Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.


An academic who forsakes the realm of concepts and theories for the quotidian world of “things” is the unlikely—and quite likable—protagonist of Byatt’s formidably learned latest, which echoes rather loudly her Booker Prize–winning Possession (1999).

When Phineas G. Nanson, whose notebooks we are reading, grows tired of postgraduate arcana and decides “to stop being a post-structuralist literary critic,” a mentor’s suggestion leads to his absorption with the late biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose magnum opus was his acclaimed three-volume study of Victorian writer-adventurer Sir Elmer Bole—imagined as an amalgam of Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and perhaps Thomas Babington Macaulay (with just a dollop of Arthur Conan Doyle added). Phineas’s hopes of writing a biography of the biographer are complicated by his serendipitous discovery of three “documents” that were presumably ur-materials for an unwritten triple biography—of, as clues about its subjects gradually clarify, Carl Linnaeus, Henrik Ibsen, and anthropologist-eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. Nor is rummaging about in libraries all. The ever-susceptible Phineas becomes involved with two unusual and irresistible women: Destry-Scholes’s scholarly niece Vera Alphage, who works in a hospital and privately collects X-rays; and “bee taxonomist” (and “eco-warrior”) Fulla Biefield, with whom Phineas soon finds himself plunging through forests in search and defense of the endangered stag beetle. Though this and other similarly loopy sequences are great fun to read, Byatt offers relatively little story, and a top-heavy load of arch speculation about the conflict between Art (Vera) and Life (Fulla), the likelihood that biographers (especially the resourceful Destry-Scholes) invent as much as they record, and the caveat that the “search for authenticity in scholarship can have its dangers.” It’s dry, all right, but admirers of Possession (and a somewhat similar novel, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) probably won’t mind.

Not for Oprah’s Book Club—but readers willing to be lectured will be suitably rewarded.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-41114-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940

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