Trying to tuck away a few books before the break begins, & the holidays make sustained intellectual labor impossible. AS Byatt's strange little novel The Biographer's Tale, for one, which begins with the narrator sitting in a post-structuralist theory seminar & realizing that he's tired of post-structuralist theory:
I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.So Phineas G. Nanson – yes, that's his name – sets out to become a biographer. (Fool! Fool!) To write the biography, no less, of another biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes, author of a magisterial multi-volume life of Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson spends much of the novel trying to uncover traces of the enigmatic Scholes, & reading the copious notes he's left in what might or might not be preparation for 3 further biographies, of Carl Linnaeas, Henrik Ibsen, and the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton.
Like most novels on biography, this one's about the impossibility of recovering the subject's life – really, after all, a post-structuralist theme – but it's great fun, & enlivened with the emotional & erotic complications of Nanson's simultaneous affairs with Scholes Destry-Scholes petite niece, an artistically inclined radiologist, and Fulla Biefeld, a great Scandinavian Valkyrie of an ecological entymologist.
On the other hand, I'm still revelling in Joseph Brooker's Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (U Wisconsin, 2005), a book far more diverting than its clunky subtitle. Struck by some paragraphs on Richard Ellmann's still-dominant doorstop* biography of Joyce:
As Bernard McGinley remarks, the phrase "it's in Ellmann" has come to serve a kind of guarantee of authenticity – "epistemologically final, the last word" – for all kinds of claims about the writer. This reflects not only Ellmann's biographical skill, but the cultural and academic significance of the genre in which he did his most extensive and admired work. The status that his name carries could only have been attained by a biographer; the plainly entitled James Joyce retains its centrality amid a welter of identically titled books partly because of its generic difference from works of literary criticism. A literary biography is more likely than a critical work to be seen as achieving a kind of identity with its subject, a fit correspondence between text and individual.All this, Brooker forcefully points out, in spite of the epistemological destabilization of the biographical genre carried out by such modernist writers as Strachey & Woolf.
The contemporary quickening of interest in biography may partly stem from a public desire for the linearity and coherence that twentieth-century fiction has put in question, which the record of a life can still hope to achieve. When the biographical subject is an artist-innovator like Joyce, an ironic disparity can result, with the modernist being reclaimed by the kind of "transparent" language and chronological narrative against which he had set himself. Through biography, the most radical avant-garde and antilinear figure can be reclaimed for sequential time and the consolations of storytelling.Indeed. Next time: Colin MacCabe and English post-structuralist Joyce; or, Language Poetry avant la lettre. And a tenure battle
Kevin Killian's Amazon.com review seems to have pleased 3 readers, & kept The Poem of a Life in the teens of its sub-sub-sub-category. But I've resolved to stop watching the sales rankings there, since they seem to jump 50,000 points or so with every copy sold – & thereby mean almost nothing. I never did this with my university press books, but just waited around for that bi-yearly royalty statement: gosh, 143 copies this year! Woo-hoo!
But I love finding things like this. (Thanks, Daniel.)
*I am told that since The Poem of a Life clocks in at a bit under 600 pages (take heart, potential readers – only 450 or so are actual text), it's not technically a doorstop book, & therefore nobody is allowed to complain about its length.