Biographemes and A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale

This paper was researched and written over the course of almost a year, starting in May 2002 and ending in April 2003, under the direction of the amazing Dr. Sarah Tolmie, at the University of Waterloo. Many things have changed since then, and I would not come to all the same conclusions today. In particular, my understanding of feminism, and Byatt’s relationship to it, have both improved dramatically since writing this paper. I leave it as it stands, however, a) so as to not do disservice to who I was when I wrote it, and b) because rewriting it would be a crapload of work that I have no interest in doing.

Section 1.0: Introduction

biographers_taleIn this essay I will explore the role of biographemes in A.S. Byatt’s novel The Biographer’s Tale. The novel is narrated by a frustrated graduate student, named Phineas G. Nanson, who gives up the study of literature in a post-modern context to write the biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, himself a fictional biographer. Nanson learns that Destry-Scholes, as well as having written the biography of the fictional Sir Elmer Bole, had also begun to write biographies (or at least compile notes toward biographies) of Henrik Ibsen, a famous playwright; Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and a remarkable scientist in his own right; and Carl Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy. Many of the notes unearthed by Nanson are biographemes; some are letters transcribed onto note cards (the transcriptions quoted in full within the text of the novel), others are places, and there are still more biographemes peppered throughout the novel. This essay will deal primarily with Destry-Scholes’ three famous subjects, the passages from letters Nanson unearths in Destry-Scholes’ notes, and at least one forged passage from an authentic biographematic essay. The biographemes offer at least two distinct readings of the novel, a realist1 reading, and a post-structuralist reading. The biographemes also create a kind of ethical tension in the novel. I will discuss how the biographemes facilitate each of the two readings, and I will also discuss some of the ethical implications of Byatt’s use of biographemes.

Linda Hutcheon defines “biographemes,” a term coined by Roland Barthes, as “units of biography and history” (85), and to that I would add the implied phrase, “within a text,” since in both the context of Hutcheon’s book and my own study of A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, biographemes appear within literary texts. In order for a “unit” to be a biographeme, it must appear not only in a literary work, but must have a corresponding unit in history, or in contemporary reality. The word “units” is rather vague; it includes, but is not limited to, the following: the names of real people, alive or dead, famous or otherwise; real place names; and most importantly, real documents (in whole or in part) and artifacts.

The Biographer’s Tale abounds with biographemes. Some of the most obvious are the names of Francis Galton2, Henrik Ibsen3, Charles Darwin4 and Carl Linnaeus5. All four of them are historical people with varying degrees of fame. There is no question that these four were real people. As such Galton, Ibsen, and Linnaeus qualify as biographemes, as do their works, some of which are mentioned, and occasionally quoted from or drawn on, in the novel.

There are also other, less obvious biographemes present in the text. Letters to the periodical Nature, for example, are cited. The first, from Charles Darwin, was published on April 27th, 1871, and appears almost in its entirety on pages 158 through 160 of The Biographer’s Tale. A second letter, this time from Francis Galton, was originally published on May 4th, 1871. Byatt quotes from it on pages 160 and 161 of her novel. The letters are authentic, and are therefore also biographemes. A comparison of copies of the original letters to those found in The Biographer’s Tale reveals that Byatt did not quote either letter in full, but that they do exist outside the novel.

Finally, we have a rather interesting case. Byatt cites passages from an essay called “Free-Will—Observations and Inferences” from an 1884 issue of Mind. The essay is the work of Francis Galton, and does, in fact, exist. The article then qualifies as a biographeme. What makes this case interesting is that while the article itself exists, the passage that Byatt quotes does not, at least not in that essay. Since I have been unable to verify the existence of such a passage independent of the novel, I cannot consider the passage itself a biographeme. The forged passage from the essay, and the essay biographeme itself represent possibly the clearest example of biographemes tying the novel to the reader’s world in a convincing way. I will explore the implications of this passage in greater detail later in the essay.

The biographemes play a pivotal role in The Biographer’s Tale, and actually a dual, paradoxical role. First, they provide Byatt with an effective way to tie the novel to real life. In chapter two of his book On Literature, J. Hillis Miller suggests that ties to reality are a fundamental feature of literary works (24-45). Such ties can also increase the illusion of realism. Critics like Christien Franken6 and Kathleen Coyne Kelly7 have in their own work identified the quest for a kind of realism as one of the driving forces behind Byatt’s work.

