Things, as Nanson discovers, can prove just as slippery as ideas. His research quickly leapfrogs beyond the biographer to his other subjects: scientist Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts. Meanwhile, our hero continues his forays into the real world. He takes a part-time job with a pair of gay travel agents, who arrange some very specialized vacations, and meets up with a Swedish bee taxonomist named Fulla, who wants to save the world. He also unearths a perplexing series of Destry-Scholes's index cards, full of sketches, facts, quotations, and unattributed lines of verse. These he attempts to shuffle into some kind of order, even as the enigmatic figure of the biographer himself seems to appear and disappear from view.
There are echoes here of Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession, another detective story for the MLA set. Yet The Biographer's Tale is an altogether odder--and chillier--sort of book. It is, in fact, almost terrifyingly learned, and wears its research about as lightly as a pair of Fulla's Ecco sandals. The mystery here is nothing less than the nature of mind, so it's no criticism to say that her characters have little life outside the ideas they represent. What's surprising is that the result is so readable, even beautiful at times. Here, for instance, is Nanson on truth and beauty:
There are a very few human truths and infinite variations on them. I was about to write that there are very few truths about the world, but the truth about that is that we don't know what we are not biologically fitted to know, it may be full of all sorts of shining and tearing things, geometries, chemistries, physics we have no access to and never can have. Reading and writing extend--not infinitely, but violently, but giddily--the variations we can perceive on the truths we thus discover.The index cards themselves can be painful to read (remember the ersatz Victorian poetry in Possession?). But persevere, dear reader--meaning emerges through the play of one esoteric piece of information against another, just as it does in real life. Byatt extends her philosophical variations as far as she giddily can, and in The Biographer's Tale, she has constructed an elaborate, glittering labyrinth at the center of which lie surprisingly simple truths. --Mary Park --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
I greatly appreciate A. S. Byatt's books and have a deep reverance for the mind that can create her wonderful worlds. Read morePublished on April 23 2002 by Martha E. Nelson
If you made a list of all the literary devices A.S. Byatt uses in The Biographer's Tale, it would look like a best of postmodern narrative. Read morePublished on Jan. 24 2002 by Vince Leo
How come A.S. Byatt does what she is best at - and yet this novel fails to take off? Once more she tries to make a story of literary criticism and detective work about writers. Read morePublished on Oct. 30 2001 by Manuel Haas
Phineas was a post-graduate studying postmodern literary theory when he decided he would rather deal with 'real things'. Read morePublished on Aug. 9 2001 by Megami
A far cry from Byatt's "Posession," this book addresses many of the core themes -- identity, textual layers, interconnectedness -- and uses very similar techniques --... Read morePublished on July 11 2001 by Malcolm Keating
I have read other peoples reviews of this book and can only assume that I have missed the point. And missed it big time. Read morePublished on June 10 2001 by email@example.com
You have to get more than a few pages into an A.S. Byatt book to get to the really good part, and The Biographer's Tale is no exception. Read morePublished on April 2 2001 by David Hunter
A. S. Byatt has written such fine books in the past, "Possession" being my favorite. Lately, she's writing dreck. Boring, pedantic, pointless. I tried hard. Read morePublished on Feb. 27 2001 by Carol Peters