On the centenary of Saul Bellow’s birth, Jewish Book Council examines the first volume of a two-part biography, plus collected fiction and non-fiction.
Saul Bellow lamented how “it is generally assumed that all the events and ideas of a novel are based on the life experiences and the opinions of the novelist himself.” Yet you could hardly think otherwise after reading Zachary Leader’s exhaustive inventory of how Bellow’s life found its way into almost all his work. One of the revelations of this biography is just how many episodes in the novels are retellings of what the author saw or heard about.
Bellow was born in 1915, and his life and work are the subjects of three major publishing projects in this centennial year — not only this first volume of a new biography, but also the final installment of the Library of America’s collection of his novels, and a compilation of the nonfiction as well. Together they provide a comprehensive way to look back at his literary legacy and the way he lived his life.
One of America’s most honored novelists in the twentieth century, Saul Bellow received his first National Book Award for his 1953 breakout novel The Adventures of Augie March. Philip Roth, among many others, admired it for its idiom, “the language you spoke, the American argot you heard on the street.” Bellow won another National Book Award for Herzog, and a third for Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976, and in the same year Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Other qualities are not so admirable. Seemingly without much thought, Bellow took up a number of trendy ideas that floated around him. He shared the Trotskyite politics of a lot of his fellow Jewish intellectuals and subscribed to the faddish ideas of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. His dozens of essays, the most straightforward presentation of Bellow’s thinking, have few claims to originality. Often they make ponderous, second-hand assertions like “the confidence of modern man has been greatly shaken by the mounting crisis of civilization, by wars and by the speed of change.”
In his private life, Bellow had innumerable affairs with young women during the course of his five marriages and often treated his friends badly. The critic Alfred Kazin, an exact contemporary who knew him well, talked about Bellow’s “quiet ferocity” to his friends in response to “the mildest criticism.” Bellow refused to speak to one of them for a year after the friend counseled him to put his feelings about an adverse review behind him.
Bellow wrote passionately about the importance of the imagination in both his fiction and nonfiction. In his first novel, Dangling Man, one of his characters remarks, “There is only one sort of worth-while work, that of the imagination.” Yet his real gift was observation, seeing how people interacted with one another and were affected by their experiences. Alfred Kazin was struck by how Bellow noticed “the most microscopic event in the street” and, tellingly, thought it was important “because he happened to be seeing it.”
Zachary Leader begins with the generation of Bellow’s parents in Russia, relating an event that took place before the novelist was born. In an escapade that became a family legend, his father somehow escaped from a St. Petersburg prison in 1913. That episode echoes in Herzog and again in Bellow’s 1989 novella about a refugee from the Holocaust, The Bellarosa Connection. The same pattern — borrowing from life for his work — repeated itself constantly. Bellow was proud of the memoir he began in the mid-1950s — when he was barely 40! — but it couldn’t be published a decade later because so many of the pivotal incidents could easily be recognized in Herzog (1964).
Though Bellow is most identified with Chicago, he was actually born in Quebec, where his family emigrated from Russia. Among their Anglo-Canadian and Québécois neighbors the family was conspicuously Jewish, and the children were taunted because of it. Yet Bellow always treated his Jewishness as something he was circumstantially attached to, not a quality essential to who he was. “At a most susceptible time in my life I was wholly Jewish,” goes his explanation. “It is what exists in feeling that matters.”
Synagogue and study informed his identity less than the Yiddish language, which he continued to speak throughout his life. He famously translated Isaac Bashevis Singer’s landmark story Gimpel Tam into English as “Gimpel the Fool,” and chatted entirely in Yiddish when he visited S.Y. Agnon in Israel. As a college student he helped his friend Isaac Rosenfeld write a parody of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Yiddish. As a child he had absorbed the language when he heard his father read aloud from a Canadian Yiddish newspaper and from the Forward’s Bintel Brief (“Bundle of Letters”) column.
Bellow was nine years old when his family emigrated from Canada to Chicago, a place he describes in Herzog as filled with loutish-looking trees, lumpy soil, and clumsy grass. Like these distorted versions of natural beauty, people, too, had dual natures. “There were always two sets of facts,” he found in Chicago, “two languages, two codes — there was the beau ideal and there was the hustle.” He sensed that refined things like classical music didn’t really matter there: “We grasped that this was a rough place where matter ruled.”
The future author began reading avidly when he was eight, and he was exposed to classic literature at his elite high school. He also read 19th- and 20th-century writers and discussed them with Isaac Rosenfeld, his close friend and a gifted intellectual who lived only 38 years. (In a Bellow short story and several unpublished manuscripts Rosenfeld became a character called Zetland.)