The second role could be best described as a post-modern, or perhaps post-structuralist role. The biographemes, by being incomplete, potentially fake, and otherwise fragmented, raise questions of how narratives, particularly historical narratives, and identities, are constructed. Both Franken and Kelly have also found in Byatt’s work a need to explore such issues, creating a kind of tension. The biographemes act as agents for both of the potentially conflicting ideologies of realism and post-structuralism. By acting as agents for both ideologies, the biographemes relieve much of the tension in The Biographer’s Tale, and allow conflicting readings to exist side by side.

Other questions are raised by these “units of history,” which are not related to the formal concerns of narrative. They are questions of ethics; should Byatt include these dead men and their works in her fiction? The question cannot be ignored, as it raises the issue of how identities are formed and valued. Many critics, Franken and Kelly included, do not address the issue at all however, suggesting, just as Guy Gavriel Kay8 does, that such practices are taken for granted. The ethical dilemma involved, a hot topic for Kay and seemingly a moot point for Franken and others, is another area of tension in Byatt’s novel. By using biographemes in the way she does (most of the time very clearly delineating what is real and what is not), Byatt very nearly side steps the question of how ethical it is to use biographemes.

Section 2.0: The Biographeme as a Realist Device

Before I discuss how biographemes lend themselves to a traditional realist reading of The Biographer’s Tale, I should give a brief explanation of what I mean when I use the term “realism.” Realism, in the literary context, is literature connected with life and reality (or perhaps I should say what most of us would, for reasons of practicality, agree to call reality) in obvious, and more importantly coherent, ways. J. Hillis Miller has, in his book On Literature, suggested that all literary works are “virtual realities,” (33) and the reader “become[s] a disembodied observer within that reality” (24), a statement I think holds true especially for realist fiction. It may not be literally true that the reader enters another world, but the metaphor is evocative enough to be useful. The metaphor implies that the work in question must be coherent and recognizable enough for the reader to understand what is being described as a world.

Byatt has always been interested in realism as a literary form. In the introductory essay from On Histories and Stories she wrote that “[I] described myself in the early days as a “self-conscious realist”” (4). She is not just interested in realism by itself, however. She is interested in tradition as well. She comments on her interest in tradition in the same passage quoted from above. She writes:

I found myself wanting to write tales and stories, having described myself in the early days as a ‘self-conscious realist,’ and slowly came to see that the alternative tradition of the literary tale, or fairy tale, and the related anecdote was on of the things that made it possible to talk meaningfully about European literature. (Histories 4)

Byatt obviously sees herself as part of a tradition, even if only peripherally. Her reference to the “alternative tradition” of the fairy tale suggests that it is a rather old tradition. There is a possibility, based on the above quotation, that she sees herself as part of a greater European literary tradition, but critics such as Christien Franken have other ideas, linking her to the influential English critic F.R. Leavis9.

F.R. Leavis appears regularly in criticism of Byatt’s work, in her own On Histories and Stories as well as in an interview with her conducted by Philip Hensher for The Paris Review. Franken and other critics see Byatt’s work as connected to the tradition represented by F.R. Leavis. Franken writes:

Like Leavis she thinks that Literature is a way of living which contains more life, more thoughts and feelings, than a life spent not reading. This collapse of life into literature may seem escapist, exempting one from the trouble of everyday life. In A.S. Byatt’s critical work, however, it has exactly the opposite effect. (10)

On the surface this may seem like a comment on Byatt’s beliefs about how to live a meaningful life rather than how she sees her own work, but the point Franken makes is that in the Leavisite tradition there is no such separation. She acknowledges, according to Franken, that her work is in some respects linked to her life. She is looking for a mode of writing stable enough to have a fulfilling and emotional impact on her life. It is impossible to know for certain what sort of impact, but in Philip Hensher’s interview for The Paris Review, Byatt implies that some of her writing may be therapeutic in nature. In the interview she talks about how the death of her son Charles affected her writing, and about avoiding certain subjects as a result. She says,

After Charles’s death, I also came slowly to value comedy, because I began to see that tragedy and terror are things for the young, to whom nothing dreadful has happened, that there are things that are almost unwriteable […]. I suddenly thought, Why the hell not have happy endings? Everybody knows they’re artificial. Why not have this pleasure, as one has the pleasure of rhyme, as one has the pleasure of color? Once I’d worked through Still Life it took me away from heavy subjects and heavy events. My novels know that these things happen. (72-73)

Byatt’s realization of the value of comedy as a literary form, and her decision to include it, particularly in the form of the happy ending, seems a way of working through grief and other emotions that came with the death of her son. Byatt changed her perspective on her own literary production as the result of a personal tragedy; as such her life and her literature are linked. Byatt’s comments on the artificiality of happy endings are also interesting. Happy endings may indeed be artificial, but they are also fairly coherent and recognizable (in the interview she gives William Shakespeare and Jane Austen as examples (73)), and are thus consistent with my definition of realism.

