Synopses & Reviews
From the award-winning author of Possession
comes an ingenious novel about love and literary sleuthing: a dazzling fiction woven out of one mans search for fact.
Here is the story of Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student who decides to escape the world of postmodern literary theory and immerse himself in the messiness of “real life” by writing a biography of a great biographer. In a series of adventures that are by turns intellectual and comic, scientific and sensual, Phineas tracks his subject to the deserts of Africa and the maelstrom of the Arctic. Along the way he comes to rely on two women, one of whom may be the guide he needs out of the dizzying labyrinth of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographers Tale is a provocative look at “truth” in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.
"An intellectual romp that doubles as a detective story, Byatt's new novel finds her as imaginative, witty, and provocative as ever....[The plot] calls into question the whole issue of biographical accuracy and allows Byatt, who all along has been taking swipes at poststructural literary criticism, to introduce arch observations about the current fad of psychoanalytic biography....In addition to the theme of doubles and doppelgangers, Byatt's familiar preoccupation with insects, myths, spirits, metamorphoses, and sexuality all come into play. The book is an erudite joke carried off with verve and humor. American audiences may not be quite so patient as the British, however, in indulging Byatt's many tangents. This book will appeal to discriminating readers ready for intellectual stimulation." Publishers Weekly
"Byatt, a Booker Prize-winning novelist with a love for fantasy as well as philosophy, is also a scholar and a critic, and she slyly explores the interface between the imagined and the factual, the felt and the reasoned, in this merrily satiric tale about a hesitant young man in search of a fuller life....Byatt parlays her hero's awakening into a nimble and provocative pondering of our contradictory desires to belong and to be unique both as individuals and as a species wreaking havoc on the planet. Ardently literary, Byatt nonetheless reminds readers that life itself is what matters and that no work of art can come close to the sheer wonder of nature." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"A feast for the brain." The Denver Post
"One of Byatts most exuberant books." The Baltimore Sun
"The fragmented documents [Nanson finds] make up a sizable portion of the novel so that the reader, like Nanson, plays literary sleuth....While reminiscent of Byatt's dazzling Booker Prize-winning Possession which likewise follows scholarly quests that seek to make sense of past lives this novel is not nearly as satisfying. One never understands why Nanson is so impassioned by his subject; intellectual concerns overwhelm and displace the emotional and psychological lives of Byatt's characters; and the self-effacing Nanson never quite becomes a credible or absorbing presence. Byatt is a vibrant, daring, and curious intellect who writes passionately about the mind and evokes a sense of wonder at the complexities and patterns inherent in the natural world. However, her new novel is more irritating and confusing than it is intriguing." James Schiff, Book Magazine
"Elegant...witty...intelligent." The Washington Post
"Exemplif[ies] Byatt's skill at combining the fantastic, the philosophical, and the all too down-to-earth....Through clever, lively prose, Byatt moves the action along briskly, treating the reader to numerous witty observations on contemporary academic and social mores along the way." Library Journal
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 and a "whole life" hard to define. As he tracks his subject from Africa to the Arctic, he comes to rely on two women one of whom may be the guide he needs out of his research and back into his own life. A tantalizing yarn of detection and desire, The Biographers Tale is a provocative look at "truth" in biography and our perennial quest for certainty.
About the Author
A. S. Byatt's novels include Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990) and the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower. She has also written two novellas, published together as Angels and Insects, and four collections of shorter works, including The Matisse Stories and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Educated at Cambridge, she was a senior lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. Because of his tiny size, Phineas is an unlikely romantic hero: "I was a little person . . . I have never felt anything other than pleasure in my small, delicate frame. Its only disadvantage is the number of cushions I need to see over the dashboard when driving" [p. 6]. Is Phineas meant to be a comic character? Is he more suited to the role of scholar than that of lover?
2. Phineas decides to stop pursuing his work as a postmodern literary theorist a week after his mother's funeral. Elsewhere he mentions, in an offhand way, his father's "disappearance" [p. 6]. Thus as the story opens, Phineas has just become an orphan, a person with no attachments. Why are his parents not referred to at greater length as he tells his story? How does Phineas compare with other orphaned protagonists of autobiographical fiction, like Pip of Dickens's Great Expectations, or David Copperfield in the novel of the same name? Why is it relevant to his self-creation that he is an orphan?
3. On page 45, Phineas begins to read through the full text of "the three documents" written by Destry-Scholes. Byatt has chosen to make the reader of the novel mirror Phineas's reading, and thus the reader, too, performs an act of scholarship for the next sixty-six pages. Why is it necessary to read through the three documents in order to come to an understanding with Phineas of his own conclusions about Destry-Scholes and hence, about the meaning of his own undertaking? Why does Byatt want the reader to track Phineas's reading, and what does this decision suggest about her expectations of her readers?
4. Ormerod Goode says, "The richness, the surprise, the shining solidity of a world full of facts. Every established fact--taking its place in a constellation of glittering facts like planets in an empty heaven, declaring here is matter, and there is vacancy--every established fact illuminates the world" [p. 7]. Are facts a cure for life's uncertainties? Does Phineas get to work with facts at all? Does Byatt imply that facts pertain only in the realm of science? Which characters in the novel deal most directly with facts?
5. As in her previous novels, Byatt takes extravagant delight in the naming of her characters. What ideas, images, or connotations are attached to the names of Phineas G. Nanson, Vera Alphage, Fulla Biefeld, Maurice Bossey, Scholes Destry-Scholes, Elmer Bole? Are names accurate signifiers of character?
6. What is the role of Eros, or desire, in The Biographer's Tale? In all of Byatt's novels, fiercely intellectual characters are also involved in romantic or erotic adventures. How are intellectual yearnings and yearnings for love and sexual fulfillment related? Does Phineas learn to expand his conceptions of pleasure, adventure, and life's possibilities through his work at Puck's Girdle?
7. In a recent interview Byatt said, "The more I have read, and the more I have written, the more I have come to understand that Coleridge was right when he said that the purpose of art was pleasure first, and everything else added." She added, "I do know that thinking and understanding are also almost always a form of pleasure." The intellectual puzzles that occupy Phineas may raise difficulties for some readers, but clearly Byatt intends that working through the puzzle to be pleasurable. Do the personal and scholarly parts of Phineas's life make up two different but interrelated kinds of pleasure for the reader?
8. Why are the professional specialties of Vera and Fulla relevant to the novel? Is Byatt contrasting science and literature? Are the sciences ultimately more useful, more clearly purposeful, than the humanities? How does Fulla's concern with global biodiversity, for instance, relate to Phineas's effort to write a biography of a biographer?
9. The novel's title plays with ideas about biography (which as Phineas points out, is a branch of history) and the telling of tales (fiction writing). Byatt is writing a novel, and Phineas discovers that, while trying to write a biography, he has written an autobiography. He also discovers that Destry-Scholes has mingled fictions with his facts. Does Byatt imply that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is fluid? Can any biography claim to be accurate and entirely truthful?
10. Why is there a strong dichotomy between the two women Phineas loves? Vera is associated with the moon, the sea, cool colors, and glass, Fulla with the sun, fertility, pollen, and fields. Why has Byatt chosen to give Phineas not one but two lovers? How does this element of Phineas's story relate to Elmer Bole's red and green apples? Why does Byatt not make Phineas choose between them, even as the novel closes?
11. What is interesting in the fragments Byatt has written on the three historical figures Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen? What are the thematic connections between the three documents? How does Byatt's interest in pastiche relate to Galton's interest in the composite photograph?
12. How do Destry-Scholes's notes on "The Art of Biography" [pp. 3134] reflect the troubling nature of working with "facts"? Is Destry-Scholes's entry into fictionalization a natural response to the frustrations of encountering gaps in knowledge? Does the novel imply that, through the act of supplementing the facts, the imagination can make things more interesting than the truth could ever be?
13. Ormerod Goode tells Phineas that Destry-Scholes vanished on a visit to the Maelstrom, in Norway, where "an empty boat was found, floating" [p. 28]. Is there any indication of why Destry-Scholes might have wanted to end his life? Or is his disappearance the most fitting image for the mystery that he represents, and of the scholarly dead end that Phineas has to face?
14. "Plaisir, consommation, jouissance. Glee" [p. 5]. Thinking of these words so central to the work of French literary theorists, Phineas walks down the hall with Ormerod Goode, toward his new life as a seeker of facts. Phineas is an expert on the concepts indicated by these words (roughly translated as sexual pleasure, consummation, and delight), but he experiences their non-theoretical meanings--their actuality--only through his love for Vera and Fulla. This seems to be an irony that Byatt intended as she constructed the beginning of her novel. Is the movement from theoretical pleasure to real pleasure just what Phineas has wished for himself? And has Byatt created, in this sense, a story with a deeply satisfying outcome, fulfilling also the reader's desire for the hero's happiness?
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale. With this novel, Byatt again turns to scholars and seekers of the past, to the libraries and intellectual detective work which yielded such richly romantic results in Possession and Angels & Insects.