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The Biographer's Tale [Paperback]

A S Byatt
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jun 2001
In this witty, Borges-like Novel, 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: disconnected typescripts, bones and husks, boxes of marbles, collections of photographs. 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, even travel 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? Tantalising, comic and rueful, The Biographer's Tale is a modern delight, a colour-filled novel of detection and desire.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (1 Jun 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009928393X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099283935
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 548,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A.S. Byatt is internationally known as a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Her novels include Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990), and the quartet of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman, as well as The Shadow of the Sun, The Game and The Biographer's Tale. Her latest novel, The Children's Book, is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009. She is also the author of two novellas, published together as Angels and Insects, and four collections of stories, and has co-edited Memory: An Anthology.

Educated at York and Newnham College, Cambridge, she taught at the Central School of Art and Design, and was Senior Lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999.

Product Description

Amazon Review

The world of erstwhile post-structuralist literary critic Phineas G Nanson turns upside down when he abandons the abstractions of theory and embarks upon a factual voyage into the realms of biographical empiricism. Dryly inspired by one of his tutors, the indigent and orotund Ormerod Goode, Phineas starts writing a biography of Scholes Destry Scholes--a biographer. Hooked by Scholes's scholarly multi-volumed biography of Victorian polymath Sir Elmer Bole, Phineas enters the mysterious world of the biographical form, "a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts". Phineas discovers that facts, when piecing together the story of a life, are not only elusive and inconclusive, but liable to turn out to be fiction.

The Biographer's Tale is about how a would-be biographer goes in pursuit of his subject, and inadvertently finds himself along the way. A dry, nervous cipher at the outset, Phineas develops into a character as the tale progresses. He goes from loneliness to double love with a taxonomist and a radiologist. The earthy Fulla, "a Scandanavian nature-goddess" inducts him into the sensual exterior of life and the organic links that hold it together. Obsessed with bees and beetles, Fulla shows Phineas how human life is dependent upon a fragile ecosystem that philosophers of the self rarely pause to consider in their flights into the existential nature of being. Radiologist Vera who "photographs our invisible lives" reveals to Phineas the usually invisible world of the inner body, and enables him to venture to the interior of himself.

Entranced with two women, admiring and envious of the love between his peripatetic gay employers and terrified of one of their most important clients, Phineas finds that his biographical subject leads him into the words and worlds of Darwin, Galton, Linnaeus, Ibsen and Pearson. Byatt's theme is, typically, both labyrinthine in its complexity and crystalline in its simplicity. In its complexity, The Biographer's Tale is an investigation into contemporary intellectual currents and their relation to the philosophical and natural truths of nineteenth century thought. In its simplicity, it is a book about how we tell ourselves stories.

This is a novel that pokes fun at the solipsistic excesses of over-serious academe. It is nonetheless scholarly in its own construction, and readers should expect a challenging read. Byatt's particular achievement is to embody the positions of contemporary intellectual thought and make them into characters too. Empiricism becomes a phlegmatic, generally reliable but poseur-like armchair traveller whose failing is to elide cracks and conceal discontinuities in reality. Post-structuralism becomes a pugnacious sceptic querying the premise of selfhood with a weakness for revelling in ambivalence and the shiny surfaces of things--and delightfully annoying in its persistent questioning of the order of everything.

Truth, lies, love, history, self-knowledge--Byatt enables the reader to choose their route through Phineas's Bildungsroman. Pitching headlong into a very topical British cultural obsession with the nature of biography, The Biographer's Tale walks lightly the knotty tightrope between fact and fiction, and leaves the reader to decide on what is the difference between the two. As Phineas discovers, "There are very few human truths and infinite variations on them...Reading and writing extend--not infinitely, but violently, gut giddily--the variations we can perceive on the truths we discover." --Rachel Holmes --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"This novel takes the reader somewhere rare and high" (Financial Times)

"A voluptuous tale" (Sunday Times)

"Awesome" (Daily Mail)

"The relation of language to things, the arrangement of those things in the world, and exposure of the tricks of literary composition are not just occasional intruders in this novel, they are its very subject" (Times Literary Review)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Destry Rides Again 17 Feb 2001
By A Customer
Phineas G. Nanson is fed up with studying theory - he wants to do something more concrete. One of his tutors introduces him to the biography of Sir Elmer Bole by Scholes Destry-Scholes - little known, but a masterpiece of its field. So enthused is Phineas by Scholes's passion, and by his obscure life and death, that he decides to embark on a biography of his own. Scholes Destry-Scholes is to be his subject.
Phineas goes to Pontefract to see where Scholes was brought up. A disappointing experience, since he really learns nothing about Scholes the man, and staring at his house all day just makes the woman who lives there think that he's a stalker. But then someone finally replies to Phineas's ad in the TLS, and he has a bit more luck tracking down correspondence between Scholes and his publisher. Three documents are brought to light, and a chest full of Scholes' things (including underwear and marbles), are opened for Phineas's inspection. The three documents are biographical accounts of Linnaeus, Sir Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen. Did Scholes's supposed death in the Maelstrom interrupt these projects? On his quest, Phineas meets two very beautiful, but very different women: Fulla, the Bee taxonomist, and Vera, the radiographer. Whilst working in Puck's Girdle, a literary travel agency, Phineas also meets a dragon in the form of Maurice Bossey...
I wasn't sure of The Biographer's Tale at first. I thought that it was a very good account of the life of the researcher, all those coincidences which seem to gather to compose an answer. All those jigsaw pieces which you and you alone can put together. The Biographer's Tale is such a learned piece that it is quite daunting.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A challenge, but worth the effort. 17 July 2000
Byatt herself calls this, " A patchwork, echoing book" and like a patchwork, it is easy to sometimes lose the pattern, but I found that it was worth reading to the end, even though the protagonist (the biographer of the title) was a little irritating at times. The two female characters (Vera, blue-grey night person, and Fulla, golden ,electric day person ) are detailed and convincing, as are the two gay colleagues. There were times when I was impatient reading the index cards which are an essential and authentic part of the story as I wanted to get back to the action part of the plot. These could, in all fairness, be skimmed over at a first reading. If you enjoyed "Possession" then you will find parallels in "The Biographer's Tale," and certain cameos that share similarities. "Possession" is ultimately more satisfying as it has a stronger story-line and a more likeable male character, but both books show how astonishingly erudite Byatt is, and how patient in putting together all the clues without giving away a premature solution. This is not an easy read, but it did intrigue me and it seems to hold out the promise of "Read me again and you'll find even more than you did before."
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing 25 July 2002
By A Customer
Perhaps I am not the target readership for this book, but I have enjoyed A S Byatt's work and was delighted to spot what was, to me, a new one. It claims to be about a man discovering himself while trying to discover about someone else. I found it to be a lot of lengthy, often turgid, text with literary and other references which swamped any other aspect of the book. I did finish the book, but boy was it a struggle!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Researching Identity? 14 Nov 2002
This is a very literary book and an entertaining story, but you have to be in the mood. It is saturated with in-jokes. The long biographical bits can be very tedious if you don't like random bits of curious facts. It can easily be seen as pretentious. What grabbed me was that this novel is about the obsessive need to understand and possess another's identity. How much do we need to know to understand someone and what do we do when that understanding is found? Is history fixed or malleable? No answers are possible and this novel concedes to that point. It conveys a deep understanding that all this knowledge that we desperately acquire to know another must be gathered and dropped simultaneously if we are to gain any idea about another person's identity.
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