Bellow was appalled by Oswald Spengler’s idea that great Western civilizations were “Faustian” while Jews were “Magian.” It was an epiphany that was to inform his relations with the WASP-dominated elite of publishing and academe. Years later Bellow wrote, more than once, about his hurt and anger at the idea that as a Jew he had no place in what T.S. Eliot called “Christian society.”
It was more than an intellectual question. A professor at Northwestern rebuffed Bellow’s interest in doing graduate work in English, saying “I wouldn’t recommend that you study English. You weren’t born to it.” Later, when he was applying for a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, the chair of the English department remarked that he “has a wonderful Jewish mind.” (This was at a time when Minnesota branch of the Automobile Club refused to grant membership to Jews.) A few years later Bellow’s second novel, The Victim, was described by Time magazine as “the year’s most intelligent study of the Jew in U.S. society.”
One of the strengths of the Zachary Leader biography is his equal attention to Bellow’s intellectual, family, and social circles. Leader recalls the largely forgotten Oscar Tarcov, author of a Kafkaesque novel and a schoolmate of both Bellow and Rosenfeld. Sam Freifeld, another friend, made enough of an impression on Bellow to inspire characters in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), The Dean’s December (1982), and The Actual (1997). Their friendship, however, like many of Bellow’s, deteriorated eventually into acrimony and recrimination.
Bellow’s friend Sydney Harris, with whom he worked on their high school’s newspaper, travelled on his own to New York at the age of 14 and somehow managed to stay in the apartment of John Dos Passos. Harris went on to become a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist.
David Peltz, who remained Bellow’s friend all his life, exposed Bellow to the underside of Chicago life. As a teenager Peltz somehow found himself in a poker game with the novelist Nelson Algren, the journalist Studs Terkel, and the future film director William Friedkin. Afterwards Peltz ran afoul of a crime syndicate because of a supposed gambling debt. His friend Saul Bellow promised Peltz not to publish the story, but that didn’t stop him from using it in Humboldt’s Gift.
In college and graduate school Bellow found more friendships with bright intellectuals. In 1943 he and his wife Anita moved to a boardinghouse where Gertrude Himmelfarb was already in residence. Their next home was an apartment that was taken over by Daniel Bell when they left it in 1945.
Bellow’s involvement with the Partisan Review  brought Bellow into closer contact with his generation’s most influential critics and essayists. He was 25 and living in Chicago when the magazine published his work for the first time, in the May-June issue of 1941. The larger-than-life art critic Harold Rosenberg was among the many who wrote influential essays for the magazine and became Bellow’s friend. After Rosenberg died in 1978, he was extravagantly portrayed as “Victor Wulpy” in the 1984 novella “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”
The Leader biography also looks closely at Bellow’s family life. His first wife, Anita, made great sacrifices so that the novelist had the time and financial freedom to write, and she took care of their young son Gregory while Saul traveled to Europe. But Saul lost interest in her and ended the marriage after 18 years. “My mother was shattered,” , Gregory later recalled.
Meanwhile Saul was already dating the 21-year-old secretary at Partisan Review, Sasha Tschacbasov. She became his second wife in 1956. The marriage produced his second son, Adam, and lasted only three years. Domestic tensions on both sides undermined the relationship almost from the start. Bellow adamantly refused, for instance, to repay Sasha’s mother for a $1,000 home-improvement loan ($8500 in today’s dollars), claiming against all evidence that the money was a gift. Bellow’s side of the story forms the core of Herzog.
Family troubles aside, it was in the 1950s that Bellow attained his place as one of the leading literary voices of his time. Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944), a slender journal about “the impossibility of working out one’s own destiny” during the war years, was immediately appreciated by the New York Times as “uncannily accurate.” Elizabeth Hardwick praised The Victim (1947) for its “thorough and exquisite honesty.” But Bellow himself saw his first two books in retrospect as formal exercises in writing to a “Flaubertian standard” when compared with what came later.
Augie March (1953), on the other hand, is a full-throated expression of a new voice. “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way,” it famously begins. Packed with portraits drawn from life, it’s meant to unfold with the seeming randomness of life itself.
The next ten years brought three more landmark books, the apogee of Bellow’s creative trajectory. Seize the Day — also about finding identity, but in Zachary Leader’s words, “so different in mood, register, and form” from Augie March—was published in 1956, adapted from the earlier, then-unpublished “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son.”
Leader calls Henderson the Rain King (1959) “the strangest of his fictions.” It is set in what Elizabeth Hardwick called “a joke Africa with whimsical tribes” and preoccupied with ideas promoted by Wilhelm Reich — “Reichian comedy, not Reichian confusion,” protested Bellow.
