Saul Bellow at 100

Review: Zachary Leader, ‘The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964’

Saul Bellow / Gary Locke

In a draft of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), Moses Herzog, a failed academic in the throws of a personal crisis following the breakdown of his second marriage, says that according to "the latest from Paris and London, there is no person … ‘I’ is a grammatical expression." For Herzog, however, the "human soul" is a mystery, an "amphibian," which is cause for intellectual humility. "It lives in more elements," he tells himself, "than I will ever know."

The first remark does not appear in the final version of the novel, but the tension between ideas and the nitty-gritty, paradoxical details of life is present throughout. Towards the end of the novel, Herzog, who had planned to kill his ex-wife and her lover, Valentine Gersbach (the Jack Ludwig character), changes his mind after he sees Valentine giving his (Herzog’s) daughter a bath:

To shoot him!—an absurd thought. As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theater, into something ludicrous.

To follow through with the murders in face of such actuality would make Herzog "a complete fool."

This year marks the centenary of Bellow’s birth. Zachary Leader’s authorized biography of Saul Bellow, which covers the novelist’s first 49 years (a second volume is on the way), shows us that his subject’s commitment to "particulars … however complicating," as Leader puts it, didn’t always save him from acting foolishly. By 46, he was on his third marriage. He broke with friends who criticized his novels (or failed to praise them sufficiently), and he could be self absorbed in the extreme and paranoid. He was a loving but flawed father, a good but fickle friend.

Leader does not ignore these failings, but he does not dwell on them either. His interest is in Bellow’s mind and art and how a Canadian-born son of Russian emigrants became a freedom-loving American writer who went on to win the Nobel Prize and almost every major literary prize in America.

For Leader, Bellow’s high view of freedom and America (the United States is regularly presented as superior to Europe in his fiction) starts with his father. Though an illegal Russian resident, Abraham Belo was a successful Jewish produce broker in St. Petersburg until he was arrested in 1913 for not having the proper papers (and perhaps also for forging and selling them). With the help of family or friends, however, he escaped from prison and took his family to Canada, where his many business ventures, including a brief stint bootlegging, failed miserably. It wasn’t until Abraham moved his family to America that he found success as the owner of a coal company in Chicago, thanks in no small part to the business acumen of his two oldest sons, Maury and Samuel.

While Bellow’s mother longed to return to St. Petersburg (she never learned English and died when Bellow was 17), the rest of the family loved America. It granted them a freedom they had did not experience elsewhere and this rubbed off on Bellow, even if his first enthusiasm was for Trotskyism. According to Leader, Bellow was attracted to Trotsky because of his Russian roots, Trotsky’s relative nuance (at least compared to Stalinism), and the hope that the overthrow of Russian czarism would offer Russian Jews "some kind of freedom," as Bellow’s friend Alfred Kazin put it—a hope that Bellow would come to see as misplaced.

Bellow attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern and enrolled in the graduate program in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1937, but left after completing only one course. He married Anita Goshkin without telling either of their parents on December 31, 1937, and devoted himself to writing while Anita worked at the Chicago Relief Administration.

After this initial period of only writing, Bellow would work off and on over the years, teaching in Chicago, Minneapolis, Princeton, New York, and elsewhere. He took these positions in part to provide for his family (as the divorces and alimony payments added up, he was in regular need of cash), but also because he needed the variety and society that came with teaching.

He worked hard. His family had made it in gritty Chicago, and Leader shows that Bellow took a similarly hard-nosed approach to writing. During a stay in Puerto Rico, he once quipped to Susan Glassman (who would become his third wife) that he was the only person "in all the island … steadily at work." It was Bellow’s regular practice, when not teaching, to write the whole morning and edit or write in the afternoon. He hardly ever took a day off.

Bellow’s first two novels, The Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), were characterized by a restrained diction and pacing that he would later drop. Bellow would also come to reject the pessimism of these early works. Of Dangling Man, Bellow remarked in 1963, "I can’t read a page of it without feeling embarrassed … the ideas in it are the ideas of a very young man."

Things changed with The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Bellow was in Paris in 1949 with 700 manuscript pages of what was to be his third novel. His visit confirmed his belief that war and nihilism had ruined Europe. He was depressed and felt shackled to a novel and a style that did not move him. His marriage was also on the rocks, which may have added to his sense of imprisonment, justifiably or not. One day, however, as he was walking to his study, he saw a group of municipal workers cleaning the streets. In an interview with Philip Roth, he said the image was a revelation.

I remember saying to myself, "Well, why not take a short break and have at least as much freedom of movement as this running water." My first thought was that I must get rid of the hospital novel—it was poisoning my life. And next I recognized that this was not what being a novelist was supposed to have meant. This bitterness of mine was intolerable, it was disgraceful, a symptom of slavery.

Suddenly the idea of writing a novel based on the life of a childhood friend came to Bellow and he immediately began work on Augie March, which celebrates both freedom and the unrefined power of American culture in Bellow’s quick, dazzling style. The novel won the National Book Award in 1954 and sold well, though nowhere near the 100,000 plus copies of Herzog, which also won a National Book Award and finally made Bellow a wealthy man.

Leader chalks up Bellow’s drive to acquire both "fame and fortune" (which is the subtitle of the biography) not only to his father’s many failures but to the anti-Semitism his family experienced in Russia. In a 1948 letter to a friend announcing he had just won a Guggenheim Fellowship, Bellow writes: "Somehow, under the deep layers, the old irremovable feeling lurks that I am a born slightee."

Yet, rather than indulge his sense of victimhood, he set himself the goal of transforming his life—and the life of this family—into art. He would come to define genius somewhat idiosyncratically as "the recovery of the powers of childhood by an act of the creative will." And despite his early interest in structuralist anthropology, he would later reject the "treacherous doctrine" of moral relativism—the idea, as he puts it, that "what was right among the African Masai was wrong with the Eskimos."

No doubt, accusations of sexism and racism that Bellow encountered later in life will be treated in Leader’s second volume, but whatever his other faults, Bellow’s commitment to the "inconvenient" particulars of life and unashamed belief in individual genius are all the more admirable in light of the "safer" and ultimately less interesting ideas gaining in popularity at the time.

Stylistically, Leader’s biography can be clunky. His love of appositives nearly doubles every sentence, and his interest in Bellow’s colleagues and friends can occasionally distract. Still Leader is a more judicious and insightful guide than James Atlas. He has an eye for what makes Bellow worth reading, which makes his biography worth reading, too.