The Last Word

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Aug. 17 1999 3:30 AM

The Last Word

How it feels to finish a 10-year writing project.

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The book is done.

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How long I've waited to write these words. It was a decade ago this summer that I began my biography of Saul Bellow--or rather, signed a contract with a publisher declaring my intent to write it. Last week I turned in 700 pages of manuscript to my beleaguered copy editor, Virginia Avery, a kindly, white-haired woman with a handsome New England face and reserves of patience that run deep.

From the beginning, the issue of duration loomed. When my agent asked me how long I thought it would take to write the book--he was negotiating the delivery date--I answered cheerfully, "Ten years."

"You can't say that," he informed me. "No one will sign up a book that's going to take that long."

"Why not?" I trotted out the legendary biographies known to every practitioner of the trade--biography lore: Leon Edel's 20-year labor on his five-volume Henry James ("How long, Leon, how long?" a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement had importuned after the appearance of the third volume); Richard Ellmann's 17-year labor on James Joyce. And to say that Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay is long-awaited would be--as James himself might have said--putting too fine a point on it. Milford is already well into her third decade on the project, with no end in sight. Sally Fitzgerald has been at work on a biography of Flannery O'Connor since I was in college, and I graduated in 1971. Lewis Dabney signed up to write the biography of Edmund Wilson that I jettisoned in the early '80s, and there's no trace of it. Some of my best friends are biographers, and they've been in no hurry to deliver: Jean Strouse devoted 15 years to J.P. Morgan, and Judith Thurman's Colette is forthcoming this fall after 16 years. Edmund Morris, finishing his Reagan after a dozen years, is considered a model of punctiliousness. A decade's nothing.

Still, the general reader may be permitted to wonder: Why is biography such a protracted affair? Novelists seem able to turn out a book every year or two. Historians, as burdened by footnotes and data as biographers, seldom devote more than five years to a book. What's our problem? Is it some congenital defect of biographers? A laziness or dilatory habit of mind? My guess is that our failure of promptitude has to do with the unique relationship we establish with our subjects, dead or living. Unlike the novelist, who invents (supposedly) his characters, or the historian, who grapples with a populous cast, the biographer enters into a curious intimacy with the person being written about, a relationship charged with ambivalence, resentment, love, dependency, and all the myriad other emotions that crowd in whenever we allow ourselves to become intimate with another. That the biographer doesn't actually live with, or in many instances even know, his subject; that the relationship may be involuntary (an unauthorized biography); that it's by its very nature unequal, one person focusing attention on another with no hope of reciprocity, in no way diminishes the intensity of the experience. As any biographer will tell you, the act of writing a biography is all-consuming. The abject acknowledgments pages tell the tale: "To my wife, who endured my obsession with grace ..." "To my children, who grew up hearing about X at the dinner table ..." It's a wonder we don't all end up living alone in boardinghouses.

In my case, the equation was infinitely more complicated than I could have fathomed when I embarked on my biography of Bellow in the summer of 1989. It was in many ways an almost inevitable project for me: I am from Chicago, Bellow's turf; my first biography, of Delmore Schwartz, had closely paralleled Humboldt's Gift, Bellow's novel about Schwartz; I was steeped in the Jewish immigrant world he wrote about. My subject, wary by nature, had, after a year of elaborate equivocation, arrived at the point where he would grant me access to his papers--subject to his approval--and consent to be interviewed from time to time. I didn't want him to authorize the book; I wanted my freedom. And for his part, Bellow maintained that he "wasn't finished yet, wasn't ready to be summed up"--a reasonable stand for a robust man in his 74th year. In the end, the book was, as Bellow took to describing it, "neither authorized nor unauthorized."

Over the next decade, I made my biographer's rounds, like the postman deterred neither by sleet nor snow--nor by occasional emanations of reticence or frostiness from my subject--from the routine (often a fascinating routine) of poring over his unpublished manuscripts in the rare book and manuscript division of the University of Chicago Library; lugging my laptop all over America in quest of high-school classmates, cousins, friends, and lovers of my famously peripatetic subject; driving Avis rental cars into the remotest suburbs of Los Angeles and flying into Buffalo, N.Y., in pursuit of letters in private hands. Biography is no vocation for old men; it requires physical stamina. By the time I'd filled up my cupboard with the building materials for my book, I was, to borrow one of Bellow's favorite words, bushed.

Then there was the labor of composition, year after year of struggling to assemble these materials into a coherent narrative form without getting bogged down by the facts--the downfall of so many of the bloated biographies that now weigh down the shelves of Barnes & Noble for their three-week window before being shipped back to the publisher. By the end of nine years, I'd "written through" to the end, amassing 1,200 pages of typescript. Even my father, who might as well have been reading the story of his own life, so closely did he identify with Bellow's Chicago origins, complained that the book was too long.

The trouble is that you've gone through so much pain to collect the damned junior-high-school transcript or the quote from Bellow's landlord in Paris in 1948 that you feel you have to put it in--just to get credit. Only after you have a completed manuscript does your confidence build to the point where you can go through the top-heavy pile of pages and, encountering the third reference to Bellow's occasional book reviews for the New York Times Book Review, decide: Who cares? and slash it with the red pen. On my second go-round I cut 200 pages, dipping below the laminated Page 1,000 I'd presented in 1996 to Katy Medina, my editor at Random House, as evidence of my progress. (Did she smile, or was that a wince?) On the third pass, recalling Proust's admonition to one of his correspondents that if he'd only had time he would have written a shorter letter, I managed to cut another 200 pages.

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