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A.S. Byatt: The Biographer's Tale


The Biographer's Tale

Author: A.S. Byatt
Publisher: Knopf

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A.S. Byatt never surpassed the acclaim that greeted her 1990 novel Possession, a literary detective story composed of equal parts richly rendered period detail and page-turning suspense, with an involving love story thrown in for good measure. So it would make sense for Byatt to return to familiar territory with The Biographer's Tale, a novel that—initially, at least—promises another journey into passions and secrets folded into the yellowing pages of forgotten archives. This, however, turns out to be the first sly evasion in a book overrunning with them. As the novel opens, Phineas Nanson, a graduate student at an unnamed London college, surrenders to long-building frustration and abandons his study of post-structuralist literary theory for more tangible pursuits. These pursuits remain unclear to him until a professor steers him toward a biographer best known for chronicling the colorful life of a Victorian explorer. Deciding no project could be better suited to his newfound passion for verifiable, quantifiable, organizable "things" than the biography of a biographer, Nanson begins to gather information. But upon uncovering his subject's assumed name, his elusive unfinished project involving a taxonomist, a eugenicist, and Henrik Ibsen, and his probable death in the Maelstrøm, Nanson discovers that truth can prove as elusive as theory. Byatt further complicates matters by giving her protagonist a cumbersome life outside of his project, involving a job at an offbeat and possibly nefarious travel agency as well as two women, an artistic-minded radiologist and an ecology-conscious bee expert. Presented with the subject of the contemporary pursuit of knowledge, Byatt has crafted a book of chaos: carefully orchestrated and entertaining chaos, but chaos nonetheless. As Nanson's biographical work intensifies, so does his doubling back to his theoretical foundation, which ultimately descends into an odd kind of compulsive autobiography. That The Biographer's Tale can be read either as a rebuke of the academia he flees or as a justification of it says much about the pleasure of this witty but by design unsatisfying goof.