example, who enter the novel as mouthpieces for scientific ideas rather than fitting into a plot. So this strange book reads like the notes for a critical study of biography, natural science and theories of classification, rather than imitating a piece of fiction. …