The Books: “The Biographer’s Tale” (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

0375411143.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpgThe Biographer’s Tale: A Novel – by A.S. Byatt.

For the love of Pete, I barely remember a word of this book. It came out in December 2001 – and I bought it and also read it in Dec. of 2001 (I keep a list of the books I read) – and so that may explain why I remember NOTHING of this book. Dec. 2001. That’s all that really needs to be said.

I tried to read fiction … but it would be a year and a half or so before I could submit to a novel … everything I read had to be historical, factual, whatever. So that might be why I have NO memory of Biographer’s Tale – and I can tell that I actually read it because I’ve marked out certain passages, underlined certain sentences. What? Was I even THERE? There’s a good 6 or 7 months around that time that I have almost no memory of, anyway – and I read Biographer’s Tale during that time. Vanished from ye olde brain cells.

I don’t remember it making a big splash – compared to Possession and Babel Tower it’s almost like a sketchbook of an idea … From what I can gather … it’s about a man who leaves his graduate program in English, or literary theory – something extremely postmodern and analytical … and decides to confront reality by writing a biography of a great biographer. He begins his research and finds a box of material in an attic somewhere (forgive the vagueness) … notebooks full of notes written by this great biographer. Because it’s Byatt writing – we get to feel like we are rifling through this box. There are catalog cards with notes and quotes scribbled on them – some attributed, some not – we get to read them. “Card No. 29”, etc. Byatt loves to do that – books within books, trying to get at a first-hand experience as opposed to something told to us. It becomes apparent – as you read through the notes of the great biographer that he had been in the planning stages for books on Henrik Ibsen – Darwin … and some other dude. No memory of it.

Uhm … what the point of all of this is is beyond me. I’d need to read it again. I read this book in the direct aftermath of terrorist attacks and – I guess I thought I needed an escape (well, I did!) … and maybe this book did help me escape, but nothing of it remains in my brain.

I flipped through the book and decided to excerpt from one of the sections of the biographer’s notebook. (I mean – the one that the narrator, the OTHER biographer, is investigating. As always, there are layers within layers in this book). Although “Ibsen” is not named … it becomes obvious who the notes are referring to.

And re-reading this this morning – I really like it. Especially this line from Ibsen: “summer is best described on a winter day.” !!!!!!!!!!

Makes me think I need to read it now – when I’m no longer shell-shocked from a certain blinding blue September day.

Excerpt from The Biographer’s Tale: A Novel – by A.S. Byatt.

[The third document, to which I gave the provisional title “I …”]

He was a public man, and he made a daily public progress. He set out at two o’clock from Victoria Terrace, and walked to the Grand Hotel. He dressed carefully, always in the same clothes – a black, broadcloth frock-coat, black trousers, concertinaed at the ankles over highly polished, high-heeled black boots, a carefully folded umbrella, a glistening silk top-hat, a little fence of miniature medals. His white beard, and his white hair surrounded his sallow, unsmiling face, like the copious flare of a halo. He was a tiny personage, and carried himself stiffly erect, full of a dignity at once self-important and threatening. His lips were thin; his eyes, under their snowy ledges, have been called, finely, “fierce badger eyes”. Cartoonists found him easy to “take”; their images proliferated, all recognisable projections, all the same, all different. He knew he was looked at. He had constructed himself to be looked at. Famous men walk behind, or inside, a simplified mask, constructed from inside and outside simultaneously. He groomed his parchment skin and his sleek boot-leather to turn back the light to the onlooker. The onlookers, even as they watched the precise, dandified advance, knew they saw the outside, not the inside. They let their imaginations flicker round the inchoate “inside,” which remained bland and opaque. He belonged to them, their countryman. They had never been sure if they liked him.

His effigies were round him in his lifetime. In his latter days, his statue stood outside the National Theatre, larger than life, looming through the snow. He was photographed, diminutive and bristling amongst the dignitaries, at ceremonies of dedication. There was a Platz named for him in Gossensass. There was a proposal to make a waxwork double of him to preside over a Freie Buhne festival in Berlin. They wrote to ask for the loan of an old suit. “Be so good as to tell this gentleman that I do not wear ‘old suits,’ nor do I wish a wax model of myself to be clothed in an ‘old suit’. Obviously I cannot give him a new one, and I therefore suggest he order one from my tailor, Herr Friess, of Maximilianstrasse, Munich.” Sculptors and painters found him somehow inordinate. He had, he informed one of them, the largest brainpan ever measured by a certain German expert. Another, having asked him to remove his spectacles, was appalled by the disparity between his eyes.

“One was large, I might almost say horrible – so it seemed to me – and deeply mystical; the other much smaller, rather pinched up, cold and clear and calmy probing. I stood speechless a few seconds and stared at those eyes, and spoke the thought that flashed into my mind: ‘I wouldn’t like to have you as an enemy.’ Then his eyes and his whole body seemed to blaze, and I thought instinctively of the troll in the fairy tale who pops out of his hole and roars: ‘Who is chopping trees in my forest?'”

