The Biographer's Tale
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The Biographer's Tale

3.21 of 5 stars 3.21  ·  rating details  ·  875 ratings  ·  81 reviews
From the Booker Prize-winning author of Possession comes this erotic, playful, and provocative novel about the collision of art and truth.

Phineas G. Nanson, a disillusioned post-graduate student, decides to leave his abstract studies and pursue a seemingly concrete task: to write a biography of a great biographer. But Phineas quickly discovers that facts can be unreliable...more
Paperback, 305 pages
Published December 4th 2001 by Vintage (first published 2000)
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Lizzie
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...more
Chris
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 le...more
Quandong
Normally, I am A.S. Byatt's bitch. But I couldn't get into this book, I couldn't even get past the first 50 pages. I'd love to hear if anyone finished this and thinks I am missing something.
Peter
One must bow to the scope of A.S. Byatt's fiction. Her knowledge is broad; her interests wide; her allusions many; her literary references dense. More impressive than all of these, however, is her skill as a storyteller - how she weaves her academic musings into epiphanies about life.
The Biographer's Tale follows Phineas G. Nanson from the abstraction of graduate school to the discovery of wonder in the natural world. "...the vision of these very real, chattering birds said to me... that the sen...more
Rick
A.S. Byatt’s THE BIOGRAPHER’S TALE, is a mystery reminiscent of POSSESSION, although much more abstract and intellectualized. In the novel, graduate student Phineas G. Nanson drops his work in literary theory to pursue the “real,” embodied in his attempt to write a biography of biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes.

Information about Scholes Destry-Scholes, however, is elusive and cryptic, and Nanson can only come up with clues. He eventually stumbles across a stack of index cards and a bag of marble...more
Melanie
As a recovering post-sturcturalist who is quite glad that grad school is well and truly done with, I loved the premise of this book: Phineas G. Nanson ups and quits his graduate degree and critical theory seminars to write a biography of a biographer. In theory, I admire the elegance of a composite novel about a man researching a biographer who was working on a composite biography of three men who were obsessed in some way with the idea of the composite. In practice, I got bogged down by all of...more
Amy
Very literary and a bit over my head. I enjoyed A.S. Byatt's novel Possession, but this one I had a difficult time following. She's a very intelligent writer, which I appreciate, but sometimes it's a bit much. Still interesting, though!
Mark Gromko
In this novel, A.S. Byatt's graduate student protagonist, Phineas G. Nanson resolves a seeming contradiction between writing about life and living life. Phineas struggles with the limitations of both literary theory (post-structuralism) and biography. He finds a way to extricate himself from the binds and banality of literary theory (e.g., continuing to eschew the use of the word "reality" but yet making the distinction between "writing" and "things" through the locution "concrete world"), while...more
Ron Charles
Entering a novel by A.S. Byatt is like going to a party of very smart people. The initial thrill of mingling with such brilliance is tempered by the nagging sens e of one's relative stupidity.

You know you're in trouble when a book opens with a quote from Empedocles and a reference to Lacan's theory of morcellement.

"The Biographer's Tale," a wildly inventive, over-demanding novel, reads like a parody of all things intellectual, Byatt included.

The narrator is a comically self-conscious graduate st...more
Liviu
This is another book I started months ago, read some, put it down, restarted it and so on until finally I got to about 50% in small chunks across time and then I read the rest in one sitting.


Overall I liked a lot from it, but it's very unbalanced as a novel - the part that deals with the narrator and his relationships which is maybe 1/3 of the book itself is excellent but the rest which deals with the narrator's investigation of a writer/biographer and in turn that writer's investigations of ot...more
Maddy
I've read a few of Byatt's books, and have been thinking about how to summarize my experience with them. She seems concerned with intellectual people (I think of all her characters having an I in their Mayer-Briggs classification) who, though some sort of academic or research-related journey, make strides in their romantic, sexual and emotional lives. The interesting thing is the weird, dark undercurrents that seem to go along with this journey. Usually it seems like the protagonist's journey to...more
Michael Spiering
I read this as a delightful satirical novel that cast a sidelong glance at some of the odder foibles not only of scholars, but the scholars they study. The insight behind the jokes, perhaps, is that genius coexists with eccentricity--if you want to think of figures like Linnaeus as genius. Perhaps genius is the wrong word here, but something worthy of scholarly biography. Similarly, we learn that a biographer may himself be a "genius"--here, I believe, the word is applied by a dissertation direc...more
Susan
Byatt has a way of making her characters seem like butterfly specimens pinned to a display. You may admire their intricacies, but you can never feel like you get close to them. Perhaps part of this is because they feel like they come from another time. Oddly enough, although one of the main characters is a new-agey earth mother type and computers and the Internet play a role here and there, the story does not gain much in warmth or a contemporary feel from either element. Nature in this book alw...more
Brigid
Since I liked Babel Tower (and long before that, Possession) so much, I thought I would read some other Byatt and found this one. It was so-so. Again, she interleaves multiple created and existing texts, which is only partially effective for me. I love her work with her actual characters so much more than her imitation of scholarly works or her character-created fictions. In Possession I shamelessly skipped the long poems, which didn't affect the read at all, but in both Babel Tower and this one...more
Paddy
What disappointment to find mind-numbing mountains of "knowledge" and "faux knowledge" in what started out as a possible romp through the fields of deconstructionists' most playful intellectual games. But haven't I written this before about other recent attempts of Byatt? Clearly, she and her sibs are brilliant scholars and writers, but strutting one's knowledge of others' scholarship weighs on the reader, who wants fresh intimacy with characters, lovable or not. In the end, I wish she were nice...more
Jeana
Nov 19, 2008 Jeana rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who want to fall asleep
I'm saying I've read this because I read the first bit (23 pages) and I just CAN'T read anymore. It's too cerebral; it's too dry; I just don't care about the fact that the main character is reading about how the biographer wrote about some other guy who was "particularly fond of the contrast between red apples and green apples" (p. 21).

I don't like reading biographies. I really don't. I prefer fiction. But the idea of reading a fictional story about a biographer's biography is just too much. So...more
William Leight
I have a doubtless slightly unfortunate tendency to compare all A.S. Byatt novels to "Possession", but "A Biographer's Tale" makes such comparisons almost inevitable. It is, in a way, a mirror-image, or possibly bizarro-world version, of "Possession". Both novels have as their hero a young academic studying an unfashionable branch of literature; both feature a quest to solve a (fictional) literary mystery; both have a heavy Victorian influence; both involve the interpolation of excerpts from inv...more
Elizabeth Desole
I usually love Byatt though there have been times that I found the beginning of her books rough going. This one I actually gave up on. I never do this. It's just far too much like the diary of a not very interesting English Lit grad student
Meg
An interesting book, although ultimately disappointing. I never quite clicked with the narrator and the interweaving of random passages of text did not make for an easy reading experience. It sets up for more than it delivers.
Marvin
Surprisingly, I gave up on this one. Surprisingly, because I really liked her earlier book, Possession. But the elements that made that one intellectually rewarding somehow made this one seem pretentious.
John A
"Read" this on book-on-tape. Not sure I would have persevered if I was turning the pages myself, but I liked it. Kind of academic, self-consciously postmodern, probably not for everybody.
Shayda
Mar 01, 2011 Shayda rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: lit
Plotting hasn't seemed to be Byatt's strong suit in general. From her Potter novels I've been conditioned, in any case, to think of Byatt novels as comprising a series of episodes; from Possession, to think of interpolated texts as a delightful game. The Biographer's Tale has hardly any plot at all. It's the story of a postgraduate who decides to replace his academic studies with a world of things, and the newly liberated narrator gradually finds his way to the world of taxonomic specimens as a...more
Luke
More a treatise on essoteric knowledge of Carolinus Linneaus, Elmer Boles, Henrik Ibsen, Francis Gaulton, and Scholes Destry-Scholes, with a good mesaure of philosophical argument between empiricism, rationalism, and existentialism on the nature of "things" and "meaning" than an traditional novel with a beginning, middle, climax, and end.

Phineas G. Nanson, the hero of the tale, starts the book as a bored graduate student who is tired of dealing solely with ideals, he feels he wants "things" in h...more
Melanie
Welcome to the Bizarro World edition of Possession. Where once the literary sleuths sought the mystery of a Victorian poet, now the sleuth seeks to escape the Laputa-like world of modern literary criticism. He wants things - facts - tangibles.

Steered by his orotund advisor (who doodles random, obscene runes during lectures) and stirred by a three-volume biography of Elmer Bowles (a Victorian polymath whose own writings may or may not have been, shall we say, reliable), Phineas Nanson decides to...more
Emma
So far, this is great. My heart sank a little when I realised early on how much of the book would be spent in the biographer's primary resources, but somehow Byatt is always worth what can be an initial effort. She works you into it ... Byatt's characters live in a kind of un-real world steeped in scholarship and solo bookishness, where everyone is kind of modernly arcane and thinky and obsessed with details. Popular culture rarely creeps in and I was shocked to read mentions of websites when th...more
Laurie
This was my first A.S. Byatt, and I really enjoyed her. I feel conflicted about this book because on one hand, it kept me captivated, but on the other hand, it kind of was a random pointless story. It probably interested me especially because I am a librarian/archivist and it has a lot of archival elements to it (long nights of research, searching through dusty old attics, uncovering forgotten correspondence, etc). But I also felt like there were a lot of sections that could have been omitted. T...more
Nancy
I was nearly 150 pages into this book when I realized that I had already read it. What's wrong with this picture? For me, Byatt's POSSESSION is the pinnacle of contemporary literature. So, I tried Babel Tower and was repelled by it (but read it); tried Angels and Insects (and couldn't read it); and now, (apparently) re-read The Biographer's Tale. This shares many things with Possession---academic quest; faux historic textual material; a puzzle and a romance. But, unfortunately, this book contain...more
Tracy
It was a quick read but honestly quick difficult. I did not understand a lot of the references and the title was very misleading- it was semi-about a biographer but it was a lot more scientific than I usually enjoy
Susan
Complicated, interesting, confusing vintage Byatt. The search for Destry Scholes Destry the biographer of Edward Boles-a gentleman,scientist, adventurer, author, and politician is a fascinating start. How much does the biographer add/correct/diminish in the representation of the subject? To be able to take on such a complex individual as Edward Boles equates the biographer with the same knowledge and interests as his subject-so he must be even more of an interesting character. Byatt always layer...more
Ria
It's always a pleasure reading Byatt's work. So referencial and self-aluding. This is the first book of hers (probably the only one) that uses a first-person narrator. There's a lot to be said in that. She glosses over the expected stuff. But always, this curiosity that drives the narrative along, and makes the reader want to read no matter how borring the unbiographical parts are. I guess by now I know how her craft works. How she combines elements of facts and fictions together. In a way, it's...more
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A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Byatt) is internationally known for her novels and short stories. Her novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman, and her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s E...more
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Possession The Children's Book Angels and Insects The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye The Virgin in the Garden

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“It is good for a man to invite his ghosts into his warm interior, out of the wild night, into the firelight, out of the howling dark.” 6 likes
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