In the Acknowledgments section of his biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas quotes a somewhat greater biographer, Samuel Johnson: “We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind, and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original.”
Johnson knew few of those whose lives he described and none nearly as well as Boswell knew him. (Would he have been as pessimistic about the unreliability of history and biography if he’d read Boswell’s book? Probably more so. The truer the portrait, the more repellent to such a subject.)
I’m not as pessimistic about discovery as Johnson was. So, for instance, well as I knew Bellow before reading Atlas’s biography, I think I know him better now.
I mean that I know more about the places he lived, what his parents were like, what others thought of him, what he said about many things, including me. (To my surprise, I learned that I was once mentioned in his will and that, perhaps after one of our arguments, I was removed from it.) It doesn’t mean that my view of Bellow now is Atlas’s. By no means.
Atlas also knows Bellow and was helped by him in the course of writing his book.1 He writes that he immersed himself in Bellow’s records and acquaintances far more than he’d done in work for his prizewinning biography of Delmore Schwartz (whom he’d never met). Atlas wonders, though, if familiarity and labor have produced a better book. I think this is a better book, largely because Bellow is a more brilliant and interesting man than Schwartz was. (Indeed, his version of Schwartz in Humboldt’s Gift is more interesting, amusing and touching than the one in the Atlas biography, which was–we learn in the new book–inspired by it.)
Better, truer; more interesting, more touching.
The first two distinctions don’t matter in works of fiction. So the uproar over Bellow’s Ravelstein and the real Allan Bloom doesn’t bear on its power as a novel or, on the other hand, on the pain it gave and gives some who saw themselves “portrayed” and/or “betrayed” in it. They do matter, however, for biography. Would Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson be as good a book if it were a work of fiction–if, say, the Johnson in it hadn’t lived or been a totally different man? It would not be. The understanding a biographer establishes with his readers includes the sense that he is telling as much of the truth as he’s been able to gather about actual people and events. If that understanding is compromised, it constitutes an aesthetic betrayal different from–and, in my view, worse than–the “betrayal” of a fiction writer’s acquaintance in his fiction.