Non­fic­tion

The Life of Saul Bel­low: To Fame and For­tune, 1915 – 1964

  • Review
By – April 21, 2015

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 [263] 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,” [414], 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.”

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