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The Biographer's Tale

By A.S. Byatt Alfred A. Knopf 305 pp., $24

Entering a novel by A.S. Byatt is like going to a party of very smart people. The initial thrill of mingling with such brilliance is tempered by the nagging sens e of one's relative stupidity.

You know you're in trouble when a book opens with a quote from Empedocles and a reference to Lacan's theory of morcellement.

"The Biographer's Tale," a wildly inventive, over-demanding novel, reads like a parody of all things intellectual, Byatt included.

The narrator is a comically self-conscious graduate student disgusted with the emptiness of modern literary theory, particularly the implications of post-structuralism, which incinerate everything under the laser of deconstruction. After a few years of this pointlessness, he despairs, "I felt an urgent need for a life full of things. Full of facts."

In desperation, Phineas Gilbert Nanson (his last name is Latin for dwarf) turns to his advisor, a specialist in the field of place names, who recommends he take refuge in the solidity of biography. "The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts," the professor tells his naive student.

Taking this recommendation to heart, Phineas plunges into research for a biography about Scholes Destry-Scholes, a forgotten mid-20th-century biographer of Elmer Bole, a 19th-century biographer of Evliya Chelebi, the 17th-century Turkish traveler. Have you got that?

In the first 20 pages, Byatt nests lives within lives, reflections bounce off reflections, and allusions lead to references that echo antecedents. It's all very witty, absurd, and intimidating. This is a novel that cries out for a scaffolding of explanatory footnotes that would, unfortunately, dampen its witty satire.

In Destry-Scholes's three volume biography, Phineas finds the terra firma he's been craving, a scholar who "recounts Elmer Bole's personal life exactly as far as it can be known and no further." Writing "before the idea of 'objectivity' was deconstructed," Destry-Scholes concerns himself with the facts, the details, the real things. (For modern literary theorists, such claims inspire howls of erudite laughter. In French.)

His early efforts produce almost nothing about this obscure subject, but eventually he secures a collection of jumbled papers written by Destry-Scholes. They appear to be notes for three different biographies in progress: Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century taxonomist; Francis Galton, a 19th-century eugenicist; and Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright.

One way to convey the difficulty of making sense of these notes would be to tell us about the difficulty of making sense of these notes. The other way would be to make us read these notes. Byatt chooses this second method, and the experience is alternately maddening, boring, fascinating, and wholly realistic. She pushes the limits of what a novel can be, forcing us to endure an experience rather than receive her story.

As Phineas investigates further, hairline cracks appear in his subject's noble objectivity. It seems Linnaeus invented one of his brave adventures, and (gasp!) Destry-Scholes may have purposely embellished this fiction further. Why? Isn't it possible, Phineas cries, to write about something without coloring it with your own perspective?

He protests (too much) that "the last thing I have any interest in writing - I mean this - is an autobiography. No, no, the true literary fanatic, the primeval reader, is looking for anything but a mirror."

But as his research leads him further into the chaotic minutiae of Destry-Scholes's life, he's clearly lost in the funhouse. Soon, he's referring to himself as "the ur-I of this document" and noticing that "no string has an end. Like spider-silk unreeling."

Struggling to reclaim something real, he takes a job at Puck's Girdle, a travel agency that arranges obscure trips for the literary minded, "the golden road to Samarkand, haunts of the Lorelei, Treasure Island, Brontes' Brussels."

He also begins two passionate affairs, one with a bee taxonomist and another with an anesthesiologist obsessed with cataloging Destry-Scholes's collection of marbles.

Ordering - that basic human need to organize the world despite the impossibility of reaching anything beyond arbitrary systems - runs throughout all these characters' lives, living or dead. But for this hapless biographer, the pursuit leads only to further chaos, moral and intellectual.

What's most brilliant about this novel is also what's most inaccessible about it, an irony that will delight a few hundred post-structuralists, but may not please the wider audience this Booker Prize-winner is sure to draw.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor,

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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