- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleOur Review
The Biographer's Tale
When it comes to brainy send-ups of academe, the British have it all over us Yanks, sporting a veritable treasure trove of stylish satire, from Kingsley Amis's screamer Lucky Jim to David Lodge's equally hilarious Small World. At the forefront of today's writers who thrill to bite the hand that feeds them is A. S. Byatt, the novelist, critic, and story writer whose masterpiece, Possession, claimed the 1990 Booker Prize. To read her latest novel, The Biographer's Tale, one would think Byatt herself invented the art of spoofing.
Like Possession, Byatt's latest novel is a heady satire of the genre of biography. Set in the insular world of postmodern literary theory, where pasty-faced graduate students prate about Freudian dynamics, The Biographer's Tale brings to life Phineas G. Nanson, a fledgling academic in dogged pursuit of an obscure, dandified biographer named Scholes-Destry-Scholes. In spite of Phineas's boyish enthusiasm, his early efforts lead him in circles, from corporate publishers to the rain-slicked streets of colorless English hamlets. But just when he thinks he's lost the trail, a manuscript surfaces, revealing fragments and anecdotes about the taxonomist Linnaeus, the statistician Francis Galton, and the playwright Ibsen, whose lives are linked together only by their shared obsession with magic and ribaldry.
Determined to capture his subject, Phineas presses on and stumbles into some bizarre and titillating adventures. He meets a Swedish bee taxonomist who seduces him as they watch stag beetles battle in Richmond Park, and he then lands a job at a literary-themed travel agency called "Puck's Fair." What follows would best be described as a fictional anodyne to Abraham Heschel's God in Search of Man. Through his quest to find the fleeting, tantalizing glimpse of Scholes, Phineas, the biographer, realizes that all he can write about with authority is himself. Rejecting what he once felt was his calling, he slides into decadence. His life, once ordered and marshaled by the deconstruction of signs, begins to swim in them.
In the end, The Biographer's Tale is a narrower yet more damning portrait of the world it imagines than any of Byatt's previous books. Only in the process of floundering as a biographer does Phineas acquire a life of his own. Reading this tightly wound but dreamy concoction, one wonders if Byatt is not vetting enemies. Whatever her motives, the author's wider message carries the day. Her tale is a cautionary one. When Phineas thinks he's at last uncovered a picture of Scholes, it turns out not to be of the great man himself but the boat that allegedly ferried him to his death. Life, Byatt seems to say, is but a journey from one port to the next, and we must row our own vessels. The biographer, she intimates, tries -- and ultimately fails -- to hitch a ride.
John Freeman is a freelance writer living in New York.