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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.


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