The Biographer’s Tale

A. S. Byatt has an amazing interest in and capacity for fictive accuracy. The Biographer’s Tale intertwines details of entomology with those of radiology, and exotic African journeys with excursions to the Arctic, as a disillusioned graduate student abruptly decides to trade in the uncertainties of post-structuralism for a life of fact. Changing academic advisors, Phineas G. Nanson undertakes to research and write the life of Scholes Destry-Scholes, himself a great biographer.

Byatt-as-storyteller and Byatt-as-critic are both in evidence here. Readers not well versed in postmodern literary theory will miss much of the subtlety and wit. Because of the novel's intellectual enthusiasm and stunning prose, however, such readers are likely to keep turning pages anyway. Those readers who are fluent in the language of literary criticism will find considerable food- for-thought.

Right away readers are thrust into the midst of Phineas's investigation, turning around and around with him the three unpublished manuscripts he has unearthed as well as a shoebox full of Destry-Scholes's index-card entries. All these artifacts irritate Phineas because they seem connected, yet disconnected; understandable, yet cryptic; purposeful, yet arbitrary. Byatt includes each text in its entirety, demanding the reader's undivided attention, which may bog some readers down. But Phineas reappears regularly. Despite his best intentions to eschew autobiography, he reveals much about himself, including his growing relationships with the two women—one dark and pensive, one golden and vibrant—who help piece together Destry- Scholes' material and, increasingly, Phineas's own life.

Coming to the end of his research. Phineas is surprised by his desire to keep writing. Readers coming to the end of this novel should not be surprised by its lack of closure. Instead of tying up threads, Byatt challenges readers to continue to make their own discoveries. As Phineas says, “if you have an ear, the sound of truth, the fall of a sentence, the inspissated muddle of a real controversy of which is the end is not known, is there for both instruction and delectation.”