Biographemes, which can be, and are, used to reinforce the illusion of realism, are also seen as symptomatic of the changing way fiction writers as a whole link reality and fiction. Fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay quotes Jonathan Dee on the practice of using biographemes, specifically using real historical people as characters, in his essay, “Privacy and the Ethics of Literature.” He explains that, “Dee describes the phenomenon as a change in the way “fiction writers imagine their relation to the world”” (51). It is through their work that writers “imagine their relation to the world,” and as a result their work must be connected on some level with that world. Such a connection is certainly part of the definition of realism I proposed above. The connection also fits with Byatt’s own changing interests as a realist writer, such as her movement away from tragedy because of her son’s death, and her concurrent interest in tradition.

Section 2.1: Realism and Specific Biographemes

Now that Byatt’s predilection for realism has been explored, as well as the role of biographemes in realism, I can begin to discuss the specific biographemes found in The Biographer’s Tale. I will begin with some of the more obvious biographemes and how they tie the novel to the realist tradition. The best place to start would be with the names mentioned several pages above, Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen. These names are biographemes in the most obvious sense imaginable, being simply the names of historical figures, as explained in the introductory section. Their names appear quite regularly through approximately the last two-thirds of the novel,10 so I will not point to any specific instances, but it is important to note why they are there. Byatt juxtaposes real figures alongside the fictional Sir Elmer Bole as subjects for the work of her fictional biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes. By doing so she situates her fictional characters, most importantly Destry-Scholes, and her narrator, Nanson, in a world that contains (or rather, contained) the same figures as the world the reader lives in.

Next I’d like to deal with the letters to Nature. The letters, transcribed, presumably onto file cards, by Scholes Destry-Scholes, appear between pages 158 and 161 of The Biographer’s Tale, and represent, to Byatt’s narrator at least, a significant find, since they point out the direction Destry-Scholes was planning to take with his unfinished work. They are also significant because Nanson was searching for something of Destry-Scholes’ life in his work, and there is a third card (unfortunately for Nanson, not written by Destry-Scholes, but rather by the very real Karl Pearson11) which comments on the cards containing the transcribed letters. Nanson, thinking of Destry-Scholes hard at work, tells the reader, “I like to think that he had stopped to record his admiration for his subject and to state his sense of “a biographer’s duty”” (Biographer 163). Byatt’s frustration with post-structuralist theory and her desire for a mode of writing connected with life are represented through Nanson’s own frustrations. Early on in the novel Nanson wants to embrace the world of “things” (Biographer 2) rather than the world of theory. He sarcastically claims that postmodern theorists do not live in the same world he does. Byatt writes, “I had avoided the trap of talking about “reality” and “unreality” for I knew very well that postmodernist literary theory could be described as a reality. People lived in it” (4). Postmodernism is not connected with Nanson’s life the way that he wants his work to be. He wants things. Critic Kathleen Coyne Kelly writes that, “we have no absolute way of determining when the narrator is expressing an opinion that Byatt expects us to attribute to herself” (90). That is true, but I do not think it would be too great a leap to attribute Nanson’s frustration to Byatt. Nanson’s resistance to post-modern thought appears several times in the novel. Later in The Biographer’s Tale Nanson expresses a more specific dislike of post-modern theory. Byatt writes,

Feminism was one of the secondary reasons I had given up post-structuralist theory. There is an (almost) irresistible urge to distort or misrepresent or ignore or overemphasize facts and items of information, in feminist theory. It is also not really possible to say so. (121)

If Byatt and Nanson are both in search of ties to life in their work, the letters, as biographemes, are exactly what they need. They are real, and they are things. On April 27th, 1871 a periodical called Nature published a letter from Charles Darwin, and Nanson finds a slightly abridged copy among Destry-Scholes’ things. Also, on May 4th of the same year, Nature published a letter from Francis Galton, and Nanson finds a similarly abridged copy of this letter. Both letters are real; copies, obtained via microfilm, sit on my desk as I type this. The tie to life exists. It exists for Nanson, even if it wasn’t through Destry-Scholes (although that is somewhat appropriate, since Destry-Scholes is fictional), and it exists for Byatt, and the reader as well. Interested parties could easily obtain copies of the letters. Their existence forges a link between our world and the world of the novel, and heightens the illusion of realism.

