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A Short Proust and a Long Bellow

Biographer and editor James Atlas tells stories of real lives

9.1.00

For an investment house, the offices of Lipper and Company in New York City are unusual. The space is large, open, and quiet; no one barks orders into phones. Walls are few, and many are of glass. The posters on the walls are large renderings of the covers of recent biographies: Crazy Horse, Joan of Arc, Mozart, Mao, Proust. The books are from Lipper Publications, whose nerve center is just a few feet away, where James Atlas '71, series editor of the biographies, looks out onto Park Avenue from his roomful of books. In Atlas's publishing enclave, things are even quieter than elsewhere. "Fortune called us somnolent," he laughs. "We were just reading!"

Others are reading, too. In partnership with Viking/Penguin, Lipper has published 10 biographies in its Penguin Lives series since 1999, and not one has lost money. Six of the biographers have been novelists, and the series boasts some inspired pairings of author and subject: Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse; Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc; Garry Wills on Saint Augustine; Edna O'Brien on James Joyce. The biographies of Proust, Saint Augustine, and Crazy Horse have made bestseller lists. Two dozen more titles are in the works.

Atlas conceived of the series four years ago while jogging in Central Park with his wife, psychiatrist Anna Fels '71, M.D. '78. "What about a series of short biographies by great writers?" he wondered aloud. The Penguin Lives, which average 150 pages, contrast notably with the scores of "doorstop" biographies--scholarly, exhaustive, 600 to 1,000 pages long, even multivolumed--now in print. Instead, they are book-length biographical essays, in which accomplished writers take vigorous points of view, and, choosing their facts, make a case for what the life of Leonardo da Vinci, or Virginia Woolf, was really about. The catalog asserts that the books "examine life-defining moments of great individuals who shape our culture."

Atlas himself is a biographer. His life of American poet Delmore Schwartz, nominated for a National Book Award, appeared in 1977, and this October, Random House will publish Bellow, his long-awaited biography of novelist and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow. At 674 pages, Bellow clearly makes the doorstop category, and the irony is anything but lost on Atlas. Yet he feels there is room for both types of work, and believes publishing has generally underestimated the audience for high-quality literary offerings. Hence there is nothing watered-down about his Penguin Lives series; the books "are not for dummies, they're for smarties," he told the New York Times. "You have to sit down with your elbows on the table to read these books."

Atlas grew up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. At Harvard he was president of the Advocate and studied poetry with Robert Lowell '39, Litt.D. '66, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Fitzgerald '33. "Lowell had these legendary office hours on Wednesday mornings in the basement of Winthrop House," Atlas recalls. "He would show up ashen, hung over, and talk to us at tremendous length about our poems. He was always operating at such a high level. If Pound came up, Lowell might ask, 'What are your favorite Cantos?'"

The Harvard years were a "very chaotic time," Atlas says. "I was what you might call a cultural radical--long hair, Gauloises, motorcycle. I was going to be a poet, and even had a poem in the New Yorker when I was 19. That was my last appearance there for almost 30 years!" A Rhodes scholarship took him to New College, Oxford, where he was "utterly lost. I did nothing but hang around the King's Arms and drink pints of Guinness." But then he met Richard Ellman, the great biographer of Joyce, Wilde, and Yeats, who "became a model, an example of how you could have a literary vocation," Atlas says. "I came back and within a year I had a contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write a biography of Delmore Schwartz."

The life of Schwartz (1913-66) "resonated with my own life," Atlas explains. "He was born the same year as my father, had the same Russian Jewish immigrant history. On Christmas Eve of 1974, I opened the first box of Delmore's papers. Right on top was a 1938 letter from T.S. Eliot, in Eliot's own hand, praising [Schwartz's book] In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and saying that Delmore was a great poet. Then there was a long letter from Auden. I said to myself, this book can be written. I had a sense that this was a great subject."

