The Biographer’s Tale
I have never read anything by AS Byatt. I have heard of her… but I think I always assumed she was a bit too “literary” for my tastes, which in my head means snobby and convoluted kinda-real-life and not that interesting. I saw this book in a second hand book shop and thought – maybe I should give it a go; biography is an interesting topic and the blurb sounded a bit intriguing.
Plus, cool cover.
Up to about the halfway point, I was utterly charmed. Besotted, even. Phineas Nanson (I was a bit disappointed when I discovered the narrator was a man; I’d forgotten that from the blurb) has decided to give up his study in postmodern literary theory, because it doesn’t mean anything to him anymore. But that means he needs something new to study. A supervisor gives him three volumes of biography by Scholes Destry-Scholes; Nanson has an arrogant literary theorist aversion to biography. However, he is hooked by the charm of Destry-Scholes’ writing, and proceeds to attempt a biography of the biographer.
At this point, I thought there were going to be intriguing and possibly convoluted layers upon layers of biography. And there were: Nanson finds excerpts of other, possible, biographies written by Destry-Scholes but unpublished, and there are extended (and I mean a few dozen pages) included in the novel. These excerpts are a bit weird, and their subjects not immediately identified; there are certainly some themes that recur.
Nanson goes on to research the subjects of these incomplete biographies, and of course finds himself in increasing levels of abstraction from his purported subject, the biographer. All of which is quite wonderful to read – including his finding a part-time job at a travel agency who specialise in odd, literary- or art- or otherwise abstrusely-themed holidays for discerning characters.
It was all going so well.
(Spoilers from here, I guess? If you really want to give it a go yourself?)
And then it became a story of a man who ends up having a relationship with two different women at the same time.
I mean, yes, there was discussion about how this attempt at a biography had actually become an autobiography and he has angst about that as a literary form, and then discusses how he surprisingly likes writing for its own sake, and he gives up on Destry-Scholes… but yes, this became a not-yet-middle-aged (I assume) man and his sexual relationships and there was no musing on whether it was right to have two partners simultaneously and did his partners deserve to know about the other or… anything of that sort of moral relationship nature. No. It was just all about him and his experience.
And so I got really quite disappointed. More than I probably would have been if I hadn’t been so delighted by the first half.
I have been wanting to read Byatt for a long time now and somehow have never got around to it. Shame on me. So when I saw this little book for sale for about $6 in a dinky little newsagent in a dinky little town – SNAP. MINE.
It’s part of the Canongate Myths series, which I had heard of and thought I had read a few… but if you click on that link (don’t do it, Tansy, it’s a rabbit hole!) you’ll see there’s HEAPS and most of them I hadn’t heard of! Although I was right, and it is the same series as The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood, swooooon – I love that book so much; it’s Penelope’s side of The Odyssey… thus the Greek version of Ursula le Guin’s Lavinia, I guess) and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight (about Hercules and Atlas, and also excellent). Thing with these books – those I’ve read – is that they’re retellings of myths. So when I saw that this was Ragnarok, the Norse myth of The End of Days, and that it involved WW2 – well, I assumed that the two were going to be mashed in a glorious Armageddon. That is, however, not what happened.
There are two parallel stories in this volume. One is a rough outline of Norse mythology from creation to the end of times, mostly following the antics of Loki, which is fair enough since he may have been around from the start and was largely responsible for the end. It’s a pretty straight retelling, as far as I can tell; Byatt has added in motivation and dialogue and the sorts of things that modern readers expect, but there’s no wild deviation into really exploring Loki or giving Loki and Baldur a steamy romance that explains the mistletoe episode. So while I enjoyed that, because they’re good stories and there were some details (like Loki’s parenting of the monsters) that had never clicked in my head before, it wasn’t really what I was expecting.
The second story is that of the thin child – as she is always referenced – as she is evacuated to the countryside during WW2, and is given a book of Norse mythology. It’s the thin child’s experiences of life during wartime, and of discovering mythology and literature – there’s a strong suggestion I think that this is heavily autobiographical. There’s certainly a sense that it is the thin child telling the Norse stories to the reader. This aspect was also quite enjoyable, although frustrating because it felt to me like it lacked depth. I think mostly I was disappointed that the connections between the war and Ragnarok were not made explicit. Byatt goes to the point of saying that the thin child’s father, a pilot away at war, has “red-gold hair” and is “like a god”… but makes no further connection to the idea that he, or the airforce, could be connected to Thor or some other aspect of mythology.
It’s definitely a good read, and I am definitely going to just down more Byatt. If you know nothing about Norse mythology this is a very good, and entertaining, place to start. If you’re looking for a Norse equivalent of The Penelopiad, this is not it.