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Review: Dissecting lives in Byatt's 'Tale'


"The Biographer's Tale"
By A.S. Byatt
305 pages

In this story:

The nature of biography

Biography as memoir as novel

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(CNN) -- In "The Biographer's Tale," A.S. Byatt's new novel, Phineas Nanson, a graduate student, abandons the world of literature, and especially that of postmodern literary theory, for the world of facts.

In response to his declaration of abandonment, a professor lends Phineas a three-volume biography of Elmer Bole, a (fictitious) Englishman known for his travels and writing. Phineas, who has always considered biography to be a "dilettante pursuit," is soon taken with the subject, eager to learn more -- not of Bole, but of Destry-Scholes.

A.S. Byatt tells stories out of school

Phineas soon decides to write a biography of Destry-Scholes, intent on becoming the biographer of a biographer (whose main subject, Bole, was a part-time biographer himself).

From here, we and Phineas embark on a literary adventure. Jumping from book to book, library to library, Phineas soon discovers the pieces of three lost manuscripts of Scholes'. They all describe journeys (that may not have happened) of three famous (and real) men: Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy; Francis Galton, the eugenicist; and Henrik Ibsen, the playwright.

As he pursues his research, Phineas encounters an odd cast of characters -- Fulla, a Swedish bee taxonomist, who helps him with translations; Vera, the niece of the late Destry-Scholes (well, only presumed late -- he is rumored to have drowned in the Maelstrom); and Erik and Christophe, the proprietors of Puck's Girdle, a travel agency that specializes in trips for lovers of art and literature.

The majority of the novel consists of snippets of the writings of Destry-Scholes and others. These make for interesting reading, especially in the way that they intersect -- we share Phineas' delight and confusion in sorting out Destry-Scholes's index cards that have been discovered in Vera's attic.

"The Biographer's Tale" is less a literary detective novel than a literary police procedural. Much of the novel is spent peering over Phineas' shoulder, and there are portions where his interest is difficult to share and one wishes for a movie-like montage of Phineas studying so that the rest of us can return to tales of Fulla and Vera and Phineas' troubles in balancing their affections.

The nature of biography

But just as a police procedural can transcend the mundane particulars of any one crime to get at the very nature of crime, "The Biographer's Tale" often leaves the particulars of Phineas' biography of a biographer behind for something just as interesting -- the nature of biography itself.

After he has exhausted his research opportunities and found himself writing more about Fulla and Vera then Destry-Scholes and any of his subjects, Phineas begins to examine the nature of biography, even musing that biography, in the glee that it shows in the face of the ruination of another life, is on a level with a snuff film: dissecting a life for the amusement of everyone else.

This is the core of "The Biographer's Tale" and the novel's only weakness is that there is not enough of it. As Phineas catches himself transitioning from biography into autobiography, he begins to question further the meaning of his endeavor, the ultimate meaning of all these facts. What are the connections between a taxonomist, a eugenicist and a playwright? And what did Destry-Scholes see in those connections?

Biography as memoir as novel

What saves "The Biographer's Tale" from being too distant, too obscure, and too clever is Byatt's creation of Phineas the Writer. More than a narration, "The Biographer's Tale" is meant to be Phineas' manuscript, and in his (meaning, Byatt's) awareness of every turn of phrase, every lapse into lyricism, every poorly structured sentence, one begins to see the novel for what it is, "getting" the punchline of its title: that this is not the "tale" belonging to the biographer, but the "tale" of the biographer.

Call it biography as memoir as novel, but it is a curious construction. It's often dry, often boring, but one that, through its twists and layers of literary games, is enough to prove that, as Phineas writes, "(r)eading and writing extend -- not infinitely, but violently, but giddily -- the variations we can perceive on the truths we thus discover."

Alfred A. Knopf
Lit Chat -- A.S. Byatt

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