Section 2.2: The Forged Biographeme

Before I conclude my exploration of biographemes and the realist aspect of The Biographer’s Tale, there is one biographeme to be examined that is especially interesting, as it is at the same time both more complicated and more clear in its action than any of the others. On page 231 of The Biographer’s Tale, Byatt claims to cite a passage from one of Francis Galton’s Mind essays on one of Destry-Scholes’ file cards. The essay exists. It is called “Free-Will—Observations and Inferences,” and was indeed published in Volume IX of Mind, pages 406-13, in 1884. The citation is a biographeme, but the passage is not. It does not appear anywhere in the essay. This particular forged passage alongside an authentic biographeme is perhaps the clearest example of how biographemes, by tying a work to the world of the reader, can heighten the effect of realist fiction. The passage is not obviously a fake, and during my research I was surprised to learn that it was, particularly given that Nanson not only finds, in his own research, that the passage is real, but also finds a reference to it in Pearson’s work. Byatt writes,

Destry-Scholes can never have imagined me when he left this amorphous dossier. I suppose the only reader he can have imagined was himself, and he must have had a photographic memory, quite extraordinarily well-trained, to know his way around all this. I was quite pleased with my running-down, in indexes, of the previous citation, which took time. I then found that I could have found it in Pearson […]. (231)

Most readers would have taken Byatt at her word, given that the essay was cited so precisely, and that so many other authentic biographemes appear elsewhere in the novel. There are at least four on the first page alone. So skillful was fiction blended with biographemes that I too believed the passage on the file card to be real, a legitimate biographeme. It was only through a thorough investigation that I found out the truth, and few readers would do the necessary archival research to determine the passage’s authenticity.

Section 2.3: Concluding Remarks on Realism

There are other reasons, some only peripherally related to biographemes, why The Biographer’s Tale might be read as a realist novel, and some of them need to be examined. First and foremost, it is fairly linear. It has a beginning, middle, and end, with a consistent narrator, Phineas G. Nanson, throughout. More importantly, there are hints, particularly at the beginning, that the novel is to be read as a realist work. Between virtual lists of biographemes, when Nanson first begins to read Destry-Scholes’ biography of the fictional Sir Elmer Bole, the reader gets a rather significant clue. Nanson tells the reader,

[…] as I progressed, the reading became compulsive, the mental dominance of both Bole and Destry-Scholes more and more complete. I do not pretend to have discovered even a quarter of the riches of that great book on that first gulping and greedy reading. Destry-Scholes had, among all the others, the primitive virtue of telling a rattling good yarn, and I was hooked. And he had that other primitive virtue, the capacity to make up a world in every corner of which his reader would wish to linger, to look, to learn. (8)

Nanson and A.S. Byatt could, from Destry-Scholes’ book, both get what they want: “things,” and a realist narrative linked to life and the world, or at the very least one of J. Hillis Miller’s “virtual realities” (Miller 33). Destry-Scholes’ work doesn’t exist, but Byatt’s does, and the passage above is a signal to the reader that he will find all of those things in The Biographer’s Tale.

Section 3.0: The Post-Structuralist Biographeme

A.S. Byatt is not just concerned with realism, or with tradition. She is also an author of her time, and as much as she may resist post-structural ideas, she cannot escape them. In The Biographer’s Tale she also takes advantage of biographemes to explore post-structuralist ideas such as the fragmentation of knowledge, the fragmented nature of subjectivity, and the way in which narratives are constructed. That Byatt would be interested in both post-structuralism as well as realism might seem like a paradox, and it is. It is also a source of tension in Byatt’s work, as Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Christien Franken have both noted, although Franken refers to the tension as “feminist ambivalence,” (Franken 20), a label with which I do not agree. As I wrote above, I do not believe it unreasonable to attribute Nanson’s hostility toward feminism to Byatt herself, particularly since her narrator, and most of the important supporting characters, are all male.

