Multiple reflecting mirrors: Fiction about fiction, fictitious biography about fictitious biography

The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt and The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest by Anselm Atkins

book review by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, http://www.samizdat.com



In A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale, a directionless graduate student follows a suggestion of his adviser to write a biography of a little-known but excellent biographer, Destry-Scholes. I'm reminded of her earlier book, Possession: A Romance, in which we get a double story through the research of current literary scholars into the work of a Victorian writer. But here we get a feast of intertwining stories. In the foreground, we read the tale of Phineas Nanson's present-day attempts to uncover clues about Destry-Scholes, including the trips he takes, the people he meets and the women he has affairs with.  At the same time we learn scraps about the life of Destry-Scholes, and quite a bit more about three historical figures whose lives Destry-Scholes was researching: Henrik Ibsen the playwright, and scientists Francis Galton and Linnaeus. The passion of Destry-Scholes for these subjects and his approach to the research tell us much about him, just as Phineas' passion and approach tell us about him. One story resonates off another and another. And we're continuously reminded of the fragmentary nature of history and the sparse and incomplete information on the basis of which biographers base their works -- the contrast between a life as lived and a life as retold by others, perhaps hundreds of years later, based on random clues that survived by chance.

A.S. Byatt has been quite fortunate in generating a large, best-selling audience for works of such complexity and based on such literary scholarship. Meanwhile, another writer in the same genre and with perhaps equal skill has passed unnoticed (as so many fine writers do).

The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest by Anselm Atkins is a novel presented as a critical commentary on the notebooks of a present-day naturalist (an expert in birds, butterflies, etc., and an amateur poet), together with a subjective, quirky biographical account of that naturalist's bizarre life. Like Byatt's work, this book calls to mind Borges, Saramago, Nabokov (as lepidopterist, as author of Pnin, and as commentator of Pushkin's Onegin), and Douglas Hofstadter (whose monumental Godel, Escher, Bach is alluded to as if the author of this novel had actually written that work under a pseudonym). You also find here playful, totally bizarre plot elements relating to a mad monk who is obsessed with Lana. Those elements help tie the story together with a touch of global paranoia that persists in the narrator's mind through numerous delightful and informative digressions, reminiscent of the styles of both Nabokov and Tom Robbins.

The book was published nine years ago by Roberta Kalechofsky's Micah Publications, and is still available from them at www.micahbooks.com or through Amazon The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest, despite the fact that only a dozen copies have sold in all that time. According to Roberta, "The author, Anselm Atkins was an ex-Trappist monk and knew whereof he wrote.  He made his living by designing stained glass windows and was quite talented in a variety of ways.  He died last year of pancreatic cancer." This is a rare treat: buy it and enjoy it. And also check the other fine books published by Micah.



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