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The Biographer's Tale

Byatt, A. S.

1,178 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0375411143 / ISBN 13: 9780375411144
Published by Alfred a Knopf Inc, New York, 2001
Condition: As New Hardcover
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First edition, first printing hard cover in as new condition with likewise dust jacket. Signed by the author on the title page, at an event held at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We were the bookseller Authenticity guaranteed. (SIGNED FIRST / FIRST). Bookseller Inventory # 000227

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Biographer's Tale

Publisher: Alfred a Knopf Inc, New York

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:As New

Dust Jacket Condition: As New

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: First Edition, First Printing

About this title

Synopsis:

From the award-winning author of Possession and Angels and Insects comes an ingenious new novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one man's search for fact.
It tells the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted young 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. For what could be more real than biography, the "art of things, of arranged facts"? But Phineas quickly discovers that facts can be unreliable, and a "whole life" hard to find. No matter how hard he tries, he unearths only fragments--disconnected manuscripts, bones and husks, strands of poetry, boxes of marbles, undated photographs. How does one put together the idea of a person?

Phineas tracks his subjects' journeys to the deserts of Africa and the maelstroms of the Arctic in a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and erotic. He meets others who are building wholes from bits and pieces: a beautiful radiographer, ecologists, anthropologists, even travel agents offering the trip of your dreams. But they seem only to make his task more difficult. And as he tries to sort through the cabinet of curiosities that is the past, he must also decide his own future, and face the most difficult puzzle of all: which woman will guide him out of this dizzying labyrinth and back into his own life?

With The Biographer's Tale, A. S. Byatt--hailed by the New York Times Book Review as "a storyteller who could keep a sultan on the edge of his throne for 1,001 nights"--asks provocative questions about our perennial quest for certainty, about "truth" in biography, about the nature of the imagination and the meaning of meaning, even as she spins a tantalizing yarn of detection and desire.

Review:

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

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