● Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir
By Greg Bellow
Bloomsbury USA, 240 pages, $25
Trying to imagine the literary landscape of the 20th century without Saul Bellow is a tough task. If Bellow hadn’t published “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953, you would have to reconsider how the entire American Jewish contribution to fiction would look: Where would Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and even the older, Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom Bellow first translated in 1953, be?
But what do we really know about one of the most decorated writers of the past 100 years? Surely there’s plenty more to learn about the author, who won three National Book Awards, one National Medal of Arts, one Pulitzer Prize and the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature.
But beyond the biography written by James Atlas, and, perhaps, Bellow’s Wikipedia page, there’s little of substance. Bellow didn’t strive for attention through publicity stunts like Norman Mailer’s ill-fated run for New York City mayor in 1969; his work never stirred up the sort of controversy that “Portnoy’s Complaint” did, and spending years living and working in Chicago kept him from joining the hip New York Jewish intellectual crowd alongside, say, Susan Sontag or Woody Allen. Greg Bellow’s new memoir, “Saul Bellow’s Heart,” now stands as the single most important book for those of us who have long wondered what his famous father was really like, and the answers, although not entirely shocking, are somewhat unsettling.
Starting with the history of his family’s arrival in 1912 to North America from Eastern Europe, Greg Bellow’s account is quite thorough, probably a testament to his father’s vivid chronicle. We learn of the hard conditions in which Saul Bellow grew up, and Greg Bellow connects the dots to show us where his father’s personal biography became fiction. One moment in particular, when the Bellows took in a boarder, “made a deep impression” upon the young Saul. “A lonely melancholic, he took to tippling and frequenting bordellos, drinking up his pay and dooming any possibility of sending for his wife and children,” who were in Russia.
The boarder was on Bellow’s mind when he wrote a character for what many consider to be his greatest work. “In Herzog, as seen through the eyes of a young Moses, the family’s boarder returns home drunk, disheveled, and singing loudly enough to awaken the family and neighborhood,” Greg Bellow writes. He contends that only then could Saul “see the benign effects of his mother’s kindness and her ability to soften my grandfather’s heart,” after the fictional mother (of Herzog) wakes her husband to help the drunk man.