A. S. Byatt - The Biographer's Tale

Welcome to the Bizarro World edition of Possession. Where once the literary sleuths sought the mystery of a Victorian poet, now the sleuth seeks to escape the Laputa-like world of modern literary criticism. He wants things - facts - tangibles.

Steered by his orotund advisor (who doodles random, obscene runes during lectures) and stirred by a three-volume biography of Elmer Bowles (a Victorian polymath whose own writings may or may not have been, shall we say, reliable), Phineas Nanson decides to write a biography of the biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes. Destry-Scholes becomes Phineas's guru, inspiring him to write as he wrote by retracing his subject as Destry-Scholes had followed his multifaceted and peripatetic subject all over the world, learning the same languages, and, possibly, dying in the pursuit of Biography.

Byatt is devilish. In Posession, literary factions flung themselves into the chase for Cristabel's secrets. In this book, nobody flings himself at anything - except, perhaps, a zealous Swedish bee taxonomist, whose assistance in translating some of Destry-Scholes's notes on Linneus prefigure her zest for - well, for Phineas.

Notes rescued from the bottom of a file drawer seem to show that Destry-Scholes was in the process of a work - or works - on three men who seem to have little in common: Linnaeus, the taxonomist whose travel-writings betrayed a singular desire to catalog the sexual organs of everything he sees, whether human or plant; Galton, the inventor of fingerprinting and a zealot for eugenics; and the great playwright.

As Phineas tries to follow the biographer's notes, his confusion begins to resemble one of Galton's passions: creating composite portraits of people by selecting features of each and blending them, creating, in Phineas's eyes, "something that had been taken away by being added." The same process begins to afflict Phineas, who loses focus as accumulated facts begin to blend into an unsatisfactory whole.

Vera, a niece of Destry-Scholes, allows him access to shoe-boxes filled with note cards and a collection of her uncle's marbles, which she tries to match up to lists of unrelated words in one of her uncle's notebooks: maidenhair, bum, lamplight, tendril, gloop, gentian, spitfire, goosefeather... His employment at Puck's Girdle, a fey, blue-green travel agency, introduces him to a sinister gentleman who offers snuff Phileas as a sly requestfor a rather perverse tour -- but is this desire any less perverse than the celebrated taxonomists's prurient focus?

Phineas describes himself as "a very small man.. but perfectly formed." This book is a perfectly delightful stew of things, facts, and intangibles that might not satisfy the cravings of the would-be biographer, but satisfied me completely.

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