Any biography of Edward Said is bound to surprise its author, as it did me, by concealing its point of entry. To find it, one must hack through a tangle of identities—author, pianist, filmmaker, State Department adviser, Council on Foreign Relations regular, New York belletrist. I knew him well enough to see him in unguarded moments, scotch in hand, but the more I wrote, the more he morphed before my eyes: half–literary theorist forcing universities to face the nonwhite world, half–media celebrity debating the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Ariel Sharon on the nightly news.

Behind my turmoil—I re-wrote the book three times—stood an elusive fact. Said certainly did much, but what mattered more was his physical presence: this indelible performance of himself on the world lecture circuit. Aggressively curious, with piercing dark eyes, an angular jaw, a volcanic laugh, and a boyish informality, he struck some of us (his students at Columbia) as a slightly bullying older brother, whose vanities you forgave because of a loyalty that survived even anger. Forget his writings and just think of the charm behind the chutzpah. How else could he have managed to make the idea of a Palestinian state genuinely popular in the age of Reagan and, unlike his adversaries, do so without an army to back him up?

Said was a pianist and a writer but also a State Department adviser and a Council on Foreign Relations regular.

The self-concealment (or was it just social awkwardness?) of this very public man was not the only surprise. Writing a friend, he once confessed that his memoir had been filled with games of “disguises and revelations,” and he later dodged definition by putting words in the mouth of a character from one of his abandoned novels: “I’m influenced by the intermittences of heart, moment, and desire. Interruptions are the contents of my time, digressions my preferred style.”

After years of shuffling through archives and being granted unlimited access to his family and childhood friends (they had earlier shunned interviews after some clumsy efforts to defame him), I began to piece together a portrait I had not expected.

I discovered, for example, how much Said (despite being a professed atheist) had been shaped by religion, and retained an affection for it culturally—his growing-up was saturated with Anglican hymns, the daily rituals of mass, and The Book of Common Prayer. Even his closest friends had no clue that Said wrote fiction of surprising beauty and confidence. Born of privilege, many assumed he became political only by the accident of the Naksa (“setback”) of 1967, when the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land became etched in stone. That story, I learned, was false. Said wrote anti-imperialist poems in middle school and published an unforgiving anti–Cold War essay on the Suez crisis as an undergrad in the 1950s.

Equally shocking, at least to me, was the discovery that two Nobel Prize–winning novelists—Nadine Gordimer and Kenzaburo Oe—confessed that his political essays had changed their fiction forever, breaking them out of doldrums and opening up new paths of the imagination. In their letters to him, they sound like acolytes.

The narrative brilliance of his 1999 memoir, Out of Place, suggests Said could have finished his novels had he wanted to. My guess is that he simply refused. He had always rejected the prejudice that poets and authors are the real creators and that critics are their props. (In the public’s view, the critic was a little like Howard Cosell to the artist’s Muhammad Ali, Said once joked.) It is the intellectuals, he argued, who shape political outcomes and expose a bad reality. Authors typically don’t or can’t.

Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on March 23