Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Biographer's Tale: By Lezah

About three years ago I came across a free copy of A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel 'Possession', and, since the price was right, I snapped it up immediately. Then I set about trying to read it. This was the first real 'literary' thing I had tried to read since burning out on literature in university. As it turns out, Byatt (whom I had never read before) is notorious for her formidably dense prose and intellectually exhausting subject matter - but hey, I've never been famous for making things easy on myself! So, to make a long story short, 'Possession' ended up taking me three weeks to read (and I ended up skipping most of the poetry!) - but I still loved the book. The movie, on the other hand, did not live up to expectations.

However, what the book did was make me want to read more from Ms. Byatt, so when I came across a copy of 'The Biographer's Tale' on sale, I didn't hesitate to snap it up. 'The Biographer's Tale' is a much shorter book than 'Possession', but that didn't make it any easier to read. In fact, in many ways I found the narrative even more complex and convoluted than that of 'Possession'.

'The Biographer's Tale' opens with the protagonist, Phineas G. Nanson, a university grad student, deciding that he does not want to continue as a literary theorist. In response, a professor steers him toward biography - something "full of facts". Phineas takes it one step further and decides to become the biographer of a noted biographer. This proves to be easier said than done, however, as the information he seeks is none too plentiful. And Phineas comes to question, too, the whole idea of truth and fact, as it becomes apparent that there is an element of fiction, opinion, manipulation of facts and conjecture woven into the hard truth of which one expects a biography to consist.

'The Biographer's Tale', like many of Byatt's novels, is a reference-laden, cross-disciplinary work that covers a wide range of topics and is full of exotic details. She intermixes real historical figures with fictional characters, and real events with expository fiction. Thematically, Byatt looks at the idea of truth (and the different interpretations and layers of same), postmodernism, and the study of literature within the university setting, including the different castes various forms of writing are assigned.

The characters are idiosyncratic and whimsical, and Byatt takes us on an journey through a variety of genres, lightly touching on mystery, romance and adventure. The idea that a 'whole life' is difficult to find is not only the overt subject matter of the book, but also the somewhat unacknowledged problem the characters face in their own lives.

Exceedingly erudite, with significant and frequent digressions, this book is, by Byatt's own description, is a "'loose baggy monster'" which has been written in a form that "can take account of almost anything"; it is a novel with "large numbers of people and centres of consciousness". So, not a book for a lazy, rainy, nothing-better-to-do sort of weekend - this one will demand a lot of you as a reader. You've been warned.
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