James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives series. Atlas sees each book as a window into the life of a figure who has been “central to our culture” in one way or another. Atlas himself is the author of Bellow (2000), the highly-acclaimed biography of writer Saul Bellow, as well as Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977), which was nominated for a National Book Award. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Atlas was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for many years.
Francine du Plessix Gray was born in 1930 in the French Embassy in Warsaw, where her father was a member of the diplomatic corps. After the death of her father, who was killed during World War II in the French Resistance, she emigrated with her mother to the United States. With French and Russian as her first languages, Gray did not learn English until she was twelve years old. Gray comes from a long line of artists and intellectuals: her maternal great-grandmother was one of the first women in Russia to earn a Ph.D in mathematics and her mother was the muse and last great love of the renowned Russian poet Mayakovsky. She is the author of At Home with the Marquis de Sade (1998), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and several works of fiction, including Rage and Fire (1967) and October Blood (1985).
Edmund White, born in 1940 in Cincinnati, Ohio, is one of the most important gay writers in American literature. After college, he moved from the Midwest to New York, where he worked at Time-Life for eight years. He is a novelist, cultural critic, and biographer, and has lived in both France and New York. He identifies himself as a “gay writer,” but also as a literary novelist. “The kind of reader I’m looking for,” he said, “is one who is not simply looking for entertainment, but is looking for whatever we look for in art.” His book Genet: A Biography(1993) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Much of his writing concerns the experiences of gay men in America, from his semi-autobiographical novels A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) to States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980). He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and lives in New Jersey, where he teaches at Princeton University.
Excerpt from Simone Weil (2001), by Francine du Plessix GrayGrowing up in Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century were two contented children from whose household all toys and dolls had been categorically banned. It had been their mother’s intent to nurture their intellectual skills, and the gambit had obviously worked. The older child, André Weil, born in 1906, was solving the most advanced mathematical problems by the time he was nine: by the age of twelve he had taught himself classical Greek and Sanskrit and become an accomplished violinist. His sister, Simone, three years his junior, a strikingly beautiful girl with dark, limpid eyes, was reading the evening paper aloud to her family when she was five, and would master Greek and several modern languages in her early teens. The siblings often communicated with each other in spontaneously rhymed couplets, or in ancient Greek. When reciting scenes from Corneille or Racine they corrected each other with a slap in the face when one of them made a mistake or missed a beat. Theirs was a hermetic, rarified world—the young Weils’ conversations, though never meant to exclude anyone, were so laced with literary and philosophical allusions that they were barely accessible to outsiders. Who could have guessed, for instance, that Simone’s recitation of the lament for Hippolyte from Racine’s Phèdre was meant to inform her brother that she had completed her Latin composition and was ready to study Aeschylus with him as soon as he was finished with his differential calculus?
Excerpt from Marcel Proust (1999), by Edmund WhiteIn England not long ago a survey of writers and critics revealed that the twentieth-century novelist they most admired—and who they thought would have the most enduring influence on the next century—was Marcel Proust. Certainly the madeleine moistened by herbal tea has become the most famous symbol in French literature; everyone refers to sudden gusts of memory as “Proustian experiences.” Snobs like to point out that if the Prousts had been better-mannered and not given to dunking, world literature would have been the poorer for it. Even those who haven’t read Proust speak of him freely and often.
Studying him, of course, can have a disastrous effect on a young writer, who either comes under the influence of Proust’s dangerously idiosynchratic and contagious style or who feels that Proust has already done everything possible in the novel form. Even Walter Benjamin, who became Proust’s German translator, wrote the philosopher Theodor Adorno that he did not want to read one more word by Proust than was actually necessary for him to translate because otherwise he would become addictively dependent, which would be an obstacle to his own production.
Selected WorkJames AtlasBellow (2000) Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America (1992)The Great Pretender (1986)Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977)Francine du Plessix GraySimone Weil (2001)At Home With the Marquis de Sade (1998)Rage and Fire (1994)Soviet Women (1990)Adam and Eve and the City (1987)October Blood (1985)World Without End (1981)Lovers and Tyrants (1976)
Edmund WhiteThe Flaneur (2001) The Married Man (2000)Marcel Proust (1998)The Farewell Symphony (1997)Skinned Alive (1995)The Burning Library (1994)Genet (1993)The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988)Caracole (1985)States of Desire (1983)A Boy’s Own Story (1982)LinksSalon.com review of BellowNew York Magazine essay by Francine du Plessix GraySalon.com audio – Edmund White