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The Biographer's Tale

3.2  ·  Rating Details ·  1,089 Ratings  ·  103 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
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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
Feb 06, 2013 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
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Quandong
Aug 08, 2007 Quandong rated it did not like it
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
Dec 05, 2011 Peter rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
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
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Rick
Jul 04, 2009 Rick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Melanie
Dec 09, 2010 Melanie rated it it was ok
Shelves: brit-lit, 2010-reads
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
Apr 20, 2008 Amy rated it liked it
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!
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
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Maddy
Mar 21, 2012 Maddy rated it liked it
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
Susan
Sep 15, 2007 Susan rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction-adult
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
Michael Spiering
Sep 02, 2013 Michael Spiering rated it really liked it
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
Brigid
Apr 23, 2009 Brigid rated it it was ok
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
Liviu
Jul 31, 2009 Liviu rated it really liked it
Shelves: mainstream, read_2010
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
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Paddy
Sep 01, 2010 Paddy rated it it was ok
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 did not like it
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
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Elizabeth Desole
Aug 29, 2009 Elizabeth Desole rated it did not like it
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
Marvin
Aug 11, 2009 Marvin rated it did not like it
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.
Meg
Mar 11, 2009 Meg rated it liked it
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.
William Leight
May 31, 2014 William Leight rated it really liked it
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
Paul The Uncommon Reader
Too many layers for me

This was my third Byatt, after the truly impressive "The Children's Book" and the totally luscious "Possession". Byatt's output is, um, economical, so I've been saving her other stuff for a while. (Does anyone else out there do that? Purposely not read new books by favourite authors so that you've still got stuff to look forward to, and so that you aren't in the situation that you don't have more of your favourite author to read? Or possibly: there are so many other authors

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Mike
Jan 04, 2017 Mike rated it liked it
I think the core conceit of finding the whole by how they put together the parts is an interesting one, but this book just never clicked. It always felt a bit meandering and I kept wishing it'd get to it.
Luke
Jan 12, 2017 Luke rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction
It was good, but my personal preference did not enjoy it.
Melanie
Sep 07, 2008 Melanie rated it it was amazing
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
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Rhiannon
Aug 16, 2015 Rhiannon rated it liked it
I feel like such a cad. I bought this because I LOVE A.S. Byatt- bought it years ago- read the first few chapters and gave up. I couldn't follow it (probably because I was in school and not really able to read for fun much). My wife issued a challenge: we each work our way through our bookcases alphabetically, reading everything we haven't already read. I think 75% of the books on the shelf are mine, so this was a rare case of it's my book that I haven't read.

WELL. I read the whole thing. It's
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Leslie Graff
Apr 26, 2015 Leslie Graff rated it liked it
It feels like a betrayal to rate a Byatt novel so low but this book just disappointed me in so many ways. I purchased this book when it first came out, allowing myself a rare treat of a hardcover book as a PhD student. For years I was scared to read it, fearing that I too may be inspired to give up my literary studies and take up something more aligned with "facts" and "things." It sat on the shelf like a a precious gem, a book with so much promise that I was saving for a truly special moment. W ...more
Shayda
Mar 09, 2009 Shayda rated it liked it
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
Marie
Jan 29, 2015 Marie rated it liked it
The premise is fascinating and we have here a story rife with the usual erudite references one has come to expect from, and associate with, A.S. Byatt. But somehow this story seems to fall off pace at a certain point and my reading slowed in consequence. I'm willing to consider that it may have something to do with me as a reader right now, rather than with the author, as I had the same experience while reading "My Life in Middlemarch" - a very promising start that had me almost bouncing in my s ...more
Luke
May 21, 2010 Luke rated it liked it
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
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
Jerry
Jul 15, 2015 Jerry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I haven't read much Byatt, but enough to have expected what this book delivers. The intellectual demands she places on the reader are fairly high (though not, like Richard Powers for instance, overwhelming) and her gamesmanship--this is a metatextual exercise framing questions about objects and facts as distinct from semiotic dissemination of traces of signification dramatized as the story of a biographer writing a biography of a biographer--is also sometimes challenging, but again, not overwhel ...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 winner 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 Ey ...more
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