Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Atlas

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

The ghost story

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Back in March, I published a post here about the unpleasant personal life of Saul Bellow, whose most recent biographer, Zachary Leader, has amply documented the novelist’s physical violence toward his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov. After Bellow discovered the affair between Tschacbasov and his good friend Jack Ludwig, however, he contemplated something even worse, as James Atlas relates in his earlier biography: “At the Quadrangle Club in Chicago a few days later, Bellow talked wildly of getting a gun.” And I was reminded of this passage while reading an even more horrifying account in D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, about the writer’s obsession with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr:

Wallace’s literary rebirth [in the proposal for Infinite Jest] did not coincide with any calming of his convention that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog. The ex-con called Larson, the head of [the addiction treatment center] Granada House, who told Karr. Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and thus ended what he would later call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days in my life.” He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of”—then added in longhand after—“at least of wanting to do.” To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

Even at a glance, there are significant differences between these incidents. Bellow had treated Tschacbasov unforgivably, but his threat to buy a gun was part of an outburst of rage at a betrayal by his wife and close friend, and there’s no evidence that he ever tried to act on it—the only visible outcome was an episode in Herzog. Wallace, by contrast, not only contemplated murdering a man whose wife he wanted for himself, but he took serious steps to carry it out, and when Karr heard about it, he lied to her. By any measure, it’s the more frightening story. Yet they do have one striking point in common, which is the fact that they don’t seem to have inspired much in the way of comment or discussion. I only know about the Wallace episode because of a statement by Karr from earlier this week, in which she expressed her support for the women speaking out against Junot Díaz and noted that the violence that she experienced from Wallace was described as “alleged” by D.T. Max and The New Yorker. In his biography, Max writes without comment: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her.” When shown these lines by a sympathetic reader on Twitter, Karr responded that Wallace also kicked her, climbed up the side of her house, and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that she had to change her phone number twice to avoid him. Max, she said, “ignored” much of it, even though she showed him letters in Wallace’s handwriting confessing to his behavior. (In his original article in The New Yorker, Max merely writes: “One day, according to Karr, [Wallace] broke her coffee table.” And it wasn’t until years later that he revealed that Wallace had “broken” the table by throwing it at her.)

There’s obviously a lot to discuss here, but for reasons of my own, I’d like to approach it from the perspective of a biographer. I’ve just finished writing a biography about four men who were terrible husbands, in their own ways, to one or more wives, and I’m also keenly aware of how what seems like an omission can be the result of unseen pressures operating elsewhere in—or outside—the book. Yet Max has done himself no favors. In an interview with The Atlantic that has been widely shared, he speaks of Wallace’s actions with an aesthetic detachment that comes off now as slightly chilling:

One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr’s husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay…I didn’t know that David had that [violence] in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote the New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

Max tops it off by quoting a “joke” from a note by Wallace: “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end.” He helpfully adds: “A sexual pun.”

It’s no wonder that Karr is so furious, but if anything, I’m more impressed by her restraint. Karr is absurdly overqualified to talk about problems of biography, and there are times when you can feel her holding herself back. In her recent book The Art of Memoir, she writes in a chapter titled “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”:

Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty. Yes, you can misinterpret—happens all the time. “The truth ambushes you,” Geoffrey Wolff once said…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or to pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.

Replace “memoirist” with “biographer,” and you’re left with a sense of what was lost when Max concluded that Wallace’s violence only made him “a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.” I won’t understate the difficulty of coming to terms with the worst aspects of one’s subject, and even Karr herself writes: “I still try to err on the side of generosity toward any character.” But it feels very much like a reluctance to deal honestly with facts that didn’t fit into the received notions of Wallace’s “complexity.” It can be hard to confront those ghosts. But not every ghost story has to be a love story.

