The Biographer's Tale

by A. S. Byatt

Hardcover, 2001





New York : A.A. Knopf, 2001.


In this witty, Borges-like fiction, A.S.Byatt weaves a dazzling fiction out of one man's search for fact. Fed up with stultifying criticism, Phineas G decides to study the messiness of 'real life' Doing nothing by halves he sets out to write a biography of a great biographer. But a 'whole life' is hard to find. How do we put the idea of a person together? Everywhere he looks he finds fragments and gaps- bones and husks, oxes 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, where the shapes of myth meet the patterns of science. He meets others building wholes from bits and pieces- taxonomists, ecologists to trave; agents offering the trip of your dreams. In the process he also puzzles out his own future - but which woman will guide him out of the labyrinth?… (more)

Media reviews

Disenchanted by the abstractions of postmodern literary theory, Phineas Nanson leaves graduate school in hopes of finding "a life full of things, Full of facts." Quickly he throws himself into writing a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes, a Victorian polymath known for his three-volume biography of Sir Elmer Bole, an eccentric British explorer and writer. In a state of "febrile excitement" over his new career, Nanson begins pursuing leads: a bundle of mysterious documents left in a university archive, a shoebox of peculiar index cards and photographs given to him by Destry-Schole's niece. The fragmented documents themselves make up a sizable portion of the novel so that the reader, like Nanson, plays literary sleuth. In a trail of paper clues that leads to Ibsen, Linnaeus, taxonomy, eugenics and composite portraiture, Nanson is aided by two women, a pollination ecologist and a radiographer, with whom he eventually becomes intimate. While reminiscent of Byatt's dazzling Booker Prize-winning *Possession*--which likewise follows scholarly quests that seek to make sense of past lives--this novel is not nearly as satisfying. One never understands why Nanson is so impassioned by his subject; intellectual concerns overwhelm and displace the emotional and psychological lives of Byatt's characters; and the self-effacing Nanson never quite becomes a credible or absorbing presence. Byatt is a vibrant, daring and curious intellect who writes passionately about the mind and evokes a sense of wonder at the complexities and patterns inherent in the natural world. However, the new novel is more irritating and confusing than it is intriguing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member aprille
This is the story of a disenchanted graduate student, Phineas G. Nanson, who rejects his work in postmodern literary theory because he's sick of meta-analysis. He decides to substitute a project to write a biography of a reticent biographer. Though he has a desire to be wholly objective, his post-modern training forces him to own his subjectivity. As he collects material for the biography, he moves from a "meta" existence as an observer of observers, to being one of the observers himself, to being the subject of his own story.

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.
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LibraryThing member piemouth
So this is a story told by an academic who decides to quit that and pursue concrete things. He decides to write a biography of a great biographer, known for his writings about a British adventurer. He obtains a number of essays written by the biographer, presented to us by Byatt, as she did with the poetry in Possession. They're puzzling - they describe playwright Henrik Ibsen, naturalist Carl Linnaeas, and scientist Francis Galton. All very well. But if they're intended to be biographical, they contain a number of falsehoods. By this time he's met a Swedish ecologist who helps him with translations and points out some of the errors. He then makes contact with the niece of the biographer, who provides him with index cards and photographs left by him. They're equally obscure.

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.
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LibraryThing member Mikalina
A very funny in depth dissection of what "fact" is.
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....
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LibraryThing member ed.pendragon
The Maelstrom: how evocative that name is, the Charybdis that tempts you, the whirlpool that draws you down into its watery depths, a volatile spiral maze from which there is no escape. The Maelstrom, or Moskstraumen as the Norwegian original should really be called, features only sporadically in The Biographer’s Tale but its symbolism permeates the whole novel.

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.
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LibraryThing member krisiti
What a claustrophobic book! There's really only one character; other people are mentioned but aren't in view much and never come to life.I'm not sure how (not why) I finished it.Story of a remarkably incompetant attempt to write a biography, in which a man finds his true self (travel agent / taxonomer) and ends up living a life of pseudobigamous bliss Or something like that. (Did Fulla and Vera know about each other?) Obvious parallel between Phineas and the man biographied initially: must look for others.… (more)
LibraryThing member rakerman
I normally read mostly science fiction and science fact, so I sometimes find novels like A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale somewhat disconcerting. I guess one could call it multilayered but that implies too much separation between the areas it explores, they are more intertwined, think perhaps of a spiral galaxy in which the individual ordered star systems when viewed as a group from a distance have an emergent structure. This story whirls with whorls, whether at the heart of marbles, in fingerprints, or in a distant spinning maelstrom.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
I realised about halfway through that I had actually read this before, but had forgotten almost everything about it. Which possibly says something about the sort of book it is: there is a lot of wonderful detail, jokes as well as intelligent speculation about the ways biography, taxonomy, storytelling and scholarship intersect, and about how far we can build up a written portrait of an individual person at all. But it doesn't seem to come together in a very satisfactory way as a novel. It almost feels as though Byatt had intended to write a much longer book and got fed up with it part way through.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bat
Story of a would-be biographer biographing another biographer!!!
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member drbubbles
I loved Possession. Just so you know.

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.
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