Byatt has expressed an interest in post-structuralist thought in much the same way as she expressed an interest in ideas of tradition and realism. Philip Hensher, in The Paris Review, quotes her as saying,

I don’t know of a system that I believe in. I do feel a compulsion to respect people who build systems, because it’s obviously a human thing. I don’t see much point in doing things for a pure joke. Every now and then you need a joke, but not so much as people who spend all their lives constructing joke palaces think you do. They think it’s a form of sanity in an insane world, but I’m not sure it is. […] The one thing I really don’t like is narcissism. I don’t like writers sitting there admiring themselves for being so clever. I suppose what one ought to think about is what one does love in postmodernism. If you asked me what I wished I’d written, I would say Borges’s Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. That is a completely pointless postmodernist structure of total beauty which nevertheless has a profound point. (69)

Most of this seems to be about what Byatt doesn’t like such as narcissism, and pointless and excessive joking. It is interesting that it is a “completely pointless postmodernist structure” in which she admires the beauty; post-structuralist play is not what she is rebelling against, but rather the way in which such play is often approached, and the extremes to which it is taken. Borges’ “Pierre Menard” may seem extreme to some, given that in the story Borges ruminates on how much of a work is the result of the author, how much is a result of society, and so on, but the techniques are fairly straightforward; a reader who is not careful may mistake it for a work of non-fiction. A more extreme work might be Saul Steinberg’s “Country Noises,” in which the noises one hears in the countryside are rendered through a combination of labels and typographic ornaments. Such pieces, while interesting on many levels, might be considered “excessive joking.” The two words near the end of Byatt’s comments, “total beauty,” speak volumes. What Byatt does seem to like is beauty. Not only is she interested in beauty; the work must have a point, a purpose beyond play. Byatt is not specific about what that “point” might be, but that she requires one at all indicates that her interest in post-structuralist ideas is not as strong as her interest in realism.

Perhaps the most obvious example of biographemes playing a post-structuralist role appears when Nanson begins to meditate on his relationship with his subject, Destry-Scholes, and the artifacts he has found. Byatt writes,

There was also the question, beyond the shoebox, of the three fictive fragments of biography, where the biographer had quite deliberately woven his own lies and inventions into the dense texture of collected facts. Was this a wry comment on the hopeless nature of the project of biographical accuracy, or was it just a wild and whimsical kicking-over of the traces? I seemed to understand that the imaginary narrative has sprung out of the scholarly one, and that the compulsion to invent was in some way related to my own sense that in constructing this narrative I have had to insert facts about myself, […] my feelings, and now my interpretations. […]. They slipped in and out of focus, on a multiplicity of scales, from the minute to the vast. […]. Was the composite Destry-Scholes? Was it, since I had had to arrange and rearrange, Phineas G. Nanson? (Biographer 236-237)

This is an extremely post-structuralist revelation, but it is here combined with a more Leavisite mode—Nanson is not simply meditating, he is having an epiphany. He is realizing that his own life is part of a text, and that it shapes the story he is trying to construct of Destry-Scholes, blurring the boundaries between the two identities. Nanson has come to realize that everything he thinks he knows about Destry-Scholes comes from himself and his perspective; this is the very core of many post-structuralist modes (including the feminist mode which Nanson despises, since it is based on the politics of identity). But the passage also opens up speculation about how much of The Biographer’s Tale is actually about Byatt herself. I think that much of Nanson’s own concerns with literary theory, and with projecting his life onto Destry-Scholes, is in fact Byatt projecting her own anxieties on to Nanson. Kathleen Coyne Kelly calls Byatt’s novels “both autobiographical and not at the same time” (Kelly 15). That is an excellent way to describe them. It is impossible determine for certain how much of Nanson is Byatt any more than Nanson can assess how accurately the information he uncovers represents Destry-Scholes. There is ultimately no solution to this problem. Even asking Byatt herself would only reveal so much. She may be unwilling, and even more likely, unable, to reveal all the information necessary. No matter how much information is available, it is impossible to paint an accurate picture of a human being, and even more difficult to determine how much of that individual is transferred to her art.

