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The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt

The Biographer's Tale (original 2000; edition 2000)

by A.S. Byatt

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973138,858 (3.1)28
Title:The Biographer's Tale
Authors:A.S. Byatt
Info:Chatto & Windus (2000), Edition: illustrated edition, Hardcover, 265 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:english fiction, 21st century

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The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt (2000)


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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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.... ( )
1 vote Mikalina | Aug 7, 2013 |
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.

http://wp.me/p2oNj1-gZ ( )
  ed.pendragon | Feb 6, 2013 |
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. ( )
1 vote thorold | Dec 16, 2012 |
Phinias Nansen is a student rejecting intellectual convention of post stucturalism who longes for old fashioned facts. So he leaves his post grad project and starts to write a biography of Destry Scholes a biographer of sir Boles, but from the start it is clear that the student lacks the talent for research and writing. But that's not the only joke Byatt has in store: the biographer and his subject are so common for the Victorian Age and the fifties that you almost believe the existence of them in real history but they are inventions of Byatt. But in stead of finding data the former student starts to relive the live of the subject of his subject even having to different love affairs with two totally different women. He finds no data about Destry-Scholes himself but a lot of cards that are the building stones of a new biographic project by Scholes, which is of course an invention of the writer of the book but this time based on fiction after the fictions of biographers and subjects of biographies themselves introduced in their times and writings. So we are lost in fragments of fantasies of and sometimes by Carl Linnaeus, Henrik Ibsen and Francis Galton,
Byatt's power as a storyteller, her ability to create atmosphere, and her romantic use Dickensian detail—do much to keep you interested but of course there is not a happy end if there is an end to the story at all.

Phineas' exploration of Destry-Scholes' manuscript and note-cards occupy almost the entire novel – a mistake in emphasis for a storyteller of Byatt's power. The Destry-Scholes’s manuscript is really three biographies, of the taxonomer Carl Linnaeus, of a Victorian named Francis Galton, and of playwright Henrik Isben. Destry-Scholes's writings are interesting enough--tinged, as they are, with Byatt's fine fictional additions--but then we come upon Phineas's interminable note-card sorting.

He finds he can arrange the note-cards into almost any sort of grouping he likes, such as "hybrids and mixtures," "composite portrait (photography)," or "(composite) portrait photography." This is intended as a ridicule of modern literary criticism and the impossible task of creating a true biography. ( )
  Dettingmeijer | Oct 10, 2011 |
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. ( )
2 vote piemouth | Aug 22, 2010 |
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I made my decision, abruptly, in the middle of one of Gareth Butcher's famous theoretical sermons.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375725083, Paperback)

A.S. Byatt chronicles the life of the mind with the immediacy other novelists bring to the physical world. So when the graduate-student hero of The Biographer's Tale announces that he needs "a life full of things," we take his words with a grain of salt. Yes, Phineas G. Nanson has renounced the "cross-referenced abstractions" of life as a postmodern literary theorist, and vows to ground himself in what he warily calls the "facts" (the quotation marks are definitely in order). Yet he first forays into empiricism by reading a three-volume life of the Victorian traveler, writer, and diplomat Elmer Bole--then immediately undertakes a biography of Bole's biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes.

Things, as Nanson discovers, can prove just as slippery as ideas. His research quickly leapfrogs beyond the biographer to his other subjects: scientist Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts. Meanwhile, our hero continues his forays into the real world. He takes a part-time job with a pair of gay travel agents, who arrange some very specialized vacations, and meets up with a Swedish bee taxonomist named Fulla, who wants to save the world. He also unearths a perplexing series of Destry-Scholes's index cards, full of sketches, facts, quotations, and unattributed lines of verse. These he attempts to shuffle into some kind of order, even as the enigmatic figure of the biographer himself seems to appear and disappear from view.

There are echoes here of Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession, another detective story for the MLA set. Yet The Biographer's Tale is an altogether odder--and chillier--sort of book. It is, in fact, almost terrifyingly learned, and wears its research about as lightly as a pair of Fulla's Ecco sandals. The mystery here is nothing less than the nature of mind, so it's no criticism to say that her characters have little life outside the ideas they represent. What's surprising is that the result is so readable, even beautiful at times. Here, for instance, is Nanson on truth and beauty:

There are a very few human truths and infinite variations on them. I was about to write that there are very few truths about the world, but the truth about that is that we don't know what we are not biologically fitted to know, it may be full of all sorts of shining and tearing things, geometries, chemistries, physics we have no access to and never can have. Reading and writing extend--not infinitely, but violently, but giddily--the variations we can perceive on the truths we thus discover.
The index cards themselves can be painful to read (remember the ersatz Victorian poetry in Possession?). But persevere, dear reader--meaning emerges through the play of one esoteric piece of information against another, just as it does in real life. Byatt extends her philosophical variations as far as she giddily can, and in The Biographer's Tale, she has constructed an elaborate, glittering labyrinth at the center of which lie surprisingly simple truths. --Mary Park

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:44 -0400)

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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..… (more)

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