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Author of new novel, 'The Biographer's Tale'

A.S. Byatt tells stories out of school

A.S. Byatt
"I sort of mind living in a time when most of the literature is terribly personal," author A.S. Byatt says  

In this story:

The messiness of real life

Between the lines

Making movies

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(CNN) -- A.S. Byatt doesn't think much of biographers -- not the modern kind who inject themselves into their subject matter, anyway.

"I sort of mind living in a time when most of the literature is terribly personal," she says in a phone interview from New York, her measured, polite voice clipped with an English accent. "I suppose it's because I grew up on a love of history, philosophy, science and religion, but not to think too much about yourself."

Review: Dissecting lives in Byatt's 'Tale'

What's more, she considers disagreeable the "idea that a biography of a writer is more important than the work of a writer."

Byatt knows of what she speaks. The winner of a Booker Prize for "Possession," a 1990 romantic mystery that revolves around Victorian poetry, Byatt is a member of that rare breed: the writer whose intellectually challenging books have a popular following. Indeed, Gwyneth Paltrow stars in a film version of "Possession" currently under production.

So piqued was Byatt about the direction of biographies that she decided to take her thoughts and put them in print. The result is "The Biographer's Tale" (Knopf), a novel about "sort of a ghost."

That would be Phineas G. Nanson, whom Byatt describes as "somebody who has no life at all." A graduate student who tires of his arcane studies in literary theory, Nanson wants to experience "things ... facts ... (and) real life." Yet he finds himself writing something that seems far removed from the roil of reality, Byatt says.

"The Biographer's Tale" tells the story of Phineas G. Nanson, an author who writes "the life of someone who wrote the life of someone who (actually) did something," Byatt says  

"(He's writing) the life of someone who wrote the life of someone who (actually) did something," says Byatt impishly.

The messiness of real life

Nanson works on a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, a mysterious figure who once wrote a biography Elmer Bole, an eccentric writer and adventurer. What the biographer's biographer finds in his scholarly pursuits is that real life, even from a distance, can get pretty messy.

Very little is known for certain about Destry-Scholes, not even the way he died -- or even if he is dead, Nanson discovers. Most of what he left behind are notes, file cards and other journal entries. The author uses these -- about the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, the English scientist Francis Galton and the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen -- to illuminate the ways people search for and organize knowledge, and the difficulty in getting past that knowledge to know the "truth" about a person. "Truth," at least that which a biographer seeks, can be as slippery and shifty as fiction, the book seems to say.

Byatt herself prefers scientific truth, hard facts derived from observation.

In the book, she indulges in her own passions, such as evolutionary biology, through characters such as a bee taxonomist named Fulla Biefeld. (There is only a handful of bee taxonomists in the entire world, mostly older men, she observes in the book. "It would be nice if the book inspired others to enter the field," she says in the interview. "It's important.")

That kind of detail, if occasionally distracting to the casual reader, is one of the joys of writing her very rigorous books, Byatt says.

"It's such an intense pleasure," she says. "It's the discovery of things that are, or have been, real things, and it extends your own life, really. ... It's the kind of passion not unrelated to that of a scientist. I like knowing things."

Between the lines

She's not as enamored of revealing things about herself.

She's the sister of English novelist Margaret Drabble, but forbids questions about her. She once was a university lecturer, but dismisses comparisons between her and Phineas Nanson.

"I have a dreadful fear that the more you try to prevent revealing the self the more you do," Byatt says.

Still, she doesn't shy from expressing opinions, especially the disdain she reserves for literary theory, the practice of judging a writer based on his intent rather than the story he's written.

Gwyneth Paltrow
Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow stars in the film version of Byatt's novel, "Possession"  

"I think literary theory has not been terribly good for English studies in a while," she says. "It's not that theory isn't interesting, but it isn't about books, or the idiosyncracies and complexities of putting language together. One of the reasons I've gotten so attached to talking to scientists is that ... they know there is a reality."

Making movies

Byatt apparently has no similar trouble with Hollywood's version of reality. Her story "Morpho Eugenia" was turned into the 1995 film "Angels and Insects," and Byatt says she is pleased so far in the film production of "Possession."

Rawther an English tale, much of "Possession" rests on the skills of two Americans: director/screenwriter Neil LaBute, who made the raw "In the Company of Men" (1997) and blackly comic "Nurse Betty" (2000), and Paltrow, no stranger to British roles after starring in "Emma" (1996) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1999).

"Neil LaBute has done an amazing job," she says effusively.

LaBute also has listened to the author. The script version of the book changed one villainous character, a greedy professor, from an American to a Brit. Byatt suggested that LaBute reconsider. He did. The evil professor will hail from the states when "Possession" hits screens

And, she says with a twinkle, "I think I (forced) them to keep the hero and heroine from going to bed together too early in the plot."

"The Biographer's Tale" has gotten a better response than she had imagined, notes Byatt, who's working on a new book, this one another title in the Frederica Potter series (the most recent installment: "Babel Tower," 1996).

"Tale," she says, "has a lot of jokes in it. But if (readers) don't get it, that's all right."

Besides, they can always return to the book later if they don't understand something right away, Byatt adds. That's what makes books rewarding.

"It's why I used to enjoy teaching," she says. "You can always unlock things."

100 best novels list draws heavy dose of criticism
July 21, 1998

A.S. Byatt's official homepage
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)

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