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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. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real life” by writing a biography of a great biographer. In a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and sensual, Phineas tracks his subject to the deserts of Africa and the maelstrom of the Arctic. Along the way he comes to rely on two women, one of whom may be the guide he needs out of the dizzying labyrinth of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographer’s Tale is a provocative look at “truth” in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.
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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Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts.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 From the Back Cover:
“Elegant . . .witty . . . intelligent.” –The Washington Post
“A tenderly funny novel. . . .One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.” –The Baltimore Sun
“Wise, sharp-witted. . . . miss it at your peril.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An impressive achievement, a literary mosaic at once exotic, academic, esoteric, engaging, and disconcerting. . . . A feast for the brain” –The Denver Post
“One of Byatt’s most exuberant books.”–The Baltimore Sun
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Book Description Chatto & Windus, 2000. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0701169451
Book Description Chatto&Windus, 2000, 2000. Hardcover. Condition: New. 1st Edition....... 8128, 1ST PRINTING Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng Language: eng. Seller Inventory # BU-238
Book Description Chatto & Windus 2000, 2000. Condition: New. New hardback. May show some slight shelf wear but content fine and unread. Seller Inventory # A111723
Book Description Chatto & Windus Publishing, 2000. Hardcover. Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Published In 2000 : 1st. Edition : 1st. Printing : Full Printing Numbers Listed , 1 - 10 : Chatto & Windus Publishing : Light To Faint Face Rubbing To The Dust Wrapper : Otherwise , As New Throughout : Overall, A Very Nice Book : Seller Inventory # 22 - 19737