But, he continues, "I was an unknown writing about an unknown," because Schwartz had fallen into literary obscurity. That changed suddenly in 1975, when Saul Bellow published Humboldt's Giftits main character, Von Humboldt Fleisher, was modeled on Schwartz. "Bellow saved me," says Atlas. "Suddenly there was this great novel, and everybody started writing about Delmore Schwartz. Psychologically, it made Delmore come alive for me. I remember reading the galleys of that novel, and it was electrifying."

In 1977 Atlas and his wife moved to New York City, arriving shortly before his Schwartz biography came out. He worked briefly for Time, then moved to the New York Times Book Review, writing author profiles and many lead book reviews. In 1986 Athenaeum published his autobiographical novel, The Great Pretender. "It received punishing reviews," he recalls. "I'd been a smart-alecky book reviewer for a few years. I stopped reviewing books after that. Once you've been kicked around, you don't want to kick others around. Reviewing of that kind is a young man's game."

Vanity Fair hired him for a brief stint of celebrity journalism, but in 1987 Atlas became an editor at the New York Times Magazine, where he profiled, among others, Allan Bloom, the late University of Chicago philosopher and author of The Closing of the American Mind. That article led to Battle of the Books (1992), Atlas's book on the academic canon debate. In 1997 he moved to the New Yorker as a staff writer. Midlife topics like private schools, financial envy, and aging parents that he has covered there will appear in a forthcoming volume, My Life in the Middle Ages.

Atlas's middle ages had barely begun when, having long contemplated a biography of Bellow, he came across a 200-page manuscript of an unpublished novel in the Bellow archive at the University of Chicago in 1989. "It had the same effect on me as those letters from Eliot and Auden had," he recalls. "I thought, 'This is for me.'" The only obstacle was Bellow, who closed his archive after Atlas signed a contract with Random House for the biography. "I was the impetus for its being closed," Atlas says.

Eventually Atlas negotiated an arrangement in which Bellow would "neither help nor hinder" the biographer's work. "I did not want to write an 'authorized' biography," Atlas explains. "That means that the subject is looking over the biographer's shoulder and in essence collaborating on the book, which is an impediment to biographical truth." Bellow, who has a country house not far from Atlas's place in southern Vermont, met with Atlas a few times per year, once even driving his fellow Chicagoan around the old neighborhood. The only trouble came in 1995, when the New Yorker published some of Atlas's journals about his meetings with the novelist. "He kept his distance for a year after that," Atlas says. "But I was eventually rehabilitated." Bellow's recent novel, Ravelstein--whose protagonist is based on Allan Bloom--could fuel interest in the new biography.

In any case, life stories seem to be Atlas's calling. Since his novel, he has not written a line of fiction. "I am a teller of true stories," he says. "Biography tells a story in a way that any great literature tells a story, yet does it with an array of facts that make it compelling because it is true--a marriage of history and fiction. Great biography has the form of a work of art. If done well, it has the pace and feel of life."

Bond Quotes and Backlists

Atlas's partner in the publishing venture is Kenneth Lipper, J.D. '65, principal owner of Lipper and Company, an investment firm that manages $6 billion in assets; Lipper Publications is a separately incorporated venture. Combining publishing with Wall Street acumen "has had a huge positive impact on the success of the project," says Lipper. "You have real business people looking at things with fresh eyes, and asking, 'What works?'" The Penguin Lives series has two unbreakable rules: no biography will exceed 200 pages, no author's advance will surpass $100,000. Lipper says the modest advances have not lost them a single author, though he jests that "a few literary agents have attempted suicide."

Turning serious, he mentions one intangible that can offset lean advances: "It's a privilege to work with James Atlas, a major figure in the literary community. We won't get into this hysteria of bidding huge sums for rights," Lipper asserts. "Just as in investing, the key is never to distort the evenness of your portfolio by making a big bet. That way, no single book can sink the enterprise." Lipper Publications in fact is expanding, having signed a contract with Norton to do a series of science books; a business-book deal is under discussion with various publishers.