Why the World Still Needs Saul Bellow
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune
By Zachary Leader
Knopf, 832 pages, $40
‘Was I a man or was I a jerk?” Saul Bellow asked on his deathbed. By “man,” of course, he meant mensch. Zachary Leader, Bellow’s new biographer, answers Bellow’s dying question: “Both.” Bellow was a jerk: Famously prickly and sharp-tongued, he could be a headache to deal with. He was married five times, and most of the splits were Bellow’s fault more than his wives. He pursued a string of affairs so numerous that Leader wisely decides not to attempt a full catalogue. His fiction drew directly on the lives of his friends, his wives, and his family in a way that invites the charge of exploitation. Was he humane and loyal to the many remarkable people he put in his novels, or did he just use them for his art? Bellow who would have turned 100 on June 5, was the most honored American writer of his time. In 20th-century American fiction it’s hard to match him for sheer brilliant gusto. Did the huge life force present in his novels come from the typewriter of a stunted, selfish person?
The answer, it turns out, is no: Bellow was a jerk, but also a mensch. Though he neglected his three sons — by three different wives and, he once joked, “three different husbands” — he also loved them desperately, and was in agony when divorce settlements meant he couldn’t be with them. He was a generous friend to Ralph Ellison and Isaac Rosenfeld, among others. If most of his friendships ended up on the rocks, this was not unexpected in Bellow’s brittle world of ambitious, high-strung writers and intellectuals. Bellow sometimes behaved badly, but he always worried about whether he had kept his contract (as he put it in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”): whether he had fulfilled his obligations as a mensch.
In James Atlas’s earlier biography of Bellow, the author comes off as a jerk who happened to write some fairly good books. Atlas looked to Bellow as a potential father figure and wound up being badly disappointed. He dragged Bellow over the coals for narcissism, irresponsibility and other sins. Leader gives us a different story. In the hefty first installment of his two-volume biography of Bellow just released by Knopf, he supplies a fair, full account. He doesn’t take sides between Bellow and his wives, but lets everyone have her say, and his. Leader interviewed most of Bellow’s surviving friends and family and combed through the author’s many unpublished manuscripts and letters. This mountain of research has paid off. “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune” is a gripping, rich document of Bellow’s life up to the publication of “Herzog” in 1964, which made Bellow a best-selling celebrity, and financially secure for the first time in his life.
Leader has a good literary critical eye, and makes only a few missteps. He is notably off the mark when he claims that the poetry of John Berryman, Bellow’s good friend, influenced “Henderson the Rain King.” But this is an uncharacteristic lapse. He is on far firmer ground when he points out how Bellow used Dos Passos to forge his own new style in “The Adventures of Augie March,” and most of all when he mentions the crucial spur that Dostoevsky provided. According to one story retold by Leader, Bellow was reading “The Possessed” at the kitchen table when he was 10 years old. (“We were so Russian as adolescents,” he told the novelist Stanley Elkin.) He never lost his passion for the great Russian writer. Dostoevsky’s blustery, fanatically oversensitive men and women with their mad risk-taking represented life to him. Bellow’s own books were more circumspect, but they always had something of the wild Dostoevskian flavor, especially “Humboldt’s Gift,” the novel that probably won Bellow the Nobel Prize.
Leader excels at thick description: He makes the worlds that Bellow lived in come alive. He introduces us to the wide-eyed ferment of Tuley High School in Chicago, where eager Jewish boys and girls buried themselves in Schopenhauer and Spengler; to postwar Paris, where Bellow composed “Augie March”; to the rivalrous academic cocktail parties of Princeton, Minneapolis and Bard. Leader begins long before Bellow’s birth a century ago in 1915, with the lives of Bellow’s parents and grandparents in tough, unforgiving 19th-century Russia. After a few years in Quebec, the Bellows snuck over the border to Chicago, where Abraham, the novelist’s violent-tempered father, worked as a baker, a bootlegger and a coal yard owner. Abraham was an impressive man: a powerhouse student of Talmud in Vilna when he was a boy, he knew Russian literature thoroughly too. But he was overworked, rather bad at business, and volatile. Bellow’s eldest brother Maury, who made it big in the hotel business, was even tougher than their father. Maury was prone to rages and full of disdain for his brother’s writing career. Leader paints vivid portraits of Abraham and Maury, both of whom mocked Bellow’s choice to become a writer. “I showed them,” Bellow reportedly said a few days before his death. And so he did.
