The novelist’s portraits of immigrant life in America drew on his tempestuous relationships but a new biography downplays themby Sarah Churchwell / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 by Zachary Leader (Jonathan Cape, £35)
In his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth offered a sly sketch of a famous Jewish American novelist called Abravanel who strongly resembles Saul Bellow, at that time the all-but-undisputed great man of post-war American letters. “The disease of his life makes Abravanel fly,” a character explains: “Beautiful wives, beautiful mistresses, alimony the size of the national debt… famous friends, famous enemies, breakdowns, public lectures, 500-page novels every third year, and still… time and energy left over for all that self-absorption… It’s no picnic up there in the egosphere.”
It’s no picnic to depict life in the egosphere, either. There have been four attempts to date: the first was by Mark Harris, who eventually published a book about the impossibility of writing a biography of Bellow. That was in 1980, when Bellow was still alive and kicking, which he proceeded to do in the teeth of the second contender, his soon-to-be-former friend Ruth Miller. Her book was being printed when Bellow abruptly withdrew his permission for her to quote from archival material and threatened legal action; in 1991 it emerged as Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination. Then came James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography in 2000. Atlas maintained the cooperation of Bellow throughout, who must have regretted that generosity, for Atlas did not return it in what many found a strikingly uncharitable account. Atlas seemed determined to prove that Bellow not only had feet of clay, but was more or less a clod from top to bottom.
Which brings us to Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, published to coincide with the centenary of Bellow’s birth, and clearly intended to remedy Atlas’s reductive view. The calculating reader will notice that this volume extends only to Bellow’s 50th year, although Leader, a professor of American literature (and an American) in the United Kingdom, takes 650 pages to get there. A projected second volume will cover the final 40 years…