Along the same lines, it is interesting to note that Nanson ties in his autobiographical narrative with his “need to invent” (Biographer 237). It raises questions about the formation of Nanson’s identity. He is always second-guessing himself and his style (e.g. “Can I perpetrate a phrase like that?” (Biographer 250)), and in my first reading I found it added to his credibility, but upon rereading the novel I find it does quite the opposite. It has become increasingly difficult to trust Nanson, not as a narrator who is out to trick the reader, but as one who, by deliberately drawing attention to what he perceives as inadequacies in his style, also draws attention to the fact that he is constructing a narrative out of fragments, just as he’s trying to construct Destry-Scholes’ narrative out of fragments. The only real difference is that Nanson is able to supply more fragments from his own story than from Destry-Scholes’ story, and can arrange them in a way that makes a kind of sense. Byatt is drawing our attention to the fact that a narrative is simply the best arrangement of the right number of facts. That is not only the case for biography, but also for Byatt’s novels. As readers we cannot trust Nanson as a narrator because he is picking and choosing what he tells us, and we cannot trust Byatt for exactly the same reason.

None of the biographemes in the novel are complete, placing an emphasis on Nanson’s inability as a human being to know anything for sure, an idea now accepted by scholarship, but still resisted by some. Byatt writes,

“Facts,” said Ormerod Goode. “Facts.” He meditated. “The richness,” he said, “the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy—every established fact illuminates the world. True scholarship once aspired to add its modest light to that illumination. To clear a few cobwebs. No more.” (Biographer 4)

There is sadness in the tone of this passage, and a certain sense of loss, but it is not a false sense of loss, as The Biographer’s Tale illustrates. Goode (Nanson’s advisor) cannot even keep a grip on his metaphor. It falls apart, beginning with solid planets and ending with incorporeal light. Despite all the biographemes, and all the supposed facts discovered about Scholes Destry-Scholes, the world is not illuminated, and no cobwebs are cleared. No matter how much Nanson or the reader knows, there will always be more to know before a complete picture will emerge. Even Nanson himself sees the passage quoted above from pages 236-237 of The Biographer’s Tale as possibly “a comment on the hopeless nature of the project of biographical accuracy” (236).

Here the letters from Nature are a wonderful example. The first letter, from Charles Darwin, published on April 27th, 1871, is quoted very nearly in full (Biographer 158-160), but is also almost completely without context. In order for the contents of the letter to be properly understood, the reader must first be familiar with “a paper, read March 30th, 1871, before the Royal Society” (Biographer 158), the contents of which are the reason for Darwin writing the letter to begin with. The paper deals with Galton’s experiments on blood transfusions between rabbits; he was trying to determine how Pangenesis (the development of an animal’s characteristics through the transmission of “gemmules,” an idea similar to modern knowledge about DNA) works (Biographer 158-161). It is also not clear what use Destry-Scholes planned on making of the letter. Another biographeme, quoted (although not in full) adds more to the story. Galton’s response, published in Nature on May 4th of 1871 (Biographer 160-161), sheds some light on the paper Darwin made reference to, but again does not tell the whole story, nor does it, in itself, clear away the cobwebs around what use Destry-Scholes might make of those letters.

Section 4.0: Ethics and Biographemes

Questions of ethics are of particular importance in The Biographer’s Tale. The novel is rife with questions about how far a biographer can and should go in terms of taking liberties with narrative, and less directly (but more importantly), how far an author can and should go when using biographemes.

Author Guy Gavriel Kay believes that many authors go much too far using biographemes, although he does not use the term. In the spring 2001 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Kay’s essay, “Privacy and the Ethics of Literature” appeared. In the essay Kay discusses the use of a specific kind of biographeme, real people, in literary works. Kay comes right to the point:

Here’s the Calgary Herald reviewing Johnson’s Colony: “Johnson’s story weaves fact and fiction, and while I have no idea how factual the novel is, I don’t care. It’s a hell of a good read.” The New York Times on Oates’ Blonde: “If a novel can’t deliver Monroe’s beauty … it can, better than any film, give us her interior world.”