This first volume of Zachary Leader’s Bellow biography takes us only to 1964. It’s an apt point to break off, coinciding with the publication of Herzog (1964), the novel that caps a decade of astonishing creativity. It is also the year that his marriage to Susan Glassman, his third wife, came to an end. She had been dating Philip Roth when Bellow met her at a Hillel House in the late 1950s. He was 42 at the time; she was 23. They corresponded for years, visited each other, and eventually were wed in 1961. The marriage was to last only three years.
The second volume of this immense work will cover the last four decades of the novelist’s life. This authoritative biography is sure to become an indispensable reference for Bellow fans and specialists alike.
Saul Bellow is not often thought of as an essayist, and for good reason. Pieces with style and originality are not the norm in a new collection by Benjamin Taylor of 50 nonfiction writings. Several, however, are well worth knowing.
Bellow deploys his full powers of description as he writes about what he saw of the Franco dictatorship in Spain in 1948, and it is chilling. And there is a lot charm in his “Illinois Journey,” where he wanders among small towns that have seen better days. “A Talk with the Yellow Kid,” about a one-time con man now in his eighties, is packed with Bellow’s keen observations and brilliant descriptions.
Writing from Israel in 1967, Bellow provides an eyewitness account of the aftermath of the Six-Day War: the bodies of Egyptian soldiers by the side of the road in the Sinai Peninsula, British and American munitions captured from Jordanian forces. Prophetically he remarks, “Now the number of refugees has increased enormously, and if the old system is followed the UN will be supporting more dozens of rotting slums in which demoralized, idle young men can concentrate on ‘politics.’”
Other observations also sound uncannily contemporary. In “The Day They Signed the Peace Treaty” Bellow quotes a colleague who says “the notion — how can we criticize when we do not live in Israel — has been a remarkably powerful slogan.” This was in 1979.
Bellow came of age around the time when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, and his reminiscences of the era and the man — “In the Age of Roosevelt” — feel wonderfully authentic. His memories drift to the streets of Chicago in the 1920s, and to the journalist Walter Lippmann’s tone-deaf observation that FDR was “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” For his part, Bellow paraphrases Wordsworth: “There are many for whom it was bliss then to be alive.”
Two of the most absorbing nonfiction items from Bellow’s late years are the work of other writers: an interview with Norman Manea, and a redaction of several of Bellow‘s letters by Philip Roth. They take us back to the simple, direct, unpretentious young man who was so decisively shaped by the people and circumstances of his youth, and each is a pleasure to read.
Bellow’s literary reviews, by contrast, have much less to offer. They repeatedly take aim at what he considers to be contemporary sins against literature. “There was a carefree time in the history of the novel,” he imagines, “when the writer had nothing to do but to tell us what happened.” Now he sees novelists emphasizing style or other abstractions over experience; favoring facts over the imagination; treating psychoanalytic explanations as insight; stressing the symbolic over the real; and using fiction to moralize, teach, or send messages.
He also sees powerful forces arrayed against the lone author. “American universities are trying to appropriate literature for themselves, taking it away from the writers,” he claims. Another threat comes from consumerism and technology. “We live in a technological age that seems insurmountably hostile to the artist,” he feels, and laments that “our civilization takes little stock in the imagination or in individual talent.” Instead, “We have been trained to consume good things, to make them our own.”
Bellow seems to be attacking his competition in the guise of an aesthetic argument, whether those competitors are other novelists or the institutions that a writer must reckon with. When he declares “our civilization takes little stock in the imagination or in individual talent,” he seems to be saying that the public doesn’t like him as much as it ought to. His real subject is his persistent need for approval and his resentment of the success of others.
Benjamin Taylor’s collection of Bellow’s nonfiction is a gift to scholars and a valuable resource in this centennial year. The best of these writings were previously published in an anthology called “It All Adds Up,” published in 1995; that smaller volume may be a better choice for the casual reader.
Saul Bellow had a special affinity for the novella — too long to be a short story, yet not quite a novel — and he favored that form in his late works. There are four of them among the six titles in the Library of America’s final installment of the collected novels. They make a strong case for revisiting Bellow’s shorter fiction.
The first, “What Kind of Day Did You Have?,” is based on an actual affair between the art critic Harold Rosenberg and a woman named Joan Schwartz. In the story Rosenberg becomes Victor Wulpy, intellectual celebrity. He impulsively phones his lover Katrina Goliger at her home in Evanston, Illinois and asks her to join him in Buffalo, where he is delivering a lecture. She dutifully makes arrangements for her children and flies to meet Wulpy, only to find that bad weather may prevent her from returning home on time.
