An engaging account of an author and his editor wife who may be obscure even to critics of modernist literature.
Here is a biography in which the supporting cast generates most of the interest. Klaidman (Coronary: A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry, 2007, etc.) recognizes that it was a challenge proposing such a book when “only a small number of scholars and aficionados of the modern period had ever heard of the Schiffs.” Yet Sydney and Violet Schiff were well-known to the likes of Proust, Eliot, Joyce and Picasso, with whom they socialized and corresponded. They hosted a literary salon, and they served as patrons of the arts. They were also literary figures themselves, he the author and she his editor of A True Story, a Proustian series of autobiographical novels that were praised at the time by their famous friends but have since succumbed to obscurity. It isn’t necessarily Klaidman’s intent to generate interest in work he believes has been unjustly neglected, but to explore the literary London of a century ago—when it was “the undisputed capital of the literary world…the baptismal font of modernism”—through the experiences and particularly the letters of a couple in the midst of its social swirl. Some dismissed them as “rich poseurs” and “fawning acolytes” (particularly toward Proust), while Eliot once wrote after a visit that they were “very nice Jews.” The book builds toward the savage skewering of the Schiffs by Wyndham Lewis, a painter who had accepted both their friendship and their money, in his novel The Apes of the Gods, “published in 1930 and…almost immediately forgotten because most of it is hopelessly obscure unless you are intimately familiar with the lives of the real people who were its hapless targets.” Few readers will be, though they’ll know more about the Schiffs after finishing this book than almost anyone knew before.
An enjoyable extended footnote to the lives of the better known.