The Biographer’s Tale by A. S. Byatt
(Knopf, 2001, 320 pages)
The themes of The Biographer’s Tale are very similar to Byatt’s most popular novel Possession. In both books, disillusioned graduate students turn their backs on literary theory to pursue literary mysteries. They turn from the abstraction of criticism to the lives of authors – and in turn, their own lives become more complicated.
In The Biographer’s Tale, Phineas Nanson sets out to write his own biography of an obscure literary biographer named Destry-Scholes. Although Phineas thinks that researching a biography will be a straightforward task, the indeterminacy of his subject quickly becomes apparent. Truth and falsehood mix as Phineas tries to track this elusive figure through his writings on various historical persons. Trying to piece together a picture of Destry-Scholes from these fragments proves much harder than anticipated.
Given their similar themes, I didn’t find The Biographer’s Tale to be nearly as successful a novel as Possession. That said, I was immediately pulled into the story and had a hard time putting it down. I enjoyed it if for no other reason (and there are plenty more), that it contains probably the best description (or non-description) of a love scene I have ever read:
“And I’m not going to describe what happened, though I am going to record that it did happen, because I am not that sort of writer.”