“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.