Erudite yet entertaining

Maelstrom Carta Marina, WikipediaCropped version of Carta Marina.jpeg (Wikipedia Commons)

 A S Byatt The Biographer’s Tale Vintage 2001

The Maelstrom: how evocative that name is, the Charybdis that tempts you, the whirlpool that draws you down into its watery depths, a volatile spiral maze from which there is no escape. The Maelstrom, or Moskstraumen as the Norwegian original should really be called, features only sporadically in The Biographer’s Tale but its symbolism permeates the whole novel.

In The Biographer’s Tale we have A S Byatt, critic, novelist and onetime academic writing in the first person as Phineas G Nanson. We learn that Nanson, a postgraduate disillusioned with critical theory, is introduced to a biography of Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole, author of nearly a dozen texts and a real-life Gahmuret, siring children in Europe and the Middle East. Nanson then becomes obsessed with Bole’s elusive biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, eventually discovering that Destry-Scholes may, in chasing up notes on Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen, have been drawn to his death by the allure of the Maelstrom. Destry-Scholes’ notes and his few relics that the young scholar examines seem to throw doubt not only on what is true and what is fiction but also on whether any single biography is capable of delineating the whole of a subject’s life, works and thoughts. Circles within circles then, but, like the spirals of a whirlpool, all connected in seamless seething turmoil. Hanging over the whole are the questions, who exactly is the biographer – Byatt, Nanson, Bole or Destry-Scholes – and is it the biographer who’s telling the tale or is the tale about the biographer?

I very much enjoyed this erudite yet entertaining fiction: it combined a love of cataloguing, pigeonholing and cryptic puzzles with a snapshot of a gauche young man who, through questing for a particular grail, manages to find some equanimity. It’s not a perfect novel – as critics note, the erudition and the entertainment don’t quite gel a lot of the time – but it certainly gives pause for thought. With its sifting through fact and fiction in the lives of three great cataloguers of minutiae – taxonomer Linnaeus, anthropologist Galton and playwright Ibsen – it becomes evident that, failing a Library of Babel, it is never possible to find out everything about even the small things of life. If it seems that Byatt, through her puppet Nanson, avoids getting to the roots of these conundrums by concluding with Phineas Nanson settling down to a modus vivendi with his complicated relationships (the blonde ecologist Fulla Biefeld, the dark-haired radiologist/artist Vera Destry-Scholes and the esoteric travel-agents Christophe and Erik), then perhaps that is her message: human relationships matter more than dry fact-filing, however diverting.

Still, shuffling around those cataloguing cards is great fun. Take Phineas Nanson, for example. ‘Phineas’ may remind us of that fictional explorer, Phileas Fogg, who travelled around the world in eighty days; Phineus is also a Thracian prophet who helped Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Phineas’ middle name, Gilbert, may or may not derive from the great English naturalist Gilbert White, himself concerned with the great chain of being. In addition, Byatt tells us that Phineas discovers that “nanus was the Latin for dwarf, cognate with the French nain,” and notes with a frisson that he himself is “a little person, the child of a little person” and that he has a name in a system, Nanson, suggesting that his role as potential biographer renders him of small significance. Of course, there is more to this than Byatt explicitly tells us. Later on, someone mistakenly credits him with the name of the great Norwegian explorer Nansen. The postgraduate scholar willy-nilly finds that nominative determinism has predestined him to be questing, classifying and exploring.

However, a large clue comes from Byatt’s own acknowledgements at the end of the novel. Thanking an entomologist for specialist help, she notes particularly an insect with a suggestive name, Phaeogenes nanus, that reminds us of Phineas’ own name. It may not surprise the reader that this insect is a parasitic wasp, and perhaps gives us an inkling of the role of biographers in the lives of real people. Into such depths does the literary maelstrom deliver us.

Review first published February 2013

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