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 of Bellow’s life. Leader brings to this prolonged endeavour superhuman diligence and all the empathetic rationality Atlas kept losing. But although Leader is far too intelligent to swing into corrective hagiography, he can drift towards apologia.
This volume spans Bellow’s first six novels: his apprentice fiction Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), his emergent voice in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), which many still consider Bellow’s finest achievement, through Henderson the Rain King (1959) and ending with Herzog (1964). Bellow fused a continental intellectual tradition—the novel of ideas—with a free-wheeling American idiom, the vox pop of urban angst. Bravura, extravagant, mournful and buoyant, this was a new kind of comédie humaine, the vanity fair of modern America. “My subject ultimately was America,” Bellow told Philip Roth, although “America has no idea—not the remotest—of what America is.”
Bellow felt particularly sabotaged by an American “artist-patrician” elite that he found anti-Semitic, bent on shutting off high culture from Jewish immigrants such as him. So in the opening lines of Augie March Bellow pounded on the locked door, announcing his presence by insisting on a defiant right to be no less nationally representative: “I am an American, Chicago-born—Chicago, that sombre city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.” Bellow was admitted—more warmly than many, in truth—and for decades he dominated the room. In particular, as Leader explains, Bellow brought an open Russian emotionalism to the American literary tradition, resisting the ethos of repressive constraint exemplified by TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, and adding an irrepressible sense of comedy to the tragedy of urban life depicted by writers like Theodore Dreiser.
As the critic Tony Tanner observed, Bellow reminds us that the ridiculous is never far from the sublime. The conflicts in Bellow’s fiction are often Faustian, but his characters’ estrangements are social, not existential: they rail against the limits of their own dominance, rather than against domination by some higher power. The books are relatively plotless, relying on his inimitable voice and the sense it conveys of a mind on which nothing is lost. Whether readers find this captivating or fatiguing depends largely on their tolerance for narrative solipsism. Other people gradually become apparitions flitting past the screen of a blinding self-absorption. His female characters, in particular, tend to be thinner than the paper they’re written on, a frequent complaint of which Leader takes surprisingly little notice. Although Leader scrupulously traces distinctions between the life and the work, what most closely unites the two often seems a cavernous narcissism.
Certainly Bellow recruited his own experiences for fictional purposes; but, as he wrote, facts do not bind novelists: rather, “the fact is a wire through which one sends a current. The voltage of that current is determined by the writer’s own belief as to what matters, by his own caring or not-caring, by passionate choice.” What Bellow passionately chose to care about were his art and himself, in that order—and they easily tangled. He was “a sucker for flattery” on the one hand, and notoriously sensitive to criticism on the other: any criticism of his books “really soured the friendship.” Alfred Kazin wrote that Bellow was “too full of his being a novelist to be a human being writing,” and was “congested in his usual cold conceit.” That Bellow emerges so sympathetically from these pages is a tribute to Leader’s imaginative generosity, though it is also true that this volume covers the years of Bellow’s greatest integrity, charm and liberality. The second volume may test even Leader’s loyalty: as he aged, Bellow grew reactionary and embittered, gradually losing touch with the egalitarian spirit that elevated his greatest work.
Saul (Solomon) Bellow was born on 10th June 1915 in Lachine, Canada, to Russian-Jewish refugees. His religious, autocratic father turned his hand to anything that might pay, including bootlegging. Poverty, religion and books defined the boy’s childhood, first outside Montreal, then in Chicago. Bellow’s three older siblings do not seem to figure much (although his eldest brother Maury, who inspired many older brothers in Bellow’s fiction, pops up occasionally, engaged in various dubious practices). Where Leader excels is in contextualising Bellow within Jewish American culture at the time, elucidating what it meant to feel Russian in the Depression-era midwest. At home the Bellows spoke Yiddish, the language that so inflected Bellow’s writing once he released its rhythms and tones into his English. He studied abortively as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, then at Waspier but less costly Northwestern; another abortive stint as a postgraduate anthropology student at Minnesota followed, before Bellow embraced his vocation as a writer. He married Anita Goshkin in 1937; she supported the family while he worked at getting published. Fifteen years and three novels later they divorced, acrimoniously, but Leader shows Bellow as a responsible, caring father to his young son Greg, even after the split from Anita. Before long he had become involved with his second wife, Sondra (Sasha), whose affair with Bellow’s friend Jack Ludwig forms the emotional spine of Leader’s story, and of Bellow’s novel Herzog.
