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.