An awkward utilitarianism

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A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. [Saul] Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

James Wood, in The New Republic

The imagination of form

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In his new book The Shadow in The Garden, James Atlas—the acclaimed author of biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow—quotes Leon Edel, the legendary biographer of Henry James: “A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact.” The line appears in the introductory “manifesto” to Edel’s Principia Biographica, in which he also states:

In a sense all lives are clutter composed as the poet said of “the butt-ends of my days and ways.” If biography reproduces this it reproduces habitual disorder. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear among the far louder noises of experience like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.” If we apply these words to biography we can see that a writer of lives must extract individuals from their chaos yet create an illusion that they are in the midst of life—in the way that a painter arrives at an approximation of a familiar visage on a canvas. The biographer who is unable to do this creates a waxworks, a dummy, a papier-mâché, and often a caricature.

And he concludes with a daunting challenge to biographers of all kinds: “The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life.”

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, as I try to put together a literary biography that cuts between the stories of four complicated major figures and the important people in their lives, along with a huge amount of cultural background about the history of science fiction. The arrangement is basically chronological, but within that framework, there’s room for an infinite number of permutations. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to move between the four major players, who had periods of intense collaboration in which their careers overlapped, but also spent decades in different parts of the country. Knowing where to put the transitions has been the most obvious structural challenge that Astounding has presented, but even within each section, there are countless problems to solve. For the sake of clarity, I’ve often had to arrange the material according to theme, without doing violence to the timeline, which is a tricky balancing act in itself. To engage the reader, I’ll often start a chapter with a striking incident, then backtrack, which requires a certain finesse. And this doesn’t even get at the bane of the biographer’s existence, which is how to decide what to include or exclude. Atlas’s description of himself while writing his biography of Schwartz sounds a lot like I feel right now:

I was drowning in documentation. Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees…My original fear that I wouldn’t have enough documentation soon gave way to despair about how I would get it all in.

So what exactly do biographers do? The secret, I think, is to realize that concerns about form aren’t just a courtesy to the reader, to whom structure provides a conceptual scaffolding, but to the author. When you hit on the right shape, it turns into a machine for making choices, just as the internal logic of the narrative does for a novelist. Writing of Edel’s distinction between “form” and “fact,” Atlas writes:

The “fact” part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the “form” could be so elastic—that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term form this method: “nonfiction storytelling,” biography that has “a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect.” Nonfiction storytelling: that’s what I was after.

You could argue that a person’s life doesn’t naturally fall into such neat stages, any more than our everyday existence follows the conventions of a plot, and that it’s just a short step from this approach to the clumsy shoehorning of true events into a stock screenplay formula that we see in so many biopics. But some kind of storytelling is required to convey information in a way that the reader can understand and absorb, and it’s no more artificial than the “convention” that books should consist of signatures of folded paper sewn together into a binding. Structure is a delivery system for facts and ideas, just as the physical book delivers the text to our eyes and brain, and any artifice that it imposes seems trivial compared to the costs of doing without it altogether.

The best way for a biographer to figure this out, of course, is to learn from the works of others. Writing of his experience in reading Edel’s biography of Henry James, Atlas captures the way in which even small choices can take on an outsized significance when you’re working in the same genre as a master: “I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn’t make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections.” Atlas also benefited from a piece of valuable advice from the critic Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, who told him: “Omission, generalization, intensification: that’s your clue.” But like any extended work of art, a biography ultimately reflects the personality of its creator, which can’t be hidden, although it also shouldn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself. As Edel writes:

A biographer who works as an artist becomes the biography. An “impersonal” biography is tasteless and without character, force, or authority. “The thing that is necessarily overlooked,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the presence of the determining personality.” Why “necessarily?” A good and useful life must be fashioned by a “determining personality.” The biographer unable to select and arrange significant detail is like a painter who smudges his canvas.

This is sound, sensible advice—maybe a little too sound and sensible. When you’re dealing with what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “small infinity” of materials at hand, it can be hard to keep it in mind. But I take comfort in the fact that Edel ends his manifesto, not with an Olympian detachment, but with a line from Virginia Woolf that sums up the whole messy business: “Yes, writing lives is the devil!”

Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

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