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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Biographer's Tale


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To purchase The Biographer's Tale

Title: The Biographer's Tale
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 301 pages
Availability: The Biographer's Tale - US
The Biographer's Tale - UK
The Biographer's Tale - Canada
The Biographer's Tale - India
Le conte du biographe - France
Das Geheimnis des Biographen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever and much of it well-written, but not completely satisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age B+ 31/7/2000 Brenda Niall
The Atlantic Monthly C 1/2001 Stephen Amidon
Christian Science Monitor B+ 1/2/2001 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph . 22/5/2000 Carol Shields
The Guardian A 3/6/2000 Alex Clark
The Independent . 27/5/2000 .
London Rev. of Books . 10/8/2000 Ruth Scurr
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/10/2001 W. v. Koppenfels
The New Republic C- 23/4/2001 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman . 12/6/2000 Miranda Seymour
New York . 12/2/2001 Daniel Mendelsohn
The New Yorker B+ 19/2/2001 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books D 17/5/2001 John Bayley
The NY Times D 23/1/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 28/1/2001 Richard Eder
The Observer C 28/5/2000 Hermione Lee
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A- Summer/2001 Patricia Laurence
Salon B 11/1/2001 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/1/2001 Alan Cheuse
The Sunday Times . 4/6/2000 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
TLS . 2/6/2000 Hal Jensen
The Washington Post C+ 28/1/2001 Nina King

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very impressed by her writing, but sharply split on the novel itself (and often seem quite uncertain about it). Lots of comparisons to Possession.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Because Byatt writes so brilliantly when she allows her own voice to be heard, it's disappointing to find so many pages that parody scholarly writing of the most cautious, over-footnoted kind. (...) Because Phineas's biographical project is simply daft, much of the satirical attack misses its mark. But when he extricates himself to join Fulla's ecological crusade, the novel runs free." - Brenda Niall, The Age

  • "Unfortunately, The Biographer's Tale is not nearly so ripping a yarn as this summary suggests. Theory and esoteric allusion dominate the action from start to finish. Byatt remains an author of daunting erudition and precious phrasing. (...) (T)his novel is too brittle to support the scholarly showmanship she heaps upon it." - Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly

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

  • "The novel is a romp, a circular game, and Phineas, who bravely quits the world of deconstruction, finds himself, ironically, at its dense core. (...) But it is impossible to believe that Phineas will ever sacrifice the imaginative for the real. They are one and the same, permanently twinned and forever quarrelling. It is a happy quarrel, and this is a cheering novel." - Carol Shields, Daily Telegraph

  • "For all its obsession with facts, this novel is as much fairy tale as satire, and more dream-like than self-consciously erudite." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "(T)his strange book reads like the notes for a critical study of biography, natural science and theories of classification, rather than imitating a piece of fiction. But why not? Postmodernism encourages a fantastic interweaving of literary forms." - The Independent

  • "Naturwüchsigkeit und planvolle Komposition sind also schon auf der Autorenebene unentwirrbar miteinander verflochten, in einem fortschreitenden Entdeckungsprozess auf allen Ebenen, der ins Unendliche läuft und eben darin den Vorgang der Fiktionalisierung von Wirklichkeit spiegelt." - Werner von Koppenfels, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "In The Biographer's Tale, Byatt gestures at another textual collage, designed to provoke a similar meditation on the construction of biography, but here it flops utterly. (...) While Possession was poststructuralism lite (...) The Biographer's Tale is neither as witty nor as interesting." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "(P)rudent readers will arm themselves with reference works on taxonomy, eugenics and phylogenetics in order to extract a full understanding of this demanding book." - Miranda Seymour, New Statesman

  • "I think Byatt wants to say something here about complexity, about the grandly quixotic interdependence of seemingly opposed disciplines and subjects, but somehow the end of her book merely feels muddled, abstractly notional rather than achieved. You see, rather than feel, what it's supposed to mean." - Daniel Mendelsohn, New York

  • "(T)he patience of all but a reader superhumanly tolerant of extended digression will creak and snap under the load of near-random texts, assembled by an author whose love of collection, of assembling and ordering, in this case quite overpowers any urge to tell a smooth story." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "The narrator of The Biographer's Tale exists no more than do most of the bare facts of history today, and a great deal less than the characters invented in most good stories and by all good straight fictions. (...) Fictions of this sort do not supply an ending or a solution, just as they do not supply the suspense and curiosity which should lead up to one." - John Bayley, The New York Review of Books

  • "Unfortunately for the reader, this novel is erudite and dense without being the least bit engaging. For the better part of the book, Ms. Byatt inexplicably renounces her copious gifts as a writer to construct a dry, tendentious and thoroughly irritating narrative designed to hammer home a single philosophical point, namely the familiar notion that historical truth often eludes the human rage for order." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The novelist's power amid the talk to configure love and that which is uncannily alive (using hardly a detail, Byatt is an erotic master) exhilarates this book and its readers out of their tangles." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "I found the book's playfulness laborious, its knowing erudition airless and its characters whimsical and unappetising. Perhaps I just got irritated from trying to make all the bits fit together and find the thread through the labyrinth." - Hermione Lee, The Observer

  • "It is a book filled with learning, allusions, and long passages of information-for example, on the life of bees-that makes, at times, excessive demands upon the reader. Yet after all this learned discourse what are we left with ? Surprisingly, magic." - Patricia Laurence, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "It's a rigorous novel that refuses to coddle us and warm our hearts, but at the same time it lavishes riches upon its readers. So perhaps it's fitting that The Biographer's Tale is about giving up not just literary criticism but literature itself; it's Byatt's most heartfelt paean to the natural sciences." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Byatt is a splendidly cerebral novelist, whose stories hum and whir with the energy generated by the superabundance of ideas they contain. But she is also a sensualist. Composites and hybrids abound in this novel, and the book itself is one of them, a successful grafting of a complex theoretical argument on to a voluptuous tale." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Sunday Times

