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The Biographer's Tale [Paperback]

A.S. Byatt
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 28 2001
Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of a great biographer. But a “whole life” is hard to find. Everywhere he looks he finds fragments and gaps: bones and husks, boxes of marbles, collections of coins and undated postcards. Trails run cold and mysteries are unresolved.

Phineas feels he is hunting shadows. Like a shaman flying across the globe, his mind tracks the journeys of his subjects to the deserts of Africa and the maelstroms of the Arctic. He meets others building wholes from bits and pieces: taxonomists, ecologists, travel agents offering the trip of your dreams. In the process he also puzzles out his own future – but how will he find his way out of the labyrinth? Tantalizing, comic and rueful, The Biographer’s Tale is a modern delight, a colour-filled novel of detection and desire.

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A.S. Byatt chronicles the life of the mind with the immediacy other novelists bring to the physical world. So when the graduate-student hero of The Biographer's Tale announces that he needs "a life full of things," we take his words with a grain of salt. Yes, Phineas G. Nanson has renounced the "cross-referenced abstractions" of life as a postmodern literary theorist, and vows to ground himself in what he warily calls the "facts" (the quotation marks are definitely in order). Yet he first forays into empiricism by reading a three-volume life of the Victorian traveler, writer, and diplomat Elmer Bole--then immediately undertakes a biography of Bole's biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes.

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Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts.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.

