A S Byatt chooses a playful quote from Goethe's Elective Affinities to signal her intentions in this formidably elegant, intelligent and game-playing novel. She dedicates it to the novelists Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk, who share her evident delight in what we could call, for lack of a better word, "the information novel". Information, of the kind one might expect to find in a lecture on the subject of the classification of species, is presented here in an assured narrative about a lost soul's search for reality in, of all unlikely places, the life of a biographer.
Phineas Nanson is a jaded literary critic who is eager to exchange abstract ideas for concrete facts. He wants "a life full of things . . . full of facts". He assumes that this is what writing a biography will offer him. But it rapidly becomes apparent that he is ill-equipped for the task. When he goes in search of the birthplace of his chosen subject, the splendidly named Scholes Destry Scholes, he finds it unpleasantly reminiscent of his own home, and turns away. Biographers have to ask questions; Nanson is a timid man, fearful of other people and with a strong dislike of communicating with them. When chance brings him into contact with Destry Scholes's beautiful niece, he finds it easier to go to bed with her than to seek information about her family. He is, it appears, more at home with Fulla Biefield, a pollination ecologist who leads him into the world of cladistics, the method of species classification by mutual characteristics not shared by a common ancestor. At least, I think that's what it is; prudent readers will arm themselves with reference works on taxonomy, eugenics and phylogenetics in order to extract a full understanding of this demanding book.
Information is not easily digested when it comes in fictional form to the uninitiated. I had a hard time following Fulla Biefield's explanations, although it was reassuring to note that Nanson often shared my bewilderment. The heart of Byatt's novel is hidden in the three lives that Destry Scholes had been intending to entwine and turn into a new form of biography. Linnaeus, the father of classification; Francis Galton, who bequeathed us the fingerprinting method of identification, as well as the "eu-genics", or good genes, which earned him a bad name when the Nazis took up the idea; and Henrik Ibsen. These are his three chosen characters. Each, partly revealed in an uncompleted manuscript, leads towards the same end, the mysterious maelstrom into which Destry Scholes himself finally and disastrously sails. These are the documents that take possession of Nanson. It is a tribute to Byatt's inventiveness and skill that the reader is drawn into sharing his fascination.
Another strand emerges when Nanson takes a job in what must certainly be the world's most eccentric travel agency. Run by an apparently friendly couple called Eric and Christophe, "Puck's Girdle" specialises in holidays for obsessives; one of the clients, unhappily for Nanson, believes that the new employee is there to arrange a tour of "snuff" films and, perhaps, to produce potential victims.
Allusions abound. On one occasion, Nanson finds himself at the Jolly Corner Hotel, a reference to Henry James's celebrated story about an empty character. Is the allusion to Nanson himself, searching for a subject in which to subsume himself? The snuff-movie addict tells Nanson that "Puck's Girdle" is "the distinguished thing itself" - another Jamesian reference. (Dying, James murmured his interested anticipation of "the distinguished thing".) Are we to equate the travel agency with nirvana? Is it a concrete form of the maelstrom towards which Nanson himself will be eventually drawn?
It's hard to tell how serious Byatt's intentions are here. Fulla Biefield's descriptions of the activities of bees are fascinating, but I can only dimly perceive their connection to the voyages of Linnaeus, Galton and Destry Scholes. Are we intended to recognise a connection between Scholes's own original subject, a man who leads a life of quiet deception between two women and two families, and Nanson, who ends by splitting his life between Fulla the red-haired goddess and Destry Scholes's gentle, needy niece?
All, at the end, is left for the reader to decide and discern. Perhaps it's no accident that the collage figure on the dust-jacket spreads his hands as if to say: it's up to you, my friends. Read from me what you will.
Miranda Seymour is a biographer