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The Biographer's Tale

3.2  ·  Rating details ·  1,156 Ratings  ·  109 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 2000)
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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 whic
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 annoy
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 le
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 sen
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 marble
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
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
Dec 09, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2010-reads, brit-lit
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!
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
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 alw ...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 direc ...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: 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
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 nice ...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. So
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
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.
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.
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 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

Vita Annie
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 abo ...more
May 13, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ruth Brumby
Mar 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating book about how human beings are both similar and unique, interconnected and individual and about how we are connected through language but also with the real stuff of the world. "As long as we don't destroy and diminish it irrevocably, the too-much-loved earth will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it. It is all we have."
I was puzzled by some things: why does everyone in the book have tiny writing and why did she choose such an odd narrator? Perhaps ju
Jane E
Mar 03, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: british, fiction
Blah, blah, blah. Rambling and pointless. My time is worth a lot more than this book. It was my first A. S. Byatt and will be my last.
Sep 07, 2008 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
Aug 16, 2015 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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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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“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
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