The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt

October 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm 10 comments

I have an ambivalent relationship with A.S. Byatt. On the one hand, there’s her reputation as one of the most brilliant and articulate authors writing today. Her books have won loads of literary awards and her blurbs adorn the covers of many a book I’ve enjoyed, lauding them and recommending them. So we seem to have similar taste.

But on the other hand is my reality of reading A.S. Byatt. It isn’t easy. I get bogged down. I give up. I try again sometimes, but mostly I set her aside with a sigh of disappointment in myself for not yet being a Reader Who Gets Byatt. (I remain optimistic that I one day will be.) I want to love her books and I am able to recognize the quality of her writing, but for some reason the actual reading of her books never proves quite as I’d hoped.

Case in point, The Biographer’s Tale. It’s a short little book about an graduate student who is studying literary theory but one day decides he wants to study something more “real.” An advisor suggests he look into biography, which should in theory be all about facts and “real” things, and gives the student a copy of a biography written by the widely-acknowledged best biographer ever. The student becomes entranced and runs off on a quest to write the definitive biography of the biographer.

Having just completed a graduate program, I immediately sympathized with the student and related to his feelings of general academic malaise. If we’re forced into increasingly (and often absurdly) specific fields of study just to say we’re doing something original, doesn’t that make our work increasingly meaningless and less useful to others?

But beyond the initial spark of camaraderie I felt with the student, I must say the rest of the book fell flat for me. Rather than being the story of a quest for knowledge about this lost biographer, as I expected, The Biographer’s Tale veered off into eerie oddities and strangely ambivalent romantic entanglements. The student starts work at a strange shop that sells packaged holidays. He starts sleeping with two different women. He gets angry. He gets distant. And then the book dwindles to an end.

In short, nothing in particular is accomplished and the set-up at the start of the novel seems wasted. Is Byatt arguing that both theory and “real” things are, in the end, equally meaningless for study? Does she think study itself is pointless? Or is she pointing to the importance of getting out of Academia and living a “real” life? I was left puzzled.

Of course, the writing itself was very nice: eloquent, interesting, and absolutely readable. As usual, I cannot fault Byatt’s prose in the slightest and it’s always a pleasure to immerse oneself in good writing, even if the story part is a little off-kilter. While I always appreciate good writing, I’ve found that, as a reader, I am often more concerned with narrative and form. In this particular instance, The Biographer’s Tale just didn’t work for me on the narrative level.

When I finished reading, I felt a little boggled, but not moved or satisfied, as I eventually did after finishing her Possession. Reading The Biographer’s Tale was a little like eating pink cotton candy and having it taste blue: you come away confused and unsatisfied, but at least you still had a treat.


Despite this, I have every intention of trying The Children’s Book soon. If any Byattaholics out there have other recommendations, I’d be most interested to hear them.

Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction. Tags: , , , .

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julie @ Read Handed  |  October 19, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Despite your review, I think this is still a book I’d like to try. I really enjoyed Possession, but haven’t tackled any of her other books yet. The idea of writing a biography about a biographer interests me, so this might be the next Byatt I read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • 2. Corey  |  October 19, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      Indeed, the premise was what made me want to read it in the first place, so I definitely understand your motives in picking it up. :)

  • 3. Kate  |  October 19, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Still plodding through The Children’s Book — it is moving veeeeery slowly. I have gotten further in it than in any other Byatt novel, though!

    • 4. Corey  |  October 19, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Ha, ha. I’m glad we’re Byatt-sympatico.

  • 5. Eva  |  October 19, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    This is my least favourite Byatt novel so far, although I still very much enjoyed it! You might want to try her Frederica Potter quartet, which starts with The Virgin in the Garden. Or there’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which is a short story collection centered around fairy tales. I lurve it! And it’s hard to get bogged down in short stories. ;) I adored The Children’s Book, but I’m a Byattaholic, as you put it, and I know quite a few bloggers didn’t share my love.

    • 6. Corey  |  October 19, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      Interesting. I’ll go poke around in the NYPL catalogue and see what’s available, starting with the short story collection; I am, conveniently enough, on a short story kick at the moment. Thanks for the recs!

      • 7. Eva  |  October 21, 2011 at 2:50 am

        No problem! Little Black Book of Stories was my first Byatt ever: I haven’t read it since I was 16, but I loved it then, and I *still* have vivid memories of the stories. It has a darker feel than Djinn. I mentioned the Frederica Potter books because they’re a bit more ‘grounded,’ set in 1950s England and have a general kind of intellectual coming-of-age feel. :)

        • 8. Corey  |  October 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm

          I have ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ now at the ready, fresh from the bowels of the library. I feel so wonderfully inundated with good books to read and your recommendations are so good! More than usual, I just want to sit and read all the live long day. :)

        • 9. Eva  |  October 26, 2011 at 11:02 am

          Yay! I hope it works for you. :D

  • […] to force myself through the first half to get to the luminous second half. And I plodded through The Biographer’s Tale, mentally willing it to be something better and different from what it was. Again, I ultimately […]


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