From the award-winning author of Possession comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man’s search for fact. Here is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real life” by writing a biography of a great biographer. In a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and sensual, Phineas tracks his subject to the deserts of Africa and the maelstrom of the Arctic. Along the way he comes to rely on two women, one of whom may be the guide he needs out of the dizzying labyrinth of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographer’s Tale is a provocative look at “truth” in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.
The writing is simply beautiful. I'm not a big annotator, but I couldn't bear to let some of the lovely sentences slip by without a pencil mark in the margin, so I could find them again. Like this (p. 194):
"Looking back on my own times, what most strikes me is that we have developed endlessly subtle styles and techniques to reveal the secret meaning behind the apparent meaning, to open up the desires and assumptions behind what people say and explain about what they feel and believe. And all that can really be read into what we write is our own desire to translate everything, everyone, all reasoning, all irrational hope and fear, into our own Procrustean grid of priorities."
I read this book in a day, because the writing was just so pleasurable. I highly recommend it.
All of this is interesting: what was the biographer planning to do with this material? what are the connections between the three subjects? All of them are about journeys, magic, transformation, illusion.
But that's where the book leaves us. The narrator becomes romantically involved with both of the women, gets a job that brings him joy (and a terrible misunderstanding), and then that's how it ends. None of the mysteries are revealed, and even the details about his life aren't clear: Do the two women know of each other, and approve his involvement with both?
He finds happiness and joy in concrete things, in nature, in the here and now. Maybe that's all we're supposed to take from it. But I was terribly unsatisfied.
May I just say that I’m annoyed by novels that have title that include the words "A Novel". The word "tale" in the title of this one should tip us off that this isn’t a work of nonfiction, in case there's any reason to doubt.
Byatt sends her hero, a dwarf who decides that he does not want to become a postmodernist literary theoretician - because he want things - facts -, on a highly theoretical journey. Thus this is a book of a fictional character who reads the biography of a fictional chacter´s life; the fictional character´s fictional biography is even full of fictional titles of fictional books...... Under all this fiction you can see Richard Burton ( as the "first mover", as the model for Elmer Bole) whose life is full of facts, but whose legacy to the western world is 1001 eastern nights.....and the Tolkien reference is direct and at the starting point, and so poignant that anyone co-travelling with Phineas G. Nanson to the end, will find out what a halfling is.
As for myself; As a co-traveller through the chaotic literary wasteland, fortunately guided by a Chestertonian and Sullivanesque musical verbal virtousity of what is human reality, combined with the Phineas Finnean pass-partout grasp of geography and all things matter; I get a re-confirmation of a personal fact; I know that I`m a hobbit forever!
At outset the setting is academical, but the structure is that of a fairytale; What fun Byatt must have had in the construction!! Names, places, pairs, the reference to the trinity made up of a statician(Francis Galton), the taxonomist(Carl Linné) and the dramatist (Henrik Ibsen) is pure joy for a start -
A fantastical book which - like all fantastical fictional things - of course tells some very true things about life....
In The Biographer’s Tale we have A S Byatt, critic, novelist and onetime academic writing in the first person as Phineas G Nanson. We learn that Nanson, a postgraduate disillusioned with critical theory, is introduced to a biography of Victorian explorer Sir Elmer Bole, author of nearly a dozen texts and a real-life Gahmuret, siring children in Europe and the Middle East. Nanson then becomes obsessed with Bole’s elusive biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, eventually discovering that Destry-Scholes may, in chasing up notes on Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen, have been drawn to his death by the allure of the Maelstrom. Destry-Scholes’ notes and his few relics that the young scholar examines seem to throw doubt not only on what is true and what is fiction but also on whether any single biography is capable of delineating the whole of a subject’s life, works and thoughts. Circles within circles then, but, like the spirals of a whirlpool, all connected in seamless seething turmoil. Hanging over the whole are the questions, who exactly is the biographer – Byatt, Nanson, Bole or Destry-Scholes – and is it the biographer who’s telling the tale or is the tale about the biographer?
I very much enjoyed this erudite yet entertaining fiction: it combined a love of cataloguing, pigeonholing and cryptic puzzles with a snapshot of a gauche young man who, through questing for a particular grail, manages to find some equanimity. It’s not a perfect novel – as critics note, the erudition and the entertainment don’t quite gel a lot of the time – but it certainly gives pause for thought. With its sifting through fact and fiction in the lives of three great cataloguers of minutiae – taxonomer Linnaeus, anthropologist Galton and playwright Ibsen – it becomes evident that, failing a Library of Babel, it is never possible to find out everything about even the small things of life. If it seems that Byatt, through her puppet Nanson, avoids getting to the roots of these conundrums by concluding with Phineas Nanson settling down to a modus vivendi with his complex relationships (the blonde ecologist Fulla Biefeld, the dark-haired Vera Destry-Scholes and the esoteric travel-agents Christophe and Erik), then perhaps that is her message: human relationships matter more than dry fact-filing, however diverting.
Still, shuffling around those cataloguing cards is great fun. Take Phineas Nanson, for example. ‘Phineas’ may remind us of that fictional explorer, Phileas Fogg, who travelled around the world in eighty days; Phineus is also a Thracian prophet who helped Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Phineas’ middle name, Gilbert, may or may not derive from the great English naturalist Gilbert White, himself concerned with the great chain of being. In addition, Byatt tells us that Phineas discovers that “nanus was the Latin for dwarf, cognate with the French nain,” and notes with a frisson that he himself is “a little person, the child of a little person” and that he has a name in a system, Nanson, suggesting that his role as potential biographer renders him of small significance. Of course, there is more to this than Byatt explicitly tells us. Later on, someone mistakenly credits him with the name of the great Norwegian explorer Nansen. The postgraduate scholar willy-nilly finds that nominative determinism has predestined him to be questing, classifying and exploring.
However, a large clue comes from Byatt’s own acknowledgements at the end of the novel. Thanking an entomologist for specialist help, she notes particularly an insect with a suggestive name, Phaeogenes nanus, that reminds us of Phineas’ own name. It may not surprise the reader that this insect is a parasitic wasp, and perhaps gives us an inkling of the role of biographers in the lives of real people. Into such depths does the literary maelstrom deliver us.
I'm a huge fan of AS Byatt but I always seem to get to one part of her books where I get bogged down by the detail and just have to move forward and pick up the story later. This one, I had to miss out most of the book - not for me, very disappointing.
This novel was boring and tedious — but. But, but, but. Although I do not know what to make of it, and did not particularly enjoy it, yet there was something strangely compelling about it, something that made me not unable but unwilling to put it down (I read it in two sessions).
One aspect that I did admire was the use of language, the lovely rich vocabulary. At the beginning every page seemed to sparkle with it, and even though that diminished the further I read there were still solitary gems at the end.
In some indescribably way the book reminded me of Ramsey Campbell's Grin of the Dark.