Saul Bel­low’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir

Greg Bel­low
  • Review
By – April 18, 2013

The old­est son of Saul Bel­low, Greg Bel­low knew and loved the man who was his father, on whose lap he sat as a three-year-old, pok­ing at type­writer keys. After the divorce of his par­ents, when Greg was about ten, Greg kept the pub­lic Saul Bel­low, even­tu­al­ly a Nobel Prize-win­ning author and Amer­i­can lit­er­ary force, at a dis­tance, pre­serv­ing for him­self the pri­vate rela­tion­ship between father and son and the lov­ing and free­wheel­ing fam­i­ly he grew up in.

Saul’s death brought Greg face to face with the Saul Bel­low he had so assid­u­ous­ly avoid­ed. At the funer­al no fam­i­ly mem­bers spoke, but Greg felt sur­round­ed by lit­er­ary sons, writ­ers who recalled Saul’s per­son­al con­nec­tions to them and his influ­ence on them and their careers. Feel­ing some­what angered by the lit­er­ary sons who claimed what he con­sid­ered his birthright, Greg began to rethink his deci­sion to main­tain the sep­a­ra­tion between his father’s pub­lic and per­son­al life. Saul had always been an intense­ly pri­vate man, and Greg had felt oblig­at­ed to pro­tect that pri­va­cy, but the response to his father’s death prompt­ed him to reveal the man who raised him and shaped his val­ues, the young Saul,” rebel­lious, soft heart­ed and affec­tion­ate, tol­er­ant and light­heart­ed. Over the years the old Saul,” author­i­tar­i­an, crusty, and argu­men­ta­tive, hard­ened his views and nar­rowed his think­ing. This had led to ten­sion and dis­tance between Greg and him, but now Greg want­ed his younger step­broth­ers — sons of two of Saul’s lat­er mar­riages — and his own chil­dren to know the young Saul,” the man who would dis­ap­pear if Greg did not break his silence.

After his father’s death Greg, a psy­chother­a­pist, reread Saul’s nov­els as a form of shi­va and, as a pro­fes­sion­al inter­preter of per­son­al sto­ries, found in them inci­dents, char­ac­ters, and events that revealed the man Saul kept so pri­vate. Through­out the mem­oir Greg cites par­al­lels between Saul’s life and his nov­els — his quick and some­times harsh judg­ments, his need for solic­i­tous and com­fort­ing women, his reliance on advice from more world­ly and knowl­edge­able peo­ple, his jeal­ousies, anx­i­eties, angers, hurts, his chang­ing polit­i­cal and social atti­tudes. These are jux­ta­posed on the rela­tion between father and son. A sep­a­ra­tion grew between the emerg­ing old Saul,” the Nobelist and high­ly suc­cess­ful writer, and Greg, who held firm to his lib­er­al views and inde­pen­dence from Saul. 

Affec­tion­ate but can­did and at times bru­tal­ly painful and hon­est, Saul Bellow’s Heart reveals much about Saul and his old­est son. In writ­ing this mem­oir Greg forges a final link between them, the act of writ­ing and con­nect­ing again to a father whom he now knows more ful­ly if less pri­vate­ly. For read­ers inter­est­ed in both Saul Bel­low and the com­plex­i­ties of father-son rela­tion­ships, this mem­oir is reveal­ing and reward­ing. Appen­dix, pho­tographs (not seen by reviewer).

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions