The biographer's autobiography: a funny, endearing tale of how writers' lives get documented, by the celebrated chronicler of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz.
The biographer - so often in the shadows, kibbitzing, casting doubt, proving facts - here comes to the stage.
James Atlas takes us back to his childhood in suburban Chicago, where he fell in love with literature and, early on, found in himself the impulse to study writers' lives. We meet Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of James Joyce and Atlas's professor during a transformative year at Oxford. We get to know the author's first subject, the "self-doomed" poet Delmore Schwartz; a bygone cast of intellectuals such as Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald (the "tall trees," as Mary McCarthy described them, cut down now, Atlas writes, by the "merciless pruning of mortality"); and, of course, the elusive Bellow, "a metaphysician of the ordinary." Atlas revisits the lives and work of the classical biographers: the Renaissance writers of what were then called "lives," Samuel Johnson and the "meshugenah" Boswell, among them.
In what amounts to a pocket history of his own literary generation, Atlas celebrates the luminaries of contemporary literature and the labor of those who hope to catch a glimpse of one of them - "as fleeting as a familiar face swallowed up in a crowd."
The biographer slips into another's skin; he is meant to assume someone else's unconscious. The idea is to know his subject better than that subject knows himself. By definition, the biographer erases himself in the process.
Writing of and around his books, Atlas triumphantly returns that fugitive figure - part sleuth, part scholar, part analyst, part medium, an emissary between worlds - to the page. The result is a sparkling, lyrical, tender, and unexpectedly suspenseful take on a life in literature. "There is no such thing as Biography School," Atlas laments at one juncture. There is now. - Stacy Schiff