Non­fic­tion

The Life of Saul Bel­low: Love and Strife, 1965 – 2005

  • Review
By – March 26, 2019

The ide­al biog­ra­ph­er would be a fine arti­san.” So remarked Saul Bel­low in a 1994 inter­view, when asked how he would want his life sto­ry as America’s fore­most liv­ing nov­el­ist to be tran­scribed and assessed. He added a cau­tion­ary note: I think that liv­ing biogra­phies are a mistake.”

Thanks to Zachary Leader’s superb, and sure­ly defin­i­tive two-vol­ume The Life of Saul Bel­low—which in total con­sists of 1500 pages of rich­ly detailed bio­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive, shrewd lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, and author­i­ta­tive cul­tur­al analy­sis of Bellow’s long career in the twen­ti­eth and ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­turies — we learn that Bel­low was speak­ing from char­ac­ter­is­tic per­son­al anx­i­ety. Near­ly eighty years old, he was dread­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of James Atlas’s Bel­low: A Biog­ra­phy (2000); Bel­low ulti­mate­ly deemed Atlas’s biog­ra­phy an act of betrayal.

Leader relates that Atlas lat­er sensed that his fraught rela­tion to his lit­er­ary hero (includ­ing pro­jec­tions of Bel­low as a sur­ro­gate father fig­ure) ulti­mate­ly had a deform­ing effect.” Some­how know­ing him,” Atlas came to real­ize in Leader’s view, was prov­ing a hin­drance to under­stand­ing him.”

No such psy­chodra­mas hin­der Leader from get­ting to the core of his com­plex sub­ject. Indeed, Leader’s great advan­tage in con­jur­ing the fig­ure of Bel­low is that he did not know Bel­low per­son­al­ly (except for a brief encounter while Leader was a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Har­vard in the ear­ly 1970s). In this respect, Leader is Bellow’s ide­al biog­ra­ph­er,” a fine arti­san,” art­ful­ly inter­weav­ing mate­ri­als from the Bel­low archives (let­ters, mem­oirs, fic­tion man­u­scripts recent­ly made avail­able at the Regen­stein Library at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go); incor­po­rat­ing inter­views with scores of Bellow’s friends, fam­i­ly, and ex-girl­friends; draw­ing on jour­nals kept by Bellow’s fifth wife, Janis Freed­man; recount­ing Bellow’s final years teach­ing at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty; and his strug­gle to keep writ­ing in his and Janis’s beloved West Brat­tle­boro home, which Bel­low called the good place.”

Leader’s com­pre­hen­sive knowl­edge of Bellow’s life is dis­played on every page: Bellow’s charis­ma and infi­deli­ty (he was mar­ried five times and had numer­ous affairs; read­ing fresh­ly writ­ten man­u­script pages aloud in bed was a pre­ferred mode of seduc­tion); his open­ness to the world; his attach­ment to what he called his sig­nif­i­cant dead;” above all, the claims of mem­o­ry, espe­cial­ly Jew­ish mem­o­ry. Bel­low was noto­ri­ous­ly prick­ly and could be spite­ful; his rela­tion­ship to his fam­i­ly was some­times uneasy. Bellow’s youngest son, Daniel, reports that his father could make you feel so bad, so small, so dis­gust­ing. He didn’t need to hit you, he could just look at you.” Leader also explores Bellow’s shift­ing polit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties and alle­giances — from rad­i­cal Trot­skyite in youth to con­ser­v­a­tive in the wake of the coun­ter­cul­tur­al 1960s — and sub­se­quent aca­d­e­m­ic debates around mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, as well as atten­dant shifts in Bellow’s lit­er­ary reputation.

In the end, per­haps one of Leader’s most com­pelling insights is the shap­ing effect on Bel­low of a pro­found­ly Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty. In the late 1950s, Bel­low cham­pi­oned a young Philip Roth’s satir­i­cal sto­ries of a new­ly sub­ur­ban Jew­ish land­scape filled with a sense of long­ing for a vague­ly remem­bered Jew­ish past. Half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, Roth under­stood that Bellow’s career offered an entire­ly new way to be a Jew­ish writer.” A high­ly mov­ing sec­tion of Love and Strife recounts how an aging Bel­low recon­nect­ed with Philip Roth, engag­ing in a lit­er­ary dia­logue (pub­lished in The New York­er) that revis­it­ed Bellow’s key nov­els. Bel­low end­ed up find­ing a way as a writer into being a Jew.”

Whether Bel­low will again be assigned in col­lege class­rooms or read by the gen­er­al pub­lic remains uncer­tain. But he con­tin­ues to loom, in Leader’s vivid recre­ation, as the key Jew­ish writer of our time, and an inspi­ra­tion for many con­tem­po­rary authors, espe­cial­ly a younger gen­er­a­tion of British admir­ers and guardians like Mar­tin Amis, Ian McE­wan, and Adam Thirl­well. We hear in Bellow’s com­ic, street­wise voice an ener­gy and vital­i­ty, an invi­ta­tion to recon­sid­er — indeed reimag­ine — the world that should not be accept­ed as giv­en. Like­wise, Leader chal­lenges us to recon­sid­er Bellow’s impor­tance for our own time.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions