The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas - review by Ian Sansom

Ian Sansom

A Life in Letters

The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale


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For the biographer, writes James Atlas in this curious and intriguing memoir of a life spent accounting for other people’s lives, ‘everything matters’. The author of Bellow: A Biography and Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, Atlas has expended countless hours getting his hands dirty in white cotton gloves, sifting through archives, boxes of letters and dull discarded notes and drafts, as well as tracking down and interviewing friends, family members and vague acquaintances of the literary great and good. ‘For every anecdote,’ he grumbles, ‘I had to listen to the story of someone’s life.’ The Shadow in the Garden is the story of a career spent listening to the stories of other people’s lives. All of that time and effort might matter to the biographer’s tale, but does the biographer’s tale matter to the reader?

Atlas writes with a novelist’s flair about his long, unceasing labours. Indeed, he published a rather fine light comic novel, The Great Pretender, in 1986 that touches on much of the territory he covers here, though what’s funny in fiction is rather tragic, or at least pathetic, in

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