Meticulous In Literature, Messy In Life — The Real Saul Bellow
The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005
By Zachary Leader
Knopf, 784 pp, $40
By Steven G. Kellman
In 1998, when the Modern Library polled readers to determine the 100 best novels in English, two books by Saul Bellow — “Henderson the Rain King” and “The Adventures of Augie March” — made the cut. In 2003, Martin Amis called Bellow “the greatest American author ever” — as if Melville, Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, James and Faulkner were chopped liver. However, by 2012, seven years after his death, a list compiled by Goodreads.com of the greatest American novels of the 20th century omitted anything by Bellow. In 2018, a roster of the “15 Best North American Novels of All Time,” published by The Telegraph, included titles by Richard Ford, Henry Miller and Lionel Shriver, but nothing by Bellow, the Ozymandias of American letters. Look on his once lavishly praised works (including 15 novels or novellas), ye mighty, and despair!
So, Zachary Leader’s massive, meticulous biography of Bellow might seem like a project of literary paleontology, disinterring the remains of a cultural monster. Leader, an American who has taught in England for several decades, published the first volume in 2015, and he now begins the second — and final — installment with the triumphant launch of “Herzog,” which was dubbed “a masterpiece” on the front page of The New York Times Book Review in 1964. The author’s place in the contemporary canon would be confirmed by a Nobel Prize in 1976.
Bellow’s life, though, is in tumult, not only because of the increasing demands to teach, talk and write, but also because of his proclivity for messy, simultaneous romantic entanglements. Until the final couple of decades, much of Leader’s effort is devoted to cataloging a harem, extramarital interests who are often appalled to find themselves transmuted into fictional characters. By the time of his death, at age 89, Bellow had married five times and sired three combative sons. His fifth wife, Janis, 43 years his junior, gave birth to their daughter when he was 84. Leader recounts Bellow’s divorce from his third wife, Susan, as “one of the longest, most expensive and acrimonious divorce settlements in Illinois history.”
Alexandra Bagdasar Ionescu Tulcea, the Romanian mathematician who became Bellow’s fourth wife, describes him to Leader as “very charming, very funny, very witty, and he knew an enormous amount of things and he had a fabulous memory.” He was extraordinarily gregarious, but he could also be prickly, abrasive and deliberately offensive. I recall a talk he gave at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv where he reveled in baiting an audience of admirers. Edward Shils, the University of Chicago sociologist who once was his close friend, condemned Bellow’s lack of any moral sense. “The one thing he took seriously,” according to Shils, “was his literary art, and that is something very different from moral seriousness.” Bellow’s closest friend was perhaps Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” but the novelist betrayed him by outing him in the novel “Ravelstein” as gay and cut down by AIDS.
Leader is, after Mark Harris, Ruth Miller and James Atlas, the fourth to attempt a book-length biography of Bellow. It is likely to be the definitive one. Though Leader lacked access to his subject himself, he has interviewed almost everyone still alive who knew him. He was allowed to examine papers unavailable to the others, and he had the benefit of incorporating Harris, Miller and Atlas into his story. He recounts Atlas’s turbulent relationship with Bellow, and he notes how Shils’s advice helped shape Atlas’s negative portrait of the novelist. Leader’s own text could not be called hagiography; he does not attempt to excuse Bellow’s racially insensitive attacks on multiculturalism or his embarrassing quip: “Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” However, he endows Bellow with a cultural gravity and flawed grandeur that make him seem, in the final years, like a Jewish Lear.
In this second volume of the biography, Leader provides detailed discussions of Bellow’s work, from the flawed play “The Last Analysis” and “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” a dark meditation on genocide and urban woes, to the late novellas: “A Theft,” “The Bellarosa Connection” and “The Actual,” as well as the octogenarian’s valediction, “Ravelstein.” He is more concerned with tracing how elements of Bellow’s life show up in the fiction than in rummaging the fiction for clues to the life. Ultimately, the books are what justify the years that Leader has spent parsing details of how the man spent his time. Though they exhibit some of their author’s flaws, the books will be read as long as readers continue to care about the art of fiction. As Leader concludes, after two volumes and more than 1,400 pages: “The fiction is his great gift — the great gift of his life.”
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005) and “The Translingual Imagination” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).