Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Biographer's Tale” as Want to Read:
The Biographer's Tale
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Biographer's Tale

3.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,231 ratings  ·  121 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
Paperback, 305 pages
Published December 4th 2001 by Vintage (first published August 1st 2000)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.19  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,231 ratings  ·  121 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Biographer's Tale
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the tale of a would-be-biographer’s research for the purpose of writing an account of the life of another biographer, an obscure and forgotten figure in the novel’s world of letters.

If I were to use only one word to describe this novel it would be erudite. A S Byatt is remarkably adept at showing off her extensive knowledge and enticing the reader into wanting more. But here, this doesn’t quite seem to be the case, all of the time. Our hero has to sift through his subject’s writings
Story of a graduate student of lit crit who gives it up for the more concrete pursuit of facts, by writing the ultimate biography of a biographer. So layers of fictional biography, and lengthy and detailed diversions into the diverse interests of the original subject.

The narrator is a man (admittedly of ambiguous sexuality to others), but it reads more like a woman telling the story, though I can't put my finger on why.

When I read this way back in 2005, I found it “All very disjointed and
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
Feb 06, 2013 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
Aug 08, 2007 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.
Dec 05, 2011 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
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
Jul 04, 2009 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
Mar 21, 2012 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
Steve Wiggins
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
I confess upfront that I like classical novels. Stories that follow a progressive storyline that isn't opaque and that involves the reader in the emotional life of the character. I appreciated the humor of a grad student (having been one) becoming fed up with the nonsense of deconstructionism (I agree) and trying to make a life as a biographer's biographer. Very meta. Still, the story feels like it's trying to be too erudite, too sophisticated. It's hard to feel for the narrator.

There will be
Dec 09, 2010 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
Jul 23, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Seeing that this was a blend of history and present-day narrative, I expected/hoped for another 'Possession'. It isn't - but maybe I shouldn't have expected that, as a writer like AS Byatt isn't likely to write the same book twice! I did enjoy it, all the same, although some of the long sections with little bits of the main character's research, as he aims to write a biography of the ultimate biographer, can be heavy going.
Apr 20, 2008 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!
I have never read anything by AS Byatt. I have heard of her... but I think I always assumed she was a bit too "literary" for my tastes, which in my head means snobby and convoluted kinda-real-life and not that interesting. I saw this book in a second hand book shop and thought - maybe I should give it a go; biography is an interesting topic and the blurb sounded a bit intriguing.

Plus, cool cover.

Up to about the halfway point, I was utterly charmed. Besotted, even. Phineas Nanson (I was a bit
This is a cerebral novel about (narrated by) a graduate student of literary analysis who decides he wants to work with "things" instead of in the conceptual stratosphere that he has been used to so far in his academic career. So, he takes up the idea of writing a biography of a celebrated biographer from the beginning of the 20th century whose magnum opus is the 3 volume life of an 18th century British traveler with an absurdly long and disparate list of accomplishments. He begins his research, ...more
Jim Leckband
Jan 16, 2019 rated it liked it
The tale of a biographer writing autobiography whilst doing biographical research on a biographer who wrote autobiographically whilst doing research on three famous people who described the world (taxonomy, eugenics, and playwright) rather than explaining or changing it. I think one of the upshots is that description is valuable, but the world also needs do-ers in addition to watchers. Or live your own life rather than someone else's.

In any case, I liked the postmoderny vibe and the meta parts
Sep 15, 2007 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 ...more
Michael Spiering
Sep 02, 2013 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 ...more
Apr 23, 2009 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
Jul 31, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read_2010, mainstream
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
Sep 01, 2010 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 ...more
Nov 19, 2008 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.
Vita  O'Brien
Jan 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2018
While Byatt has moments of glory with Phineas G. It seems she decided what she wanted to novel to be doing within the last few pages. Huge chunks of the book are devoted to bits of random research which you plod through hoping it will mean something later - only to find that it doesn’t really and could have been cut out completely. Honestly, I had to force myself to finish this book and I only did that because of Vera, Fulla and the men from Puck’s Girdle. Maybe this should have been a story ...more
Elizabeth Desole
Aug 29, 2009 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
Mar 11, 2009 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.
Aug 11, 2009 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.
William Leight
May 31, 2014 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 ...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

Bhaskar Thakuria
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: literary-fiction
While reading this book I became quite confused after a while as to whether this was meant as a full-length biography or a work of fiction. A.S.Byatt, indeed, is worth much more, much more than this confusing hodge-podge of literary detection and immaculate research. One-fourth into the novel I had given this up for good, and halfway through there was hardly any interest left and I left it like that, stalled for the while. I gave it another go this year and the results were no more different. ...more
May 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You know when you embark on an A. S. Byatt novel that you're not in for a light holiday read (except I did read this on holiday - not sure what that says about my reading tastes, or my holiday for that matter...). The Biographer's Tale is a novel of ideas certainly, but it's also a novel about facts (known, unknown, half-known and unknowable) and the concreteness or otherwise of things. It explores the impossibility of biography, and in focusing on the lives of Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton and ...more
« previous 1 3 4 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Around the Year i...: The Biographer's Tale, by A.S. Byatt 1 8 Jan 14, 2019 10:49PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Time and Again (Time, #1)
  • Shalimar the Clown
  • Funny Girl
  • The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
  • Seventh Heaven
  • The Tortoise and the Hare
  • Hollywood's Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
  • Caught in the Light
  • History of the Rain
  • Fludd
  • The River King
  • Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and The Future of News
  • A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings
  • Librerías
  • Moriarty Meets His Match (A Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mystery, #1)
  • How Perfect Is That
  • The Yokota Officers Club
  • Above the East China Sea
See similar books…
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 ...more
“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.” 11 likes
“We rode back from Richmond decorously side by side on the top of a bus. It was as though my left side (her side) burned and was so to speak dissolving into steam, or gases. Other people may often have experienced this secret journeying with the intention of sex at the end, but I was new to it, as I was new to what Fulla had done to my skin and bone-marrow, my fingers and toes, not to mention the most obvious part, or parts of me. I could have stroked her, or gripped her, or licked her, all that long way back, but putting it off, waiting, keeping still, looking uninterested, was so much more exciting…” 2 likes
More quotes…