“Leader never confronts the sheer scale of Bellow’s concupiscence, a sexual accumulation with the acquisitive force, the indiscriminate lust, of a priapic robber baron”
Interspersed throughout are famous friends, former friends and rivals (often indistinguishable categories for Bellow), including Ralph Ellison, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Alfred Kazin. Indeed, Leader shares so much information about the people Bellow knew that Bellow himself can become somewhat interred beneath it all. We learn where his agent went to university, the family backgrounds of his friends, how violent their fathers were. There are pages-long descriptions of other writers’ work: Leader tells us how many stanzas most of Berryman’s “Dream Songs” have and which writers influenced Berryman, plunging down a rabbit hole of literary genealogies. We learn how much Gore Vidal’s house cost, and that he liked the word “eerie.” The avalanche of detail keeps sweeping Bellow aside, while repetitions accrue, carefully flagged—“as was quoted previously,” “in words quoted in the introduction to this book.”
This might be less problematic if such exhaustive marginalia did not stand in sharp contrast to Leader’s reticence about a central aspect of Bellow’s life: his legendary womanising. Leader resorts to narrative contortions to avoid detailing these affairs, never confronting the sheer scale of Bellow’s concupiscence, a sexual accumulation with the acquisitive force, the indiscriminate lust, of a priapic robber baron. Early on, Leader quotes a friend saying that Bellow was always “famous for being extraordinarily busy with the ladies,” carefully adding that Bellow felt conflicted over his own promiscuity. If so, he certainly never let those feelings stand in his way. But Leader identifies only a handful of affairs, and then only retrospectively and parenthetically, as when he reports Bellow referring to a woman as “beautiful Catherine,” before inserting: “[Lindsay, a writer, with whom Bellow had been involved.]” Such ex post facto narration isn’t merely dismissive, it’s distorting. Leader presents an idyllic account of Bellow’s romance with his second wife Sasha while he was divorcing his first, before adding that the only unhappy moment arose when a friend “let slip that Bellow had had a brief fling” before Sasha arrived—which Leader has never mentioned. Gradually the affairs gather cumulative pace, however, elbowing their way into the story as if against Leader’s will. Thus as the marriage to Sasha breaks down, Leader says Ludwig told her “of Bellow’s infidelities,” familiar to their friends, including “a Japanese lover Bellow had in New York, [and] Elsa, the Bard student, in the marital bed,” all of which come as news to his reader. “Now began a period of strenuous womanising,” Leader then announces, before proceeding to list some women with whom Bellow “reconnected,” which does rather suggest the womanising hadn’t been exactly half-hearted before; and again, these are renewals of liaisons we never saw in the first place, making it impossible to get a sense of how many others Leader may have eliminated from his record.
It is not quibbling to register a biographer’s thumb so heavily on the scale: trying to emphasise Bellow’s sense of betrayal at Sasha’s infidelity with Ludwig forces Leader to minimise Bellow’s manic promiscuity. He similarly elides the fact that Bellow began his affair with his third wife, Susan, while married to Sasha. That affair emerges in flashbacks, too; Leader only introduces it once the marriage to Sasha ends. He quotes a letter to Susan, in which Bellow declares his love in more revelatory terms than Leader ever uses: “You know it puzzles me not to have feelings for anyone else. I was once ubiquitously rousable and I even worry, I grieve at times, at my lack of interest in these passing chicks.” That Bellow was “ubiquitously rousable” (and clearly would be again) need not be explained away or outlined in prurient detail, but some critical account of such determinate, compulsive behaviour seems requisite in any serious biography.
That said, it’s also true that the sheer labour of properly researching such a tangled life is prodigious, and Leader has done an outstanding job. Questions about balance and editing aside, it’s difficult to imagine this biography being judged anything but definitive for some time to come. Bellow once described his ideal reader as “another human being who will understand me. I count on this. Not on perfect understanding, which is Cartesian, but on approximate understanding, which is Jewish. And on a meeting of sympathies, which is human.” This also seems a good description of his latest biographer, a reader who understands this brilliant, complex, difficult writer in just such terms: approximately, perhaps even “Jewishly,” but certainly sympathetically and humanly.