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
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"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