From Publishers Weekly

An intellectual romp that doubles as a detective story, Byatt's new novel finds her as imaginative, witty and provocative as ever. A postgraduate at a nameless English university, narrator Phineas G. Nanson decides to abandon his studies as a poststructuralist literary critic to become a biographer instead. He chooses as his subject one Scholes Destry-Scholes, who himself was a biographer of genius. Destry-Scholes's magnum opus was a biography of the Victorian polymath Sir Elmer Bole, a famous explorer, soldier, diplomat, scientist, travel writer, novelist and poetAin short, almost a caricature of a certain British type. As Nanson searches for clues to Destry-Scholes's life, the novel acquires layers of complexity. Nanson finds fragments written by Destry-Scholes about three men: Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen. Like Nanson, the reader realizes the identity of these figures only gradually, for the fragments are oblique and mystifying. To his dismay, Nanson discovers that the revered Destry-Scholes has taken great liberties with the facts, inventing false incidents and inserting imaginary details. This calls into question the whole issue of biographical accuracy and allows Byatt, who all along has been taking swipes at poststructural literary criticism, to introduce arch observations about the current fad of psychoanalytic biography. The plot broadens when Nanson falls in love with two women simultaneously: one is a Swedish bee taxonomist; the other is Destry-Scholes's niece, a hospital radiographer. This is only one of the many mirror images here, for Bole had also married two women. In addition to the theme of doubles and doppelg?ngers, Byatt's (Possession; Angels and Insects) familiar preoccupation with insects, myths, spirits, metamorphoses and sexuality all come into play. The book is an erudite joke carried off with verve and humor. American audiences may not be quite so patient as the British, however, in indulging Byatt's many tangents. This book will appeal to discriminating readers ready for intellectual stimulation. 7 illustrations. 40,000 first printing. (Jan. 24)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars The beauty of words April 23 2002
Format:Paperback
I greatly appreciate A. S. Byatt's books and have a deep reverance for the mind that can create her wonderful worlds. I didn't enjoy the characters and the basic plot of The Biographer's Tale as much as I have like most of her other books, but there were things here that I love very much. This book teams with history and myth and mystery, and that makes it wonderful to read, in much the same way that Possession was wonderful and assaulted the mind and the senses with the glory of words and the loveliness of the world.
This is a book that makes you want to go and do research, if you have any scholarly inclinations at all. I know that Phineus Nanson begins his story by saying that he is giving up on words and needs things, but the irony of all of this is that his search for things takes him right back to research and to word-play.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Misplaced Emphasis March 2 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I certainly don't feel this book is Byatt's best, but I am having a difficult time trying to decide exactly why because, on the surface, at least, it seems both fautless and intellectual.
The narrator of The Biographer's Tale, Phineas G. Nanson, is both engaging and believable. He's preening, self-absorbed, sullen, anxiety-ridden and thinks of little else but literature. He even looks the part he plays: he is "very small," but "perfectly formed." This man, who could have so easily grated on one's nerves, becomes, in Byatt's masterful hands, a comic masterpiece who is thoroughly enjoyable.
Yet this book, for some reason, so often becomes rather trite and boring. Perhaps it's all the history. Perhaps it's the (sometimes) extreme intellectualism. More likely, it's the theme: that human beings seem incapable of compiling a true history of anything. But I'm really not sure.
Phineas Nanson, one fine day, while looking out of a dirty window (in itself a cliche) decides that he wants more out of life than simply being a critic of postmodern literature. He wants instead, a "life full of things." So, he decides, then and there, to write a biography of a biographer, namely, Scholes Destry-Scholes.
From this very trite beginning, Byatt goes on to create a story filled with atmosphere and exotic details, just one of the many things at which she excells.
Nanson is a first-rate narrator and affords much comic relief as he struggles to write his biography of a biographer. Destry-Scholes seems to be purposely evading Nanson; all he can find of the man is a marble collection, an arcane tool used for drilling holes in the skull, an unfinished manuscript and a collection of note cards used to write said manuscript.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Well Not Played Jan. 27 2002
Format:Paperback
One of my favorite Monty Python sketches involves two radio commentators broadcasting a cricket game. After one play, one of them states, "Very well not played." His partner chimes in, "Extremely well not played."
So it is with A.S. Byatt's THE BIOGRAPHER'S TALE. A young scholar named Phineas G. Nanson tires of endless deconstructionism of literary works and is talked into writing a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, noted for his study of the redoubtable Elmer Bole. Nanson is tired of words: He wants things in his life. Destry-Scholes, however, turns out to be an elusive subject. He has left behind no portraits, only a few biographical fragments about Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Hendrik Ibsen -- oh, and also a radiologist niece named Vera Alphage, whom Nanson beds. Enroute, he meets two gay adventure travel consultants, who hire him, and a voluptuous Swedish bee specialist named Fulla Bliefeld, who seduces him.
So what do we have here? One researcher. Two budding relationships. But no biography. I followed Byatt with great fascination down what appears to have been a garden path.
Normally, I would be outraged: I've been toyed with, but not actually traduced. For me, one measure of a book's success is where it leads me. Destry-Scholes' fragments have made me itch to read more about Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen. Aptly, the final image I have in my mind is the toilet-flushing image of the Maelstrom, the giant whirlpool off the coast of Norway where Destry-Scholes apparently lost his life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars EXTREMELY Well Not Played Jan. 27 2002
Format:Paperback
One of my favorite Monty Python sketches shows us a number of commentators broadcasting a cricket game. After one play, one of them sagely states, "Very well not played." The others chime in saying "EXTREMELY well not played."
So it is with A. S. Byatt's BIOGRAPHER'S TALE. A young scholar named Phineas Nanson tires of endless deconstructionism and turns to writing a biography of a biographer, the redoubtable Scholes Destry-Scholes, noted for his study of the equally redoubtable Elmer Bole. Destry-Scholes, however, has covered his tracks well -- leaving behind no pictures, only some fragmentary writings on Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen. Oh, and also a radiologist niece named Vera Alphage, whom Nanson beds. He also runs into Fulla Bliefeld, a Scandinavian scientist specializing in bees, who also finds a warm place in Nanson's heart.
Well, what do we have here? Let's see: Several fragments and two budding relationships. And the biography? Abandoned. Miss Byatt has aroused expectations which she has not fulfilled. Nanson's research is actually fascinating; and, until the very end, I wondered where Byatt was taking us. It seems the answer is, down a garden path.
If the rest of the book weren't so fascinating, I would be outraged. As it is, I'm still perpelexed by my first introduction to this writer, though I am interested enough to pursue some researches on my own into Linnaeus, Galton, Ibsen, and a certain whirlpool off the coast of Norway known as the Maelstrom. Consequently, I do not feel myself to have been completely traduced.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars one too many happy endings
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 more
Published on Jan. 25 2002 by Vince Leo
2.0 out of 5 stars A cold and unengaging exercise
There are a surfeit of fine ideas behind Byatt's study of the problem of constructing biographical and historical narratives out of facts, and overall this novel makes intriguing... Read more
Published on Dec 31 2001 by Jay Dickson
3.0 out of 5 stars Byatt-fans beware!
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 more
Published on Oct. 30 2001 by Manuel Haas
3.0 out of 5 stars A weighty, woven read
Phineas was a post-graduate studying postmodern literary theory when he decided he would rather deal with 'real things'. Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2001 by Megami
3.0 out of 5 stars Needless Academic Allusions Comprise Most of This Work
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 more
Published on July 11 2001 by Malcolm Keating
1.0 out of 5 stars Academic posturing.
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 more
Published on June 10 2001 by morganyossarian@ukonline.co.uk
4.0 out of 5 stars The Middle of a Tootsie Roll Pop
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 more
Published on April 2 2001 by David Hunter
1.0 out of 5 stars Spare me
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 more
Published on Feb. 28 2001 by Carol Peters
5.0 out of 5 stars Les mots, les choses, and la Byatt! Toujours!
A. S. Byatt writes of British intellectuals in academe and publishing in all their marvelous quirkiness. Read more
Published on Feb. 24 2001 by Stephen Richmond
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