With “Herzog,” Bellow burst into the WASPy arena of bland New Yorker fiction and blew it apart. Irving Howe, one of Bellow’s many New York intellectual frenemies, rightly said that “Herzog” was the first novel to rely in its style on the rapid-fire cadences and overexcitement of American Jewish life. Bellow sometimes hemmed and hawed about whether he was a “Jewish writer,” and once even compared the label to “Eskimo cellist.” But he was thoroughly soaked in Jewishness from the age of 4, when he went down to his melamed’s dank Montreal basement, learned his alef-beys and started discussing the Torah in Yiddish. Bellow’s Jewish concerns are more overt in some novels than in others. But they were there at least from the time of his second book, “The Victim,” an eerie, noirish treatment of anti-Semitism.
Bellow is one of the great novelists of personality. Memorable, sometimes outlandish human beings populate his books. But Bellow himself, like most writers, was more an observer than an actor. Alfred Kazin described him as “eager, sardonic, and wary” when he first came to New York in the ‘40s. His wariness did not prevent him from being betrayed by Sasha Tschacbasov, his second wife, who had the affair with Bellow’s close friend Jack Ludwig that Bellow later transmuted into the glorious “Herzog.” Leader is the first Bellow scholar to quote from Tschacbasov’s unpublished memoir, and here he gives us much news. Tschacbasov comments that Bellow’s “head was always [slightly] turned away from you… like a magpie, going to take something and use it.” By contrast, she says, “Ludwig was very expansive, warm, big, big-hearted, a larger-than-life character.” But in the end Tschacbasov fell into Ludwig’s trap. Not so warm after all, he savaged her in his own novel about the affair, which came out after Herzog, and after — bizarrely — Ludwig rapturously reviewed Bellow’s book. In l’affaire Herzog, Bellow’s roman à clef tangle was even thicker than usual.
The full gossip about the Sasha-Jack-Saul triangle is needed in order to grasp what Bellow did in a book like “Herzog,” and Leader is not shy about providing it. But he has much more to reveal in his biography. Leader shows us better than anyone how Bellow staked his claim on our attention, not just through the polished energy of his writing but also through his fervent sense that a novelist could do what the New York intellectuals couldn’t. Bellow, who had once hopped a freight car in the Depression, was terrifically well read, but he was sure he knew something about life that the highbrows didn’t. It is telling that Bellow once instructed his louche pal Dave Peltz to show Hannah Arendt around Chicago. Peltz in the end decided not to take Arendt slumming, but he did once accompany Bellow and Lionel Trilling to a dive bar, in a barbed joke at the high-toned Trilling. Bellow kept to the idea throughout his life that an odd and rough cultural style is more interesting than a well-mannered one. And he believed passionately in the novel, the only form that, he argued, could really tell us Americans, and perhaps us Jews too, who we are (the answer: pretty strange people, but that was all to the good). The wiry, observant Bellow was not himself one of the roughs, but he kept always alert for such extreme cases, the high-wire, out-of-control types that he loved to depict in his work.
“Is our species crazy?” asks Bellow’s Sammler, and the predictable answer comes: “Plenty of evidence.” Bellow’s own life was fairly crazy, with its screaming quarrels and constant break-ups. Yet Bellow sat every day in the eye of this storm at his desk, turning life into honed art with the patience of a monk. Sure, he took advantage of others, but, as Leader argues, he had to do it. The world needed his books — and it still does.
David Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.” His book “Bellow’s People” will be published by Norton in 2016.