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…

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