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What Happened to the Hippopotamus’s Wife?

The Biographer’s Tale

A.S. Byatt
Knopf, 305 pp., $24.00

On Histories and Stories

A.S. Byatt
Harvard University Press,196 pp., $22.95

There has been a general feeling during my writing life that we cannot know the past—often extended into the opinion that we therefore should not write about it…. Postmodernist writers…have felt free to create their own fantasy pasts from odd details of names, events and places. If we can’t know we may invent, and anything goes.

Announcing this in an essay called “Forefathers” from her essay selection On Histories and Stories, A.S. Byatt goes on strongly to disagree, at least with the first half of the proposition. We should write about the past, even if we have to make it up for ourselves, even if history has become for us today a form of fiction:

…Novelists like Balzac and Flaubert could believe they were writing “history” because the forms of their fictions coincided with the forms of nineteenth-century histories, written by bourgeois historians, who believed that their historical narratives were a form of science.

Implicitly they believed, like Sir Walter Scott, their great master, that history and story were one, and that a writer who dipped his pen into storied antiquity brought the past back as it was, through the power and authority of simple narrative.

Simple narrative no longer exists: it has disappeared with history itself, and Byatt recognizes or rather assents to this fact with robust glee. Her fictions since Possession (1990) have been concerned to explore the past, using an ingenious compound of fantasy, natural history (the most reliable and best documented kind of history), and intelligent pastiche. For this lively mixture of erudite necromancy and magic realism, “possession” is indeed the word. Imagination can possess the past even if we can’t know the truth about it, even if the past did not exist except in the form we choose to make it. In practice we know today more and more about the past all the time; and yet we feel we have no confidence about what we know, and above all we feel no confidence in the narratives which naturally accompanied what historians and novelists alike once thought of as knowledge.

The Biographer’s Tale is in one sense at least an ironic commentary on the changes that have taken place in thinking about such matters, and on the present state of play. The title is itself ironic, with or without intention, for nothing could be less like a tale in the old sense. Chaucer’s narrators had a distinct persona reflected in the nature and purpose of the tales they told. The narrator of The Biographer’s Tale exists no more than do most of the bare facts of history today, and a great deal less than the characters invented in most good stories and by all good straight fictions. Byatt’s biographer introduces himself to us in a manner not exactly auspicious: indeed he has hardly opened his mouth before we know him to be the author, not of the “tale,” which of course does not exist, but of the book allegedly containing it. The biographer is male, the author, Mrs. Byatt, is female: and there any concession to the pleasures and conventions of narrative make-believe begins and ends.

We are indeed plunged in medias res although not in the epic sense, unless it could be said that literary theory has now acquired the august traditions and dimensions which used to belong to ancient narrative itself. A professor appropriately called Gareth Butcher is giving one of his famous theoretical seminars, all of which have a fatal family likeness, and are “repetitive in the extreme.” He does not like dead languages and reads his Lacan and Foucault in translation. He is often inaccurate in matters of detail, but no one minds that. “Inaccuracies can be subsumed as an inevitable part of postmodern uncertainty, or play, one or the other or both.”

The author herself is apt to get a bit mixed up at times. It was the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller who said that she “accepted the universe,” and Carlyle who exclaimed “Gad, she’d better!”—not the other way around. But possibly Byatt, a stickler for biological precision as her books and stories have revealed, is cunningly concealing her own omniscience here, and attributing howlers to her ingenious alter ego, the “narrator.”

Yet on second thought that can hardly be, because the attribution occurs in Byatt’s essay “Ancestors” rather than her alter ego’s Biographer’s Tale; but since the same person so obviously wrote both books the point scarcely matters. In any case the essays in On Histories and Stories, which first began as lectures, are proud to make a revolutionary point. Byatt detects a new interest today in narration and storytelling, after a long period of stream-of-consciousness, and the fragmented forms of nouveau roman and the experimental novel. Now that history is fiction can we once more have fiction as history?

Evidently this paradox appeals so strongly to our young hero, the biographer, that he abandons all interest in the seminars of Gareth Butcher in postmodernist literary theory, in Foucault and Lacan. He consults another don and spiritual father, who applauds his decision. To the common reader there is something a little alarming, even demoralizing, about the solemnity with which Byatt’s young spokesman expounds his loss of faith to the older man. (The common reader, after all, knows how to take such things for granted.)

I felt an urgent need for a life full of things.” I was pleased with the safe, solid Anglo-Saxon word. I 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. I did, however, fatally, add the Latin-derived word, less exact, redundant even, to my precise one. “I need a life full of ‘things,’” I said. “Full of facts.”

Facts,” said Ormerod Goode. “Facts.” He meditated. “The richness,” he said, “the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts.”

And yet Byatt’s facts, even her things, seem before the end of her book to be merely another way of living in the “reality” of postmodern literary theory. She and her young narrator cannot escape from this peculiar new “reality,” any more than a Jesuit theologian who has lost his faith can escape from the mental disciplines in which he has been grounded. No complete liberation is possible. Byatt’s endearing passion for facts and things, her pleasure in “maggots”—real ones and figurative ones, those irresponsible quirks of the creative imagination that John Fowles described as the larval stage of what will hopefully become the winged creature of art—all this strikes one as really no more than a continuation of literary theory by other means. It is not even a heresy, only a harmless and engaging new variation. Byatt and her narrator, too, remain inescapably donnish; and the mark of the modern don in English Studies, unlike his old-fashioned predecessor, is his obsessive receptivity to what he hopes may become the mode—and will perhaps become it—if his own books sell, and his own gospel circulates.

Byatt’s own maggot takes the form of biographical fantasy. Casting literary theory aside, her young man will take up the study of what his preceptor Ormerod Goode refers to as “by far the greatest work of scholarship in my time,…the Scholes Destry-Scholes biographical study of Sir Elmer Bole.” Bole is alleged, among other things, to be an erudite Victorian pornographer and adventurer. But despite the great work, both Bole and his biographer remain neglected and obscure figures. Nobody knows about this biography, says Ormerod Goode. “It is not considered. And yet, the ingenuity, the passion.”

And so it appears that our friend is to embark on the biography of a great biographer. A great biography is a noble thing, urges the young man’s new preceptor, for no human individual resembles another. “We are not clones, we are not haplodiploid beings.” What researcher could ask for more than this obvious but still subtle truth? And yet a doubt remains. According to the “reality” of literary theory, we may ask whether a biography, however noble, is much more than a maggot, a fantasy, a piece of new-style magic realism. In her always cheerful way—her books are humorless but have plenty of fun—Byatt has become an involuntary self-satirist. Fervently embracing “things” and “facts” she nonetheless finds herself still firmly embraced by the world of theory. She cannot help making real things, real stories, lives, plots, suspenseful episodes, and dénouements look superseded and ridiculous. University teachers and theorists know that serious novels and biographies can no longer be written: only commentaries on them, donnish fantasies and amusements, the author standing beside the work with a pointer, as if giving a continuous seminar on it.

Yet good novels and biographies are still being written, as Byatt and her colleagues know quite well. Such novels were written for example by Iris Murdoch, at one time Byatt’s friend and mentor, who launched herself into the passions she depicted in her novels without the slightest self-consciousness or awareness that it could no longer be done like that. In spite of Byatt’s obsession with Victoriana and nineteenth-century scientists and explorers, it was Murdoch who was in this context the true heir of the Victorians, writing novels as naturally as George Eliot and Dickens and Jane Austen had written them. I remember once discussing with her The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first part of which she had read with admiration. But she remarked simply that she had become interested in and involved with the characters, and when she found halfway through that John Fowles was not involved with these characters, but was only playing around with them and speculating hypothetically about their possible fates, she lost interest. “A novelist must himself determine his characters’ fates,” she said firmly.

More than once in these two books Byatt expresses a donnish disgust with pupils who miss the point of reading novels to the extent of saying that they need to “identify” with an author’s creations or become absorbed in his or her characters. If they can, then they like the novel, if not, not. This deplorable criterion could certainly not be applied to The Biographer’s Tale because there is no subject for a biographer (Sir Elmer Bole turns out to be a mere canard), no thrill of the chase, of which there were traces at least in Byatt’s earlier novel Possession, no suspension of disbelief, no tears, no laughter, in a word, no tale. Yes indeed, novelists like Henry James, or Iris Murdoch, or Anita Brookner, determine their characters’ fates by creating the feeling and the force of passion which drives them. Thus we, their readers, become involved as well. Byatt, like Wordsworth, is a traveler “whose tale is only of himself.”

And that is of course the point. All art is self-delighting; but self-delight and self-satisfaction in her possession of “things”—birds, plants, fossils, diaries, vivid encyclopedic words, and Linnaean Latin species and subspecies—are the life of Byatt’s writing. And although the reader can and does participate in their jouissance, he is never allowed to forget that all those precious things belong exclusively to her.

Precious indeed they are, and compensations for the absence of tale or character are many. A writer who throws himself into his story and its inhabitants loses himself in the process; there is no danger of that happening in a book by Byatt, although to have her at our elbow, gaily showing us around the riches of her inventive erudition, is nonetheless a privilege. Destry rides again? The scholar’s quest continues? But never mind Destry-Scholes and Bole: it turns out to be herself who is the fabulous subject of a biographer whom she uses to investigate the spoils of her own curiosity:

Like Destry-Scholes, I was most drawn to Bole’s monographs on Byzantine mosaics and on Turkish ceramic tiles, especially those elegant and brilliant tiles from Iznik, with the dark flame-red (tulips, carnations) whose secret has been lost. Where did he find the time to travel to Ravenna and Bulgaria, to spend so long staring, I ask myself (and Scholes asked himself, before me). Scholes permits himself to express surprise that Bole did not rediscover, or claim to rediscover, the chemistry of the Iznik red. He certainly haunted potteries, in Iznik and in Staffordshire, discussing glazes with the Wedgwoods. One of the most beautiful things I have ever read is Bole’s account of the creation of light in the mosaics of Hadrian’s Villa, Ravenna and Sancta Sophia, the rippling fields of splendour created by the loose setting of blue glass tesserae at various angles to catch the light, the introduction into these fields of light of metallic tesserae (first gold, then silver), the effect of candlelight and polished marble to make soft, fluid, liquid light…

I say, the most beautiful thing I have read is Bole’s account, and so it is, I stand by that. But it is displayed and completed by Destry-Scholes’s account both of Bole’s research (into the colour and composition of the beds of red glass on which the gold was set, into vessels of layered glass, with leaves of gold foil sandwiched between them) and of Christ in the church of the Chora in Istanbul, covered in plaster and unknown in the days of Bole’s study. Destry-Scholes writes as though he were looking with Bole’s eyes, describing in Bole’s measured yet urgent paragraphs. Yet he introduces, tactfully, integrally, modern knowledge, modern debates, about perspective, about movement and stasis, which do not supersede or nullify Bole’s thought, but carry it on.

So it is not the phantom figures of her biographer and his query that claim the attention of Byatt’s reader but “things,” like Byzantine mosaics and Turkish ceramic tiles. There is, too, a bottom of good sense in the biographical aims and techniques adumbrated in the passage, although these are naturally Byatt’s own rather than those of her bewhiskered puppets. The ideal biographer should indeed write as if he were looking through his subject’s eyes, and know his work so well that he can “inhabit it imaginatively” (Byatt’s italics), encasing himself with its concrete detail, for example “the price of tulips and the marketing of new strains from the Orient…(the Dutch prefer closed cups, the Turks pointed petals like daggers).”

Straying wantonly among the casual riches she has conjured up, Byatt permits her hero some erotic adventures along the dusty road of card indices and chronicles. Bole himself had, or so he says, amorous encounters with mysterious strangers as well as dangers from pirates and footpads, colorful episodes which have led some scholars to suppose that his great Journey Through Seven Climates must have been invented, and could be nothing but a mere historical novel, a pastiche, a work, in fact, much like Possession or The Biographer’s Tale. Destry-Scholes however would have none of this. “His argument, a delicious example of 1950s pre-theoretical intuitive criticism,” is strengthened by the fact that Bole did indeed write some extraordinary bad and verbose attempts at historical fiction. Journey Through Seven Climates rings true, like the bewitching and bewildering detail of The Biographer’s Tale itself: therefore it must be true.

Well, maybe. But while our hero is pondering these matters there is a sudden power cut in the most learned section of the library. Groping his way on all fours in the stygian blackness he finds himself looking up the skirt of a fellow reader:

My questing face, my gaping mouth, my desperate nostrils were suddenly muffled in softness—I thought of bats, but it was more as though I had plunged into thick fine moss, which smelled ferny and animal at once, and was suffocating me. I beat out with my hands and encountered yielding soft flesh (under cloth). I slipped to my knees, losing consciousness, and my hands ran down solid thighs, strong knees, warm, muscular. The door opened, and I found myself at the feet of Fulla Biefeld, staring up inside her skirt at the slight wiriness of her pubic hair pressing against what appeared to be alternately crimson and emerald knickers (no doubt an effect of the lack of oxygen to my brain). The stalwart legs were furred with strong, brass-gold hairs. I let myself lose consciousness completely—I felt it coming over me and went along with it, it seemed the best thing. My nose was alive with Fulla Biefeld’s sex. Linnaeus knew nothing about pheromones.

One would like to think that the author herself might indulge such jolly fantasies when sedulously at work upon some old manuscript in the London Library; and of course as in all good amusements of this kind the fantasist can become either sex at will. Fulla Biefeld has no “character,” but she is a physically vivid personage; and, as in many run-of-the-mill fictions of her favorite Victorian period, Byatt ends her learned frolic with a resounding sentimental cliché. Love, or something like it, blossoms between biographer and female scholar, putting an appropriate stop to our biographer’s activities, whether these be true or fictional:

I have to stop writing now—I can see Fulla, coming up the mountainside, quick and surefooted as a golden goat, bringing yogurt and honey. I have just time to remember that Fulla is the name of a minor Norse goddess—a handmaid of Frigga, who kept the jewels of the Queen of Heaven, and spent her time tending woodland and forests, fruit trees and hives, cloudberries, blackberries and golden apples. Here she comes, with that amazing wing of crinkled hair, like an electric pulse, like a swarm, like an independent creature. I can see her severe little face. How beautiful upon the mountains are her sturdy feet in their Ecco sandals. That is an over-the-top sentence. And Fulla is at the top, and I must stop writing and put away this notebook.

Our curiosity about the tale and the quest, if we ever had any, has certainly not been satisfied. But never mind: it may be that yet another fictional commonplace is embedded in our ingenious postmodernist quasi-narrative? Linnaeus may have known nothing about pheromones, and the part they play in sexual attraction, but he can be imagined and in exquisite detail, as the taxonomer of the marsh andromeda or bog rosemary—Andromeda polifolia. With the fanciful ideas of the flower’s relation to the classical lady of distressful myth, Linnaeus indulged himself by allotting her a learned name—Andromeda:

I noticed that she was blood-red before flowering, but that as soon as she blooms her petals become flesh-coloured. I doubt whether any artist could rival these charms in a portrait of a young girl, or adorn her cheeks with such beauties as are here and to which no cosmetics have lent their aid. As I looked at her I was reminded of Andromeda as described by the poets, and the more I thought about her, the more affinity she seemed to have with the plant; indeed, had Ovid set out to describe the plant mystically (mystice) he could not have caught a better likeness…

Her beauty is preserved only so long as she remains a virgin (as often happens with women also)—i.e., until she is fertilised, which will not now be long, as she is a bride. She is anchored far out in the water, as always on a little tuft in the marsh and fast tied as if on a rock in the midst of the sea. The water comes up to her knees, above her roots; and she is always surrounded by poisonous dragons and beasts—i.e., evil toads and frogs—which drench her with water when they mate in the spring. She stands and bows her head in grief. Then her little clusters of flowers with their rosy cheeks droop and grow ever paler and paler…”

The flower, I observed, looked sexier than its mystic counterpart. One of the things I did know about Linnaeus was that his taxonomy was based on the sexuality of plants. We had all read our Foucault…

Could it be that our biographer hero sees himself as the rescuer of Fulla Biefeld, with her sturdy hips and “flat, singing, Swedish voice,” from the dragon of scholarship and the fetters of the learned library? Is sex the right true end of study, if we are to avoid the fate of many scholars like the “real” Linnaeus (always assuming there was such a person) and end up by running mad?

We shall never know the answer. Fictions of this sort do not supply an ending or a solution, just as they do not supply the suspense and curiosity which should lead up to one. The last essay in On Histories and Stories, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” proclaims Byatt’s deep admiration for the Thousand and One Nights, and contains an illuminating portrait of Scheherazade and her method. Yet not a word is said about how Scheherazade actually kept the Sultan’s curiosity going, and herself alive.

That great New Yorker cartoonist Handelsman once created a delightful series of “Freaky Fables,” including one on the Arabian Nights. When the executioner with a bowstring duly reports to the palace at dawn to pick up the latest lady, the Sultan says impatiently, “Go away:—I must find out what happened to the Hippopotamus’s Wife.” Neither postmodernist literary theory, nor Byatt’s ingenious if naive attempt to reform and humanize it, can satisfy for us that timeless and simple need.

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