The Biographer’s Tale, by A. S. Byatt (Random House)

Familiar territory, this, for the author of Possession (which won the Booker Prize in 1990): what constitutes one’s identity? Is it intrinsic and inviolate? Or is it something external and infinitely malleable, a grab-bag of miscellaneous impressions, interpretations, contradictory records and memories?

Does your identity belong to you? If you keep, say, a secret, scandalous diary, a diary that contradicts utterly the perceptions that others have of you, and one day the diary is discovered: are its revelations more “true” than the memories of your family and friends? Identity, of ordinary people as well as of the rich and famous, is endlessly appropriated, disseminated and distorted by others – particularly after you’re dead.

Possession explored this theme with skill and verve, through parallel narratives over a century apart. Modern-day scholars stumble on a secret: a fragment of a passionate letter sent by a famous Victorian poet to his mistress. The resulting hunt, with scholars on both sides of the Atlantic racing to find further clues to the truth, is at once a love story, a detective story, a literary tour-de-force and a satire on the academic research industry.

The Biographer’s Tale lacks the narrative drive of Possession, and the philosophical issues are more in the foreground. Phineas G. Nanson, a bored postgraduate student of literature, has a conversion of sorts during an excruciatingly dull theoretical seminar. No more, he decides, will he study literature as relationships between texts: he wants to connect words to things, to the world. “I have decided to give it all up. I’ve decided I don’t want to be a postmodern literary theorist.”

He will study, he decides, biography: after all, what branch of literature is more wedded to facts, to real people? A sympathetic lecturer recommends that he take up Scholes Destry-Scholes, the biographer of Elmer Bole, himself a novelist, poet, traveller, adventurer – and biographer; one of those immensely learned, Victorian supermen who would climb a mountain, compose a sonnet and discover a new butterfly before sitting down to breakfast.

Phineas G. sets about his task, but the thinginess of the world he yearns for proves elusive. He finds clues aplenty, but they don’t cohere: typescripts with missing, crucial pages; letters; diaries; shoeboxes of cards; all words, words, words. Other lives intrude and take over: the real-life, gigantic figures of Ibsen, Linnaeus, and Francis Galton.

Byatt’s narrative is determinedly digressive, and imbued with the minutiae of the byways of the Victorian mind – its fascination with classification and entomology, for instance. But there is far too much knowledge on display here, and her story loses itself in its own cleverness. Her novel is serious and comic and satirical and heartfelt all at once, and this is no longer praise. In her earlier novels (particularly the very fine Virgin in the Garden sequence), the formidable knowledge is latent, as it were, behind the narrative. Here, it is displayed everywhere, it seems, for its own sake: Byatt appears to have lost interest, almost, in her story.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets