Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875
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...
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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. Later, Dr. Sallinger will suggest that Alter is, in fact, living through Leibert, imagining what he does not have the talent or the energy to accomplish for himself. Significantly, Alter does not protest this analysis of his character.
For the first time in years, Alter cleans his apartment, scraping away years of grime, throwing out the detritus of his minimal existence, creating a space, so to speak, for another person. It is at Alter’s apartment that Chloe proposes a trip to Vermont, still refusing to say what they will find there and insisting it is the only way that she can reveal to Alter (and make him understand) what it is about Leibert that cannot be merely put into words for the biographer’s convenience. In total control, Chloe informs Alter that she will contact him when the arrangements for the trip are settled.
In the meantime, Alter begins to undergo a transformation. He actually listens to his tenants and takes an interest in their lives. He is amazed when one of them, Martin Aswith, comments on his biographies, for Alter has not imagined that anyone in the building has read them. For the first time, Aswith tells him, Alter has a look in his face that invites confidences, and so the tenant expresses his pleasure in Alter’s books.
In some sense, all biographies bring the dead back to life. The irony, in Alter’s case, is that he has been dead inside for a long time. In his own life, he has withdrawn into what he admits is a “self-imposed autism.” He is the biographer as bystander. He yearns for more of an involvement with others, but it is only with Chloe—a source he has had to woo constantly—that he begins to see that his life can change only if he is willing to resuscitate himself. To do so will require the messiness of involvement in the lives of others and the abandonment of the biographical distance that safely sequesters him in documents and in the conventional routines of his interviews.
Alter stays with Aswith, who has a sick child, remaining in the room when the tenant falls asleep and cradling the child in his arms while her father rests. Far more dramatic is the collapse of one of his older tenants, Simon Leipzig, whom Alter literally brings back to life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, a stimulating experience for Alter once he gets past his initial repugnance.
Yet Alter almost balks when he finds that Chloe has brought him to Vermont to stay the night in the house Leibert occupied while teaching at Bennington College. Not knowing what to expect, Alter instinctively shies away from entering the house, realizing that he has become too close to his subject and may find out more than he is willing to write about. Chloe, however, is thinking as much about herself as she is about Leibert. There is something about Leibert that can be explained only by visiting the house and making Alter a witness to the past.
What Alter finds cannot be revealed without destroying the shock value of the novel’s final pages. It does radically change his view of Leibert, making it impossible for him to finish the biography—not because of any lack of sympathy for the poet, although what Alter finds is gruesome, but because he has learned too much about his subject. He has become a part of Leibert’s biography in a way that destroys his objectivity and his ability to tell a life as a story. Leibert’s life becomes something that has happened to Alter and changes Alter’s view of himself.
Rather than finishing the biography, Alter decides to repair his building, setting about purchasing materials that he can ill afford given the meager revenue from his rent-controlled apartments. Before he can renovate, however, the building next door crashes into Alter’s, and he and his superintendent have just enough time to evacuate the tenants, with Alter promising a new building financed by the damages he expects to collect.
It may seem like a lighthearted ending, but it is true to the deft tragicomic touch Gitelson employs throughout the novel. There are many comic scenes in which Alter’s tenants recount their tales of woe, but such scenes are true to the way stories of misfortune are often presented to a biographer who is used to listening to the unfortunate and finding a way to manage their stories in prose. Gitelson has a good ear for dialogue and uses the superintendent as a kind of chorus. Angel Muñoz is a hardworking, sensitive, and moral man, but he is also a realist, telling the reformed Alter that his tenants will not thank him for renovating the building.
Gitelson, who lives in Manhattan, has an unfailing grasp of the way its people talk and of the harried quality of urban existence. She does not sentimentalize the older people in the apartment house, nor does she make it easy for Alter to change his ways. The tension between the biographer and his world, in other words, is finely tuned; it is easy to see why Alter stays away from trouble, from entanglements with both his tenants and his interviewees, but it is also credible that his wariness wears him down, making him seem to himself a man without vital connections to his own world hoping to lose himself in the past and to live through his subjects. Alter’s realization that he is Leibert’s double, that the only pattern he has given his life is that of his subject, ratifies his sense of emptiness. Thus he cannot complete his biography of Leibert without risking perhaps the extinction of himself.
In a final clever stroke, Gitelson shows what Alter’s future will be like by including a bibliography of his books. It is by the work Alter chooses to complete that his story is truly known. One of the books is Maxwell Leibert: Journals, 1945- 1974, edited by Raphael and Chloe Alter, with an afterword by Ulysses Leibert. This novel is a rare case in which the subject, not the biographer, has the last word.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, August, 1991, p. 2099.
Boston Globe. August 24, 1991, p. 10.
Chicago Tribune. September 1, 1991, XIV, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, July 1, 1991, p. 809.
Library Journal. CXVI, August, 1991, p. 144.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, September 8, 1991, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, July 5, 1991, p. 55.
The Village Voice. November 19, 1991, p. 72.
The Wall Street Journal. October 15, 1991, p. A20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, September 15, 1991, p. 3.