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, 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, where the shapes of myth meet the patterns of science..
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....
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.
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.