  • "The relation of language to things, the arrangement of those things in the world, and exposure of the tricks of literary composition are not just occasional intruders in this novel, they are its very subject. (...) However, as a postmodern ficelle, a harmless deconstruction of identity, The Biographer's Tale is somewhat laboriously manufactured, and often just too dry." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "There is too much stuff here, too many vivid details of exotic northern places, too many thoughtful observations about the ill effects of postmodern literary theory, too many unresolved subplots. There are also too many levels of reality to suit the average mind." - Nina King, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A.S.Byatt's novel is narrated by the diminutive Phineas G. Nanson. A (post)graduate student he suddenly decides at the beginning of the novel that he no longer wants to become a postmodern literary theorist. It is a laudable decision, of course, but postmodern literary theory is not easily escaped nowadays.
       He comes to his decision during a seminar in which "we were discussing, not for the first time, Lacan's theory of morcellement, the dismemberment of the imagined body". Such discussions were all well and good, but Nanson now feels the need for "a life full of things" -- and "full of facts." Airy literary theory just won't do any longer.
       Nanson turns to one of the heads of the department, Ormerod Goode (a taxonomist of place-names), and Goode has just the thing for a young man who isn't quite sure what to do next. Biography ("an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts"), he suggests, is a thing to consider, and he foists a mammoth but practically unknown work of scholarship -- the three-volume biographical study of Sir Elmer Bole by Scholes Destry-Scholes -- on Nanson
       Sir Elmer Bole is presented as a Richard Burton-like figure (the real, 19th century Richard Burton, not his modern actor namesake): a polyglot adventurer who travelled to the far reaches of the world, translated various pieces of exotic literature, and led a most unusual life. Despite the promising material Nanson finds the biography, at least at first, "all very uninspiring" -- but then the biographical bug bites him, as he begins to wonder less about the subject than the author. He discovers the "superiority of the form" and decides to biograph the biographer.
       The trouble with this plan is that Scholes Destry-Scholes was something of a mystery man, leaving surprisingly few traces behind. Goode actually met the man once, when he gave a lecture at the university in 1959, but has little information to pass on -- except -- what luck ! -- Destry-Scholes' lecture notes. And so poor Nanson begins his search for facts by considering a literary document again -- three pages on "The Art of Biography".
       Nanson manages to uncover further original material -- some letters, and a packet of thirty-seven pages that contained three biographical accounts by Destry-Scholes. Byatt presents these three accounts in full, odd little documents in which the subjects are identified only by their initials (CL, FG, and HI), though their identities are fairly easy to determine (as Nanson is quickly able to do). They are not very good biography, in the traditional sense, because they are in part certainly not factual. And so Nanson is tugged deeper into the maelstrom that is biography (oh yes -- Destry-Scholes apparently perished in a maelstrom ...).
       Nanson's life becomes more complicated as he takes a part-time job at an unusual travel agency with a varied and occasionally distinctly odd clientele. The owners have "a Fourieriste ambition to cater to all tastes" and apparently manage to do a fairly good job of it. (Things can't be all bad in the literary (and the real) world when a novelist is willing to ascribe Fourieriste ambitions to some travel agents in her novel (though, of course, one can only get away with that on that side of the Atlantic; it could never happen in the United States).)
       Nanson also develops closer relationships with two women -- a relative of Destry-Scholes who has a pile of authentic index cards for him to peruse, and another who has other areas of expertise useful to his research. Nanson insists that "the last thing I have any interest in writing -- I mean this -- is an autobiography", but he can not completely escape it. Destry-Scholes remains elusive, but the project does help Nanson find his calling.
       Byatt has many wonderful (and wonderfully bizarre) touches in her book, a meticulous amalgamation of the oddities of everyday and academic life and bits of history. It is a literary game, in part, and certainly a fictional take on the difficulties of biography. It is also, by and large, a fairly entertaining novel in its own right -- and, as usual, Byatt's writing is impressive.
       Still, The Biographer's Tale seems a bit thin on occasion, with too much emphasis on Destry-Scholes' odd notes and writings and, ultimately, too little exegesis fitting it all together. An entertaining literary novel, it is certainly worth reading, even if it is not as satisfying as some of Byatt's earlier, larger works.

       N o t e: Early on in the book Nanson writes of Ormerod Goode's habit of correcting factual inaccuracies ("which he noticed even when he appeared to be asleep"). It is, apparently, not an endearing quality:

No one cared much for these interventions. Inaccuracies can be subsumed as an inevitable part of postmodern uncertainty, or play, one or the other or both.
       Fair enough, perhaps. So how then is the reader to take an early, glaring little slip ? The novel's epigraph is taken from Goethe's famous Wahlverwandtschaften, and given both in German and in English. In the American edition the last word of the German version -- "Ähnlichkeiten" -- is missing the critical Umlaut. The Umlaut-less Ahnlichkeiten is not a word, but it does suggest the ancestral root of Ahnen (forebears, ancestors, etc.) -- as well as ahnen (to suspect, surmise, have a foreboding). Both could be interpreted as pointing to certain aspects of the book itself.
       So: a clever, meaningful slip ? Alas, it seems not: the English translation ("analogies") allows for no such hints of ambiguity. It seems it is just careless editing, once again.

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The Biographer's Tale: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt lived 1936 to 2023. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she was the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She was the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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