An illuminating account of a career as a biographer.
A literary critic, magazine editor, memoirist, novelist, and founder of the Lippert/Viking Penguin Lives series of biographies, Atlas (My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale, 2005, etc.), who has penned acclaimed biographies of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, digs deep into his own psyche to explain why he became attracted to the craft of biography. He also delves into why he chose Schwartz and Bellow as his subjects—Schwartz after the poet’s death and Bellow, an ambivalent subject, while still living. Beset with doubts about his ability to complete either biography satisfactorily and despite some moments of unwise hubris, Atlas could never divorce himself from the occupation of peering into the lives of others. He repeatedly impresses upon readers the sacred responsibility of rendering someone else’s life so that it is not only factually correct, but also emotionally accurate. Along the way, Atlas offers insights into dealing with sources who innocently remember events that never occurred, who knowingly exaggerate or lie, or who want to cooperate but die before the frantic biographer can schedule interviews. Because the author specializes in biographies of writers—as opposed to, say, celebrities, politicians, athletes, or business tycoons—he must interpret their published pages. That can cause difficulties when the second reading of a novel yields a reaction divergent from the original reading. For example, Atlas realized years after becoming Bellow’s biographer that most of the novels that seemed nearly perfect at first were actually less compelling upon close examination. The author is especially insightful about the pitfalls and occasional advantages of choosing a living person as the subject of the biography. His relationship with Bellow became so complicated at times that he found it difficult to sort out his own feelings.
A brutally honest examination of the biographical craft and a good companion piece to Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit (2017).