The suspense is only a backdrop for portraying Wulpy, glimpsing how others see him, and showing how Katrina manages her contingent role in his life. The typical Bellow details are there, including cultural references from the Bible to Marxists to Picasso and Daumier, and it’s constantly entertaining. But the most touching detail is Katrina’s friend in Evanston, a policeman who is quietly and unrequitedly devoted to her.
Kenneth Trachtenberg, who narrates “More Die of Heartbreak,” is so bookish that he checks the dictionary for the nuances of the word ‘infatuation.’ That fits a story which announces “You’re lost without accurate reading of the historical compass. And Eros is the fixed pole.” His Uncle Benn is “a Jew who moves into the vegetable kingdom,” which is to say a professor of botany. It is Uncle Benn whose words become the book’s title; testifying about radiation levels he tells a committee, “it’s terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation.”
Bellow injects gritty Chicago realism in the person of Kenneth’s great uncle Vilitzer, “a machine alderman, as crooked as they came.” Harold Vilitzer swindled his own family and made a fortune by selling the land where a skyscraper now sits. Family machinations are set in motion to try to settle old grievances. Nothing is resolved, but Trachtenberg’s personal circumstances change for the better while Uncle Benn’s take an unexpected turn. The story is long-winded and digressive, as Bellow often can be.
“The Theft,” on the other hand, is a compact and utterly convincing study of a successful woman who longs for a man she can’t have. Clara’s unfulfilled desire for him intensifies her wish for a close friendship with an Austrian au pair that she hires, a closeness that she resists out of a sense of propriety. When the Austrian girl appears to be implicated in the disappearance of a ring with sentimental as well as financial value, Clara feels deeply betrayed — moreso than the circumstances alone would warrant. When all is said and done, it is the au pair who has the clearest insight into Clara’s emotional life.
“The Bellarosa Connection” is based on historical fact. The Broadway producer Billy Rose, the “Bellarosa” of the title, is thought to have helped rescue Jews from the Nazis through Peter Bergson’s wartime emergency committee. The story imagines a man named Fonstein who was one of those rescued and who wants nothing more than to thank Billy Rose personally. For whatever reason — modesty, privacy, avoiding emotional entanglements — Rose makes a point of never meeting those he saved. When Fonstein’s formidable wife tries to blackmail Billy Rose into meeting with her husband, Rose begins to reveal his conflicting emotions.
As in much of Bellow’s fiction, “The Actual” is one if those stories where one thing leads to another, where old connections and new ones collide. The tale is told by Harry, a retired businessman whom the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky invites to join his “brain trust.” Adletsky’s interior decorator is Harry’s high-school sweetheart, Amy. Long-buried feelings and memories come to the surface, and it ends with a late attempt to complete something that was never finished.
Bellow’s final novel, “Ravelstein,” is a thinly veiled portrait of the author’s friend Allan Bloom, the classicist who became famous late in life for his popular book The Closing of the American Mind. As the novel begins, Ravelstein is enjoying his newfound wealth in Paris and makes it clear that he’d like Chick, the narrator, to write his life story. Ravelstein, like Victor Wulpy/Harold Rosenberg, is a great talker with strong ideas. He believes in great texts and has doubts about mass democracy. He is fascinated by power, and speaks often with his former students who now occupy posts in high places.
He is also dying of AIDS. Like Bellow himself, alter-ego Chick was uneasy around “inverts,” as gay men used to be called, yet the two are genuinely close friends. Perhaps that was possible because Ravelstein, like Chick, “couldn’t bear the fluttering of effeminate men.” In any event the two understand each other instinctively and know each other intimately. They gossip about their colleagues; Ravelstein even keeps tabs on Chick’s former wife and her dalliances.
As the end nears, Ravelstein’s friends come to his hospital room to say their farewells. The story might have stopped there, but Bellow adds 50 pages about events that take place six years later. Chick becomes deathly ill while vacationing with his wife on Saint Martin, and as he recovers he imagines one more conversation with Ravelstein. He still hasn’t written the biography he promised; perhaps now he will.
“Ravelstein” may not be entirely satisfying as fiction, but it’s a fitting tribute by Bellow to his departed friend. It also contains a line that could sum up Bellow’s own life: “I had a Jewish life to lead in the American language.”
Additional Books Featured in Review
- Reading List: Saul Bellow
- Philip Roth: Celebration of a Career by Alan Cooper
- Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age by Boris Fishman
- Mercy of a Rude Stream by Henry Roth