He was a man mjok trollaukinn, with “augmented inhumanity” as one ludicrous translation has it. He wrote:

To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul.
To write is to sit in judgement on oneself.

Division and self-division. The trolls ensconced in the blood and under the pelt of the human creature; the writer, watching himself, summing up, delivering judgement. He wrote surrounded by a swarm of red-tongued gutta-percha trolls. “There must be a troll in what I write,” he said. His monstrous troll came out only in extremis, when things were impossibly difficult. “Then I lock my door and bring him out. No other human eye has seen him, not even my wife … He is a bear, playing the violin, and beating time with his feet.”

So there he was, man and troll, badger and bear, black integument and lined parchment sac containing blood, bones, and busy creatures, proceeding towards the Grand Hotel, in Christiania, in Norway, which he did not want to think was home. “Up here among the fjords I have my native land. But-but-but: where do I find my homeland?” “Ten years ago, after my second absence of ten years, when I sailed up the fjord, I literally felt my chest contract with revulsion and a feeling of sickness. I felt the same during my whole stay; I was no longer myself among all these cold and uncomprehending Norwegian eyes in the windows and on the pavements.” In the South, he thought of the North.

He turned his ship’s
Prow from the north,
Seeking the trail
Of brighter gods.

The snow-land’s beacons
Quenched in the sea.
The fauns of the seashore
Stilled his longing

He burned his ships.
Blue smoke drifted
Like a bridge’s span
Towards the north.

To those snow-capped huts
From the hills of the south
There rides a rider
Every night.

He was a northerner who went south for light, for distance, in order to see the north, in light, from a distance. He crossed the Alps on May 9th 1864. On April 1, 1898, in Copenhagen, he spoke of the transition.

“Over the high mountains the clouds hung like great, dark curtains, and beneath these we drove through the tunnel and, suddenly, found ourselves at Mira Mara, where that marvellously bright light which is the beauty of the south suddenly revealed itself to me, gleaming like white marble. It was to affect all my later work, even if the content thereof was not always beautiful.” He had “a feeling of being released from the darkness into light, emerging from mists through a tunnel into the sunshine.”

He was, or had been, a narrow northern Puritan. He was shocked, and then exhilerated, by the excess of energy of Michelangelo and Bernini. “Those fellows had the courage to commit a madness now and then.” The Norweigians, he recalled contemptuously, “speak with intense complacency of our Norwegian ‘good sense,’ which really means nothing but a tepidity of spirit which makes it impossible for those honest souls to commit a madness.”

It was his great desire to commit a madness like Michelangelo. Was it for fear of tepidity and dim light only that he fled Norway? Was there a madness, already committed, working away like yeast in the Norwegian small beer of his past, ready to explode the bottle? As a letter-writer, he was inhibited, crabbed, tortuously formal, uncommunicative. After leaving his home town, he never returned there, though on the occasion of his mother’s death he wrote a stilted letter to his sister Hedwig, saying that he was just setting off for Egypt, but would like to receive letters. Later, he wrote to his father, who did not preserve the letter, but sent a reply, which was preserved, in which he said, “I tried to read your letter, but I couldn’t understand it, I felt ashamed …”

It is doubly difficult for a famous man, once returned to his native land, not to make a pious pilgrimage to the place of his birth. Spectators of the public life are interested in its beginnings, in the source. It is patently untrue to claim that he himself was indifferent or uninterested. In 1881 he began an autobiography, rapidly abandoned, expressing surprise that a street had been renamed for him. “Or so at any rate the newspapers have reported, and I have also heard it from reliable travellers.” He recorded a grim town – “nothing green; no rural, open landscape” — full of the sound of weirs and, penetrating the watery roar, “from morning to dusk, something resembling the sharp cries of women, now shrieking, now moaning. It was the hundreds of sawblades at work on the weirs. When later I read of the guillotine, I thought of those sawblades.” In the tall church, raised by a Copenhagen master builder, the child was exposed, by his nursemaid, sitting in the open window of the town, high, high up. The unexpected sight of him there caused his mother to scream and faint. In the church, too, lived a demonic black poodle with fiery red eyes, the sight of which, at that same window, had shocked a watchman into falling to his death, bursting open his head in the square below. “I felt that the window belonged to me and the church poodle,” he wrote. Then he gave up his autobiographical enterprise. It clearly never tempted him into revisiting those scenes. Something forbade him. He stayed away.

