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The Biographers Tale A Novel by AS Byatt - 5 Star Review

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									    The Biographers Tale: A Novel by
               A.S. Byatt




                   The Biographers Tale: A Novel by A.S. Byatt


A.S. Byatt chronicles the life of the mind with the immediacy other novelists
bring to the physical world. So when the graduate-student hero of The
Biographers Tale announces that he needs a life full of things, we take his
words with a grain of salt. Yes, Phineas G. Nanson has renounced the
cross-referenced abstractions of life as a postmodern literary theorist, and
vows to ground himself in what he warily calls the facts (the quotation
marks are definitely in order). Yet he first forays into empiricism by reading
a three-volume life of the Victorian traveler, writer, and diplomat Elmer
Bole--then immediately undertakes a biography of Boles biographer,
Scholes Destry-Scholes. Things, as Nanson discovers, can prove just as
slippery as ideas. His research quickly leapfrogs beyond the biographer to
his other subjects: scientist Carl Linnaeus, playwright Henrik Ibsen, and
eugenicist Francis Galton, all of whom Destry-Scholes chronicled in three
unpublished, unfinished, and, as it turns out, well-embroidered accounts.
Meanwhile, our hero continues his forays into the real world. He takes a
part-time job with a pair of gay travel agents, who arrange some very
specialized vacations, and meets up with a Swedish bee taxonomist
named Fulla, who wants to save the world. He also unearths a perplexing
series of Destry-Scholess index cards, full of sketches, facts, quotations,
and unattributed lines of verse. These he attempts to shuffle into some
kind of order, even as the enigmatic figure of the biographer himself seems
to appear and disappear from view. There are echoes here of Byatts
Booker Prize-winning Possession, another detective story for the MLA set.
Yet The Biographers Tale is an altogether odder--and chillier--sort of book.
It is, in fact, almost terrifyingly learned, and wears its research about as
lightly as a pair of Fullas Ecco sandals. The mystery here is nothing less
than the nature of mind, so its no criticism to say that her characters have
little life outside the ideas they represent. Whats surprising is that the result
is so readable, even beautiful at times. Here, for instance, is Nanson on
truth and beauty: There are a very few human truths and infinite
variations on them. I was about to write that there are very few truths about
the world, but the truth about that is that we dont know what we are not
biologically fitted to know, it may be full of all sorts of shining and tearing
things, geometries, chemistries, physics we have no access to and never
can have. Reading and writing extend--not infinitely, but violently, but
giddily--the variations we can perceive on the truths we thus discover.
The index cards themselves can be painful to read (remember the ersatz
Victorian poetry in Possession?). But persevere, dear reader --meaning
emerges through the play of one esoteric piece of information against
another, just as it does in real life. Byatt extends her philosophical
variations as far as she giddily can, and in The Biographers Tale, she has
constructed an elaborate, glittering labyrinth at the center of which lie
surprisingly simple truths. --Mary Park

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