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The Biographer's Tale: A Novel

The Biographer's Tale: A Novel
Author: A. S. Byatt
ISBN 13: 9780375725081
ISBN 10: 375725083
Edition: Reprint
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: 2001-12
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
List Price: $14.95

From the award-winning author of Possession comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man's search for fact.

Here is the story of Phineas G.

Book Magazine

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-Scholes' 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, her new novel is more irritating and confusing than it is intriguing.
—James Schiff