A teasingly postmodern depiction of a writer asked to pen a biography of a friend who’s headed for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Arthur Ziff and Danny Levitan were best writer-buddies early in their careers, though Ziff was by far the more successful. What will happen when, several decades later, editors begin clamoring for a Ziff biography and everyone thinks Levitan is perfect for the job? Ziff himself, nervous at the prospect, says, “Why not simply call it a novel and go scot-free?” Which is sort of what we have here: a combination of the bio that Levitan writes and snippets from Ziff’s suspiciously Rothian career (seduction of high-schoolers, sexual adventures with French gold-diggers)—and, as well, the story of the book’s coming to be, complete with bidding wars, research, interviews, and encounters with the ever-meddling Ziff, who succeeds in coming off larger than life. Levitan relates Ziff’s life story by telling about old lovers, going to visit rooms in which the great man wrote, comparing him in his notes to the likes of Melville and Steinbeck, and traveling to Europe, where Ziff became the literary Lord Jim of communist Eastern Europe. As well, we get details on Ziff’s intense relationship with his mother, details of Ziff’s sexual escapades, details of the damage he may have done to all of Jewry (more “than a hundred Himmlers or Goebbels,” one detractor claims), and more details of more sexual escapades. Lelchuk (Playing the Game, 1995, etc.) offers an accurate description of the contemporary publishing world—what books are, what they do, how they come to be. But what happens when Ziff: A Life appears in this same book, entitled Ziff: A Life? Will Levitan finally get to the bottom of all this postmodern nonsense? And is there any hope for what has been Levitan’s most important literary relationship?
Smart and accurate, but definitely for a crowd already in-the-know.