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The Biographer's Tale

Byatt, A. S.

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ISBN 10: 0375411143 / ISBN 13: 9780375411144
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2001
Condition: Fine Hardcover
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Fine unread copy protected by Archival Brodart Cover. Size: 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Bookseller Inventory # 000056

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Biographer's Tale

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Hard Cover

Book Condition:Fine

Dust Jacket Condition: Fine

Signed: Signed by Author

Edition: First Edition.

About this title


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.


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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