Sometimes he described how he set his characters in motion. How, one may ask, does such a man set about constructing another human being, in some sense ex nihilo, an individual who was not there before, and now exists, but whose very identity must leave space for the creative puppet-mastery of a director, the defining touches of a costumier and a maquilleuse, the deliberate accidents of directed light-rays and non-functional, even painted, cloth, chairs and tables? Above all, how does he make such a person “real,” whatever that is, and yet leave that “reality” sketched and incomplete, to be fleshed out, to be wormed into, to bulge and sag around the unimagined, unaccommodating perhaps, body, voice – and history, and soul, and human limitations – of an actor? And not even one, definitive, magesterial actor, but a succession of these too fleshy ghosts each filling out different pouches and pockets? How could he collaborate, in his work of imagination, with these unknown helpers or opponents?

Such descriptions as he left of this process – few, as always, fewer than one might reasonably hope or expect – are disappointing in this regard. They could have been written by a novelist, or even – stretching the imagination a little – by a biographer. There is perhaps a little more emphasis on the body and the voice, but this is scratching for grains in sand. In a way, his accounts are platitudes, multiplied in other records of other observers. Nevertheless, the precise form of his platitudes, his own platitudes, cannnot be without interest; we should, if everything were accessible to know, be interested also in the precise combination of flora in his intestine, or layered convolutions in his brain. Do we have instruments for dissecting platitudes finely enough to yield precise local truths?

“Before I write one word,” runs this rare confidence, then, “I must know the character through and through, I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. I always proceed from the individual; the staging, the dramatic ensemble, all that comes naturally and causes me no worry, as soon as I am certain of the individual in every aspect of his humanity. But I have to have his exterior in mind also, down to the last button, how he stands and walks, how he carries himself, what his voice sounds like. Then I do not let him go until his fate is fulfilled.”

Now we may ask – must ask, indeed, since it appears pointless to raise hypothetical theoretical barriers against such a profound and natural human curiosity – where these imagined humans come from? As we shall see, he compares them, ingeniously or disingenuously, to strangers met on a train. He observed those he met on trains, as a naturalist observes new and familiar species. With an overtone of moral judgement, added to pure observation. He is on record as having driven himself into rage and hatred over some unknown fellow-traveller, a woman, who slept in his railway-compartment all the way from Rome to Gossensass, without once looking out of the window. “What a lazy woman! To sleep the whole way! How can anyone be so lazy? … Most people die without ever having lived. Luckily for them, they don’t realise it.”

But the people he, to use a primitive phrase, “made up” must in some sense be not only watched strangers but spun from his own fabric, sensed inside his own stance, seen through one or the other of those terrible disparate eyes?

“As a rule, I make three drafts of my plays, which differ greatly from each other – in characterisation, not in plot. When I approach the first working-out of my material, it is as though I knew my characters from a railway-journey. One has made a preliminary acquaintance, one has chatted about this and that. At the next draft I already see everything much more clearly, and I know the people roughly as one would after a month spent with them at a spa; I have discovered the fundamentals of their characters and their little peculiarities; but I may still be wrong about certain essentials. Finally, in my last draft I have reached the limit of my knowledge; I know from characters from close and long acquaintance – they are my intimate friends, who will no longer disappoint me; as I see them now, I shall always see them.

He took things from others, certainly. A very young woman sent him, in Dresden, a sequel to his dramatic poem Brand, which she had called Brand’s Daughters. She called it a religious book. He called it a novel. He bothered, unusually, to give her advice. He liked very young women. He enjoyed their admiration. Something more than talent is required, he told her: “One must have something to create from, some life experience … Now I know very well that a life in solitude is not a life devoid of experiences. But the human being is in the spiritual sense a long-sighted creature. We see most clearly at a distance; details confuse us; we must get away from what we desire to judge; summer is best described on a winter day.”

Light like white marble, remembered amongst crisp snow under steel skies.

Later he appropriated the same young woman’s confusion and folly to construct his doll-wife in his dolls’ house; she too had borrowed to pay for her sick husband’s travel, she too had forged a cheque. Nora arouses the sympathy of millions. Laura, whose acts were stolen, had periods of madness and shame. He did not choose to make, or keep friends.

“Friends are an expensive luxury; and when one sinks all one’s capital in a vocation and a mission in life, then one cannot afford to have friends. The extravagance of keeping friends lies not in what one does for them, but what, out of consideration for them, one omits to do. On that account, many intellectual shoots are crippled in oneself. I have gone through this, and on that account, I have several years behind me, in which I did not succeed in being myself.”

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3 Responses to The Books: “The Biographer’s Tale” (A.S. Byatt)

  1. tracey says:

    This is my favorite part of the whole thing:

    /Uhm … what the point of all of this is is beyond me./


  2. red says:

    I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read fiction at the time, I guess. The fault is all mine – not hers. Even just reading that excerpt right now (and I have no memory of reading it the first time – even though I underlined passages like crazy – including the part about “distance” being good for writing) … makes me want to go back and read it with a clearer mind.

  3. tracey says:

    There’s just a kind of adorableness to that admission, to me.

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