Study Guide


by Celia Gitelson

Biography Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


Raphael Alter has chosen a way of life (so he thinks) that insulates him from the attentions of others. After acquiring a Ph.D. and working briefly for a Manhattan advertising agency, he settles comfortably into a career as a biographer, living off the rents of a Manhattan apartment building inherited from his father and shipping off his mother to a retirement home in Florida. Alter devotes most of his time to research, maintaining as much distance from his renters as possible, ignoring their complaints about the dilapidated building and making only cosmetic repairs. He senses that the building is crumbling about him, but he cannot summon the energy or the interest to rehabilitate either it or his increasingly inadequate life, which he begins to realize is almost utterly devoid of any true human contact.

Alter’s interest in biography stems from his family background. He remembers listening behind doors to his parents, trying to figure out their lives. This was an especially difficult task because his father was a gambler who rarely revealed his real life, which included several mistresses, some of whom lived in the apartment building he had won during a week- long poker game. Used to his father’s secrecy and apparently enjoying the task of ferreting out lives, Alter has made a life of biography and not much else. He leaves his telephone number unlisted—an odd thing for a biographer to do—because he does not want to be harassed by late-night telephone calls from friends of his biographical subjects who may have a grievance.

Things begin to change when Alter is contacted by Chloe (she is given no last name in the novel), who reluctantly offers herself as a source of information on Maxwell Leibert. She agrees to meet Alter but does not, at their first meeting, tell him what it is she knows about the poet. Used to coaxing information out of his interviewees, Alter proceeds slowly, trying to win Chloe’s trust while also combing through Leibert’s journals and correspondence looking for clues to Chloe’s significance.

Chloe is not like Alter’s other sources, for she does not seem self-serving. Unlike Leibert’s son Ulysses, for example, she does not try to manipulate what the biographer has to say about his subject. Ulysses specializes in inviting Alter to his apartment, offering documents that he wants to share with Alter, and complaining when the biographer does not want to treat the biography as a joint effort. Dr. Erich Sallinger, Leibert’s psychiatrist, not only withholds information from Alter (invoking confidentiality) but misleads the biographer about Leibert’s desperate state of mind. Sallinger even charges the biographer for interviews as though he were a patient. Others write Alter asking for money for letters, treating the biographer as though he were in charge of Leibert’s estate.

Used to these various ploys, Alter has developed a noncommittal attitude, never rejecting these advances from his sources or their bids for attention but slowly working himself into their lives, ingratiating himself until the price he finally has to pay is quite moderate, in both emotional and financial terms. He takes the same tack with his tenants who pester him about repairs. Feigning sympathy, promising improvements, he does almost nothing, relying on his dutiful superintendent, Angel Muñoz, to keep the building functioning, if only at the most minimal level.

None of this squalor matters much to Alter until he begins to realize that something is missing from both his sense of himself and of Leibert. Many loose ends dog Alter. What has happened to Leibert’s second wife? She has disappeared and no one can locate her. What has happened to Leibert’s last manuscript, a cycle of poems inspired by the work of the poet’s friend, the noted scholar of eschatology Truman Swanberg, a favorite drinking buddy of Leibert’s who insists that Leibert did not merely talk about this new work but had a substantial portion of it written before he was run over by a car.

Alter begins to put the loose ends together when Chloe decides she will reveal a secret about Leibert that will fundamentally change the biographer’s view of his subject. When she proposes to meet Leibert in his apartment, he is disconcerted, realizing that she will have the opportunity to judge him and to make up her mind about what she will tell him. Yet Alter has no choice, since to refuse her is to risk losing her information. There is also some indication that Alter had become interested in Chloe and is trying to gauge what it is about her that might have attracted Liebert....

(The entire section is 1875 words.)