Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Biographer's Tale~A. S. Byatt

I had a serious case of Book Lust with this novel. By that I mean it was physically a beautiful book, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I'd gaze longingly at it when I passed by it in the university library, and after Possession, I knew I had to read it. It's the second Byatt novel I've read, and now, finally, after all the anticipation, I'm not sure what to say. I can't say it fulfilled my expectations, but it wasn't disappointing either.
It's very clever. The autobiography of the biography of a biographer. It's a very intricate, carefully constructed novel, but I'm not sure there's any substance behind it. Like a house of cards, it's a neat trick. Byatt fairly dazzles you with the ideas and themes exploding all over this work--but it's all strangely bloodless. There's no coherence or connection between all the "facts" and "things" that Phineas G. Nanson ("the ur-I of this document", as he says) immerses himself in. It's ultimately unsatisfying, "the antidote to Possession," as I read in one critic's review. If Possession is passionate, The Biographer's Tale is fiercely dispassionate. I think that's the point, maybe. But I don't know what Byatt's trying to say, and frankly, I don't care. Phineas seems to be a formalist stuck in a post-modern world. I can understand his frustration with modern literary theory, though. But this whole thing functions more as a piece of literary criticism than a novel. Like she's employing post-structuralist techniques to criticize post-structuralism or something. Not that I've actually studied structuralism yet, post- or otherwise. (Yes, I know I said I wouldn't be using too much academic jargon, but I really can't get around it with this book.) And while I think Byatt may be saying some important and interesting things here, for the most part it's so fucking boring I don't really give a damn. It's "intellectual" in the worst sense--dry, stuffy, and arrogant.
I'm anxious to try out Margaret Drabble and see how she compares to her sister.


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