James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)

I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past.  Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography.

Everything in life taught you, if you paid close enough attention, that no matter how sturdy an edifice you built, it would eventually tumble down around you. A biography was a tombstone. And who was content with an empty slab? You wanted to put everything into it that you could, make it sturdy and beautiful, built to last. It wouldn’t, any more than the mosaic walls of Pompeii or the slender-columned Temple of Artemis. But did the ceramicist afflicted with this thought under the hot Aegean sun pack up his tiles and go home? (Location 2301)

He wrote one biography about a dead poet, Delmore Schwartz, and one about a (then) living novelist, Saul Bellow. He recounts the first as a biographical quest, in the tragic footsteps of a talented man brought down by alcohol and self-sabotage. He writes beautifully of his memories of interviewing a dying generation of Schwartz’s friends – all of them fascinating characters – in the 1970s. ‘[T]he sad story of his later years—the squandered talent, the mental suffering, the chaos of his life—weighed on me, and perhaps I judged him the way we tend to judge those closest to us: harshly.’ (loc. 2612) The long years of his Bellow biography are very different, a twisting psychological game – unequal friendship? adopted father-son? – with a celebrity writer who always seems a little dangerous and frightening.

Atlas knows the genre as well as anyone could; he’s studied intensely all the landmarks and describes reading each biography like a motor mechanic, looking for how it works and doesn’t. The many wise things to say about biography include this:

Biography is a lonely trade. It requires a capacity for sitting by yourself all day for years, sometimes decades, shuffling through yellowing manuscripts and letters. The Germans have a word for this: Sitzfleisch (literally “sitting down flesh,” or the ability to keep your ass in a chair). It requires an ability to be egoless, to subjugate yourself to another. And it requires a curiosity about human nature, a need to find out why people are the way they are. But there is a deeper impulse, one born out of emotional hunger. It could be summed up in Forster’s “only connect”—be empathic, establish enduring relationships, and try to understand others at the deepest level. This was the biographer’s mandate, and every biographer I knew took it seriously. (Loc 4350)

And then there’s this:

The problem with biography is that the biographer’s age inevitably affects the way he sees his subject. As that vantage changes, so does his viewpoint. A biography written by a forty-year-old will be more unforgiving, less sensitive to his subject’s pain, than a biography written by a sixty-year-old. (4388)

I’ve always wanted to publish my KSP biography in my thirties; it’s still possible, but I’m going to be practically forty at the youngest. Yesterday a woman in her twenties new at work told me she thought when she met me I was in my early twenties. But sometimes I feel old as a writer, perhaps in contrast to my impassioned teens and twenties; am I old enough to be sensitive enough to Katharine’s pain, old enough to be forgiving? I’d like to think so. If I’m endlessly judgmental of people I like to think I’m also endlessly understanding.

The book has a chronological narrative, but along the ways deals topically with various biographical subjects. One thing Atlas confronts is the biographer’s ego. He is an ambitious person, and the role of the epigone is not always easy to accept.

Most of the time I didn’t mind our unequal stature and talents: Go, you be the genius. But sometimes I felt: What about my life? Doesn’t it count, too? There comes, inevitably, a moment of rebellion, when the inequality begins to chafe. Biographers are people, too, even if we’re condemned to huddle in the shadow of our subjects’ monumentality. All the same, self-abnegation has its limits. A thousand pages along, a decade in, the biographer cries out: What am I? Chopped liver?

Yes. That’s what you signed on to be, and that’s what you are. Deal with it. (loc. 4563)

The Shadow in the Garden moves Atlas out of the shadow of his subjects, even though he’s still writing about them. It’s a work of art in its own right and I love it.