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Speaking Volumes

June 16, 2005 By:
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My Life in the Middle Ages, critic James Atlas’ new memoir, is the most frustrating book I’ve read recently — though I stayed with it till the bitter end. There were times when I wanted to toss it aside in anger or bewilderment; still, I stuck it out.

I kept at it is because the book speaks to me and other baby-boomers who chose to lead literary lives over more stable professions. Not that I compare myself to Atlas. He’s had a far more public career and more success than I’ve ever dreamed of!

Still, our paths have crossed, at least in a publishing sense, over the last 30-plus years. I became aware of his name before either one of us had graduated from college. When I was a senior at the University of Iowa and he was a junior at Harvard, he published a clutch of poems in Poetry magazine. I remember reading them one cold spring afternoon in the university library, and being struck by the talent and precocity on display. I swore to keep an eye out for him.

I saw his name soon enough, but not attached to poems, as I’d expected, but rather to book reviews and articles about writers and politics. I kept waiting for more poetry, but it never materialized. Eventually, I read an interview with him where he said that he gave up being a poet because he wanted an important and visible literary career, and writing verse in America just wouldn’t cut it.

Eager to Dive In
Then, as it turned out, the first piece I published in The Nation in 1973 shared space with an Atlas article. His name was featured on the cover since he was already clawing his way up the ladder in Manhattan. He would soon pluck himself some plum jobs — at The New York Times Book Review and the Sunday Times Magazine, and later at The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

He eventually also got a book contract to do a biography of the long-forgotten but once beloved poet Delmore Schwartz, the Wunderkind of the New York Jewish intellectual scene in the 1930s. As I’d suspected, Atlas and I admired the same writers, and were enamored of journals like Partisan Review and Dissent. In time, we would both write for those magazines, along with several dozen others.

This closeness — artificial though it may have been — made My Life in the Middle Ages immediately attractive to me. I even bought the book rather than wait for the publisher to send me a review copy. That’s how eager I was to dive in.

The chapter headings alone were evocative of the stage people our age now find ourselves in. The issues Atlas would discuss include our parents’ mortality and our own; where all the time has flown; money (or the lack thereof); the possibility of failure; all the maddening things happening to our bodies; and our relationship to God — subjects that were alluring in their suggestiveness.

Then why was the actual reading experience so maddening? Within a short time of beginning the book, I had an experience similar to ones I’d had in the past when reading Atlas: It seemed there might be two different James Atlases at loose in the world.

One is Atlas the biographer, the chronicler of lives like Delmore Schwartz and more recently the late Saul Bellow. In this incarnation, he writes crisp sentences, dense with meaning and atmosphere, crafting his biographies as if they were 19th-century novels, especially in the case of the Bellow book.

Then there is the Atlas of his only novel, the regrettable The Great Pretender, about a young Jewish Midwesterner, like himself, who dreams of becoming a writer. This work and My Life in the Middle Ages share a prose style diametrically opposed to Atlas the biographer’s. The sentences are limp, clogged with unnecessary words, the tone imprecise, the efforts at comedy or pathos often wide of the mark.

What’s so disheartening is that there are glimmers of what the work might have been. There are sincere touches of feeling when he discusses his father’s difficult last months. And there is real humor in the depiction of what’s happening to his middle-aged body.

Still, there’s one overriding problem: Atlas would appear to have lived a charmed life. Yet he wants us to believe the opposite. He’s been employed at some of the most interesting magazines in the country, his writing has appeared in countless prestigious venues, and his good work has been heartily praised.

He appears from all indications to have a wonderful spouse (a doctor nonetheless) and children, and owns an apartment in New York City and a second home in the country.

So how can he expect us to view him as an abject failure, as he wishes us to? As evidence of his forlorn life, he presents the fact that he left several of his prestigious jobs rashly, and that his novel didn’t garner praise or attract readers. But nothing described in this memoir is tragic or even pitiable.

Indeed, it’s fashioned as a plea for sympathy, without the writer having done the requisite work — both in baring his soul (rather than merely confessing), and then finding the means to transmit his experiences so they have meaning for readers.

This book sounds like a catalog of perpetual whining. All you want to say in response is: “Snap the hell out of it, fella!”

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