Might we pause to consider these remarks? Shouldn’t we care what is real and what is made up? And shouldn’t we ask what has happened when someone suggests that a novel gives us the inner world of a real person? This is nonsense, and it is pervasive. (54)

Guy Gavriel Kay does not believe that authors should take liberties with real people. Kay sees it both as misrepresentation, and an invasion of privacy based on a sense of entitlement. He writes,

what we can see in all of these works—and countless inferior ones—is an expanded perception of entitlement […]. We writers like to wrap ourselves in the cloak of liberty, defenders of free speech and the individual voice against the tyranny of state or fashion. What happens when we shift the mental perspective—as I suggest that we do—and consider ourselves as tools of tyrant fashion, instruments against individuals, not defenders of them. This, I begin to suspect, is what might be happening when so many important writers embrace this co-opting of real lives. Instead of challenging or querying, those who anchor their fictions in the lives of the real may be subscribing to the erosion of the private that I see as a defining component of our society. (54-5)

That this argument comes from a fantasy author is perhaps significant. As J. Hillis Miller suggested, anchoring fiction, and particularly realist fiction, to life is an important part of creating a stable, coherent world for the reader. It is not readily apparent where, even for Kay, the line should be drawn between what is acceptable use of biographemes, and what is not. Kay obviously has difficulty with the thought of using real people as the basis for fiction, but even he recognizes that restricting fiction’s access to history would hamstring it. He is simply calling for perhaps a more reverent approach to it. He writes,

Do we want to forbid such speech and writing? Not, I trust and hope, beyond the present laws of libel, hate literature, and other legal remedies, and perhaps not even as far as we currently go. But should we not reflect carefully upon what we might be losing when these fictions—and the worldview that underlies them—become normative? (53)

Caution in such matters is an excellent approach; there is no easy answer to any of the ethical questions, posed either by Kay, or in The Biographer’s Tale. I had the good fortune recently to attend a lecture given by Kay at the University of Waterloo, at which time he suggested two of many possible ways of dealing with history and biography through fiction.

The first, which was his approach as a writer, was to use history (although not biographemes) as the basis for fantastic fiction. Rather than use real historical people and places, he suggested, authors might choose to use them as a basis for fictional characters and places, set in fictional worlds. He held up his own Tigana as an example, a novel in which renaissance Italy is the basis for a society that exists on a planet so different from ours that it has two moons. In such a fiction, he claimed, history could be used as flavour. That presents problems as well. If history is used simply as “flavour,” does that not run the risk of relegating all history to the role of “flavour,” and if so, is that not making light of the very thing Kay says we must protect? Where does reverence and respect for the past, and for real people, fit in the context of “flavour”?

The second method he suggested for dealing with history relates directly to biographemes, and seems to be the method Byatt employs in The Biographer’s Tale. According to Kay, Sir Walter Scott once suggested that it was acceptable for writers to use real people in their work provided they were not used as point-of-view characters. They had to be peripheral, so that writers could avoid putting words in their mouths. This is exactly what Byatt does, allowing real documents to speak for her biographematic figures rather than inventing thoughts for them to have, or words for them to say. In fact, when her fictional character Scholes Destry-Scholes does fake documents, such as the three fragments found on pages 37-95, they are very quickly revealed as fake. Only five pages after the documents are quoted in full, Ormerod Goode tells Nanson, “[t]here is something shifty about all that shamanistic stuff in the Linnaeus document” (103). Nanson examines the documents and determines that Destry-Scholes was writing them himself, exploring his own “need to invent” (Biographer 237). Byatt is pointedly acknowledging the problem of putting words into the mouths of her biographematic characters, and by doing so she nearly sidesteps the ethical issue completely. Instead, we are left with the forged passage from the essay in Mind. Rather than revealing it as the fake it is, Nanson verifies its authenticity from no less than two sources. The false passage actually brings up the issue I am discussing. Byatt writes, in the voice of Victorian scientist Francis Galton,

Although philosophers may have written to show the impossibility of discovering what goes on in the minds of others, I maintain an opposite opinion. I do not see why the report of a person on his own mind should not be as intelligible and trustworthy as that of a traveller upon a new country, whose landscapes and inhabitants are of a different type to any which we ourselves have seen. It appears to me that inquiry into the mental constitution of other people is a most fertile field for exploration, especially as there is much in the facts adduced here, as well as elsewhere, to show that original differences in mental constitution are permanent, and that they are strongly hereditary. (Biographer 231)

That a passage on the possibility of knowing someone else’s mind was forged strikes me as being particularly significant. If I were to read this passage in a completely straightforward way, I might believe that Byatt was suggesting that her forged documents were in some way true to the historical people who exist on the periphery of her story. That particular reading does not go deep enough. There is the phrase “as intelligible and trustworthy as that of a traveller upon a new country, whose landscape and inhabitants are of a different type to any which we ourselves have seen” to consider. In a contemporary context this remark is very ironic. Such a traveller would be very untrustworthy to contemporary readers, since neither he, nor the reader, could have any chance of understanding what had been seen or experienced in that new country. That this passage would be forged may be an indication that Byatt herself is uncomfortable working directly with biographematic characters, even in the indirect way suggested by Guy Gavriel Kay. In the novel Nanson is exploring biography for the first time, and is “a traveller upon a new country,” telling the reader about his experiences in a new intellectual space. If the contemporary reader finds it ironic to be asked to trust such a traveller, should he also find it ironic that Byatt asks him to trust Nanson?

