The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale – review

In his obsessive pursuit of Saul Bellow, biographer James Atlas found his own compelling story to tell

In 1971, on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, with an aspiration to be a writer, and a juvenile poem published in the New Yorker, James Atlas had two teachers.

He recalls wandering into the study of the first, Professor John Bayley, “in search of an assignment, or at the very least, human contact”, and he was sent away with the instruction to go and read all of George Eliot, not just the big novels, and to come back when he was done, a task that Bayley clearly hoped would postpone further master-pupil engagement until the end of the year.

The second teacher, however, Richard Ellmann, whose biography of James Joyce was itself a “work of art”, was much more suited to the “priestly” vocation that Atlas craved. Ellmann seemed to see in Atlas a fellow traveller in the curious compulsion of detailing the life of literary genius. Towards the end of his year with Ellmann, Atlas attempted to live up to his mentor by unravelling, in an exhaustive 20 pages, “Joyce’s use of the Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico’s theory of historical cycles in Ulysses”. At the top of his paper, Ellmann left a single valedictory pencil note: “A good start,” it said.

Atlas is of the belief that a true biographer does not choose his or her subjects – the subjects rather move in and refuse to leave until their life has been written. He was first chosen in this way by Delmore Schwartz, the doomed American poet of the mid-20th century, who had gone from golden prodigy – championed by TS Eliot – to raddled derelict in a couple of decades.

Schwartz had haunted Atlas’s imagination since the biographer saw a newspaper picture of the poet when he was in his teens. But it was only after he began to pursue the fragments of a life that ended outside the Columbia hotel on Times Square in 1966 – when Schwartz had a heart attack while taking out his garbage – that he started to see the parallels between their lives. This was the reason he had fallen in love at first sight: “Delmore’s attachment to his early childhood, his unrealisable expectations, his piercing loneliness, his book hunger, his dread of failure… these were traits and longings we shared.” Perhaps all writing is autobiography.

That, at least, is one of the unavoidable themes of this unfailingly acute memoir of the biographer’s art. Atlas’s biography of Schwartz opened up life for him, he became an editor at the New York Times, he wrote for the New Yorker, he published a novel, he was invited to write other biographies, but none really snagged in his heart. In 1987, though, he wrote to Saul Bellow to share his growing realisation that he was the Nobel laureate’s natural Boswell. The relationship, again, seemed fated in some way. Bellow had also written about Schwartz, in his novel Humboldt’s Gift. Both men were formed in Chicago. “I was the one,” Atlas argued. Bellow was not convinced, and so the stalker’s dance between avid biographer and reluctant subject, which is the substance of this book, and of Atlas’s life, began.

It is a triumph of chutzpah, and of desperation. At one friendly lunch, as he peppers his still reluctant subject with intimate questions and details the childhood acquaintances of Bellow’s he had met and interviewed, Atlas remembers how “Bellow took me in with that keen, appraising look of his: Who is this guy? It was beginning to dawn on him: I was going to write his biography”. There are elements in this indefatigable, sometimes toe-curling, pursuit that recall Nicholson Baker’s granular obsession with John Updike, detailed in U&I, and of Geoff Dyer’s comic failure to write his life of DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. Like any one-sided love affair, Atlas’s entrapment of Bellow is familiar in its trajectory but entertainingly unique in its particulars – and an inspiration for compulsive biographers everywhere.

• The Shadow in the Garden by James Atlas is published by Corsair (£30). To order a copy for £25.50 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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