Many critics, such as Kathleen Coyle Kelly, and Christien Franken, seem to take Byatt’s use of biographematic figures for granted in exactly the way Kay suggests readers and authors should not. Their criticisms focus on issues such as gender and hidden autobiographical elements, ignoring completely overt biographemes and their ethical implications. Linda Hutcheon, in whose book I found the term “biographeme,” is equally silent on the subject of ethics. She takes for granted, even as long ago as 1988, that biographematic figures are fair game for literature. Silent acceptance seems to be the rule, with Guy Gavriel Kay’s self-conscious caution the exception.

Section 5.0: Conclusions

Acting almost like a hinge on which The Biographer’s Tale swings, biographemes play out several roles, including the role of relieving the tension between the two most obvious, and contradictory, readings. They serve, as J. Hillis Miller would agree, to relate literary works to the real world, as the reader knows it, providing a connective tissue for the reader to enter the “virtual reality” of the text. The sheer volume of biographemes, the coherent, mostly linear narrative, and the consistent if unsure narrative voice work together to create a solid and fairly traditional example of realist fiction. Byatt’s clever use of historical figures such as Henrik Ibsen and Francis Galton to situate Nanson and her other fictional characters, most notably Scholes Destry-Scholes, in the reader’s world reinforces the illusion of realism. Likewise the quotations from Darwin and Galton’s letters to Nature help to create a coherent, realistic world in which characters like Sir Elmer Bole can move. Even the one inauthentic biographeme, the forged passage from a real essay in Mind (an authentic biographeme), work to make a realist reading of The Biographer’s Tale the obvious dominant one. Byatt’s own comments about her life and her work also suggest that ties between life and literature are important to understanding her work.

In another possible reading, along post-structuralist lines, the biographemes cause the reader to question how narratives are formed, as Nanson grapples with his own limitations both as a biographer and as a narrator. As the novel progresses and Nanson tries to explore the life of Scholes Destry-Scholes the fragmentary, and often fictitious (within the context of the novel’s internal world), information uncovered leads only to more questions about the accuracy of even the best biography, or the best narrative. Nanson becomes difficult to trust as a narrator because of his own discoveries about how little he knows about Destry-Scholes, and about how little it is possible to know.

The two readings, contradictory though they are, are both possible because biographemes play a dual role as agents for both systems. They relieve the tension that results from Byatt’s conflicting interests; her interest in uniting her work to her life, possibly at times for therapeutic reasons, and her interest in being a writer of her time, one who cannot ignore post-structuralist thought.

The Biographer’s Tale also brings up ethical considerations, specifically dealing with the use of history and historical figures as material for fiction. Most critics, from Christien Franken and Kathleen Coyne Kelly, to Linda Hutcheon and J. Hillis Miller are silent on the issue, suggesting that the practice of using biographemes and biographematic figures as fictional material is acceptable. Only fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay seems to be willing to offer (reluctant) resistance, although his alternatives lead to as many questions as they do answers. Where biographemes relieved the tension between the dominant realist reading of the novel, and the less obvious but equally important post-structuralist reading, here they do not, leaving a kind of ethical tension firmly in place.

Works Cited and Consulted

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions.
Andrew Hurley, trans. New York: Penguin, 1999. 88-95.

Byatt, A.S. Interview with Philip Hensher. “A.S. Byatt: The Art of Fiction CLXVIII.”
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—. Introduction. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Cambridge:
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Franken, Christien. A.S. Byatt: Art, Authorship, Creativity. New York: Palgrave,

Galton, Francis. “Free-Will—Observations and Inferences.” Mind. 9.35 (July 1884): 406-413.

—. Letter. Nature. IV (April-October 1871): 5-6.

Henighan, Stephen. “The Terrible Truth About “Appropriation of Voice.”” When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing. Erin: The Porcupine’s
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Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. A.S. Byatt. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

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Writer. Editor. Critic.

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