This is the first comprehensive biography of Saul Bellow and the first to receive his co-operation over the complete, ten-year span of its writing. The author, James Atlas, whose biography of Delmore Schwartz appeared in 1977 and who is the general editor of the Penguin Lives Series, was given full access to Bellow’s letters and unpublished manuscripts and final permission to quote all the passages he wanted to use. He was free to interview anyone willing to talk to him. He did not, however, want his book to be called an ‘authorised biography’, and aside from approving the packet of quotations from letters shown him before publication, Bellow did not read the final manuscript.
He will have read the book by now and not, I suspect, with the pleasure that other recent events in his life have brought him. At 85, having survived a near fatal heart attack and food poisoning only a few years ago, he is contentedly settled in the rusticity of Vermont with his fifth wife, a woman 44 years younger than he is, who last December became the mother of the daughter he has hoped for all his life. (He has three sons by earlier marriages, the youngest of whom is now in his late thirties, and apparently all of them are on fairly congenial terms with their father.) Finally, Ravelstein, his 12th novel, published earlier this year, is generally thought to be stronger than any fiction he has written at least since Humboldt’s Gift in 1975.
Atlas duly accounts for these recent good fortunes, while his sense of the life is on the whole censorious, flat-minded and peremptory. Errors and confusions abound, as do misreadings of passages from Bellow’s correspondence, even while passages from his novels never receive the benefit of close interpretation or stylistic commentary. Atlas’s characterisations of Bellow are peculiarly static. From beginning to end he is framed in an unchanging posture, and defined by a very limited and limiting repertory of psychological labels and clichés. These are already in place in the opening chapters: he has ‘a suspicious nature’; he is ‘distrustful, distant, self-absorbed’; he is ‘a master of self-exculpation’. In two sentences in Chapter 5 his whole life is laid before us, though he has yet to reach his 30th year: ‘Keeping himself free from encumbrance’ (with a first wife and an infant son already in tow?) ‘was a strategy that was to govern Bellow’s life. Whether it was wives, children, publishers, lawyers, friends, or even ideas, he maintained his distance as a way of preserving his fragile sense of self.’ This soon to be familiar drumbeat of criticism, sweeping together people whose relationships to Bellow are radically different, is again evoked at the end of the book, no matter the complications accumulated in the interim. Atlas is unable to maintain a speculative, expectant, probing relationship to his subject. He never shows any inquiring interest in, say, the mixed motives and psychological complexities of Bellow’s various wives, each of them highly intelligent and accomplished.
When it comes to Bellow’s work, he announces rather than argues an opinion on the novels, provides a box score of the reviews, and focuses especially on instances where people in Bellow’s life served as models for some of his fictional characters. But he is unresponsive to the imaginative energies by which Bellow transforms these persons into the boisterous, absurd, comic or glamorous figures who find new and enhanced existence within the designs of a novel or story.
These deficiencies are not sporadic or isolated one from the other. They work in combination all the way through. Consider what is said, for example, about Bellow’s response to the death of his mother, in 1933, when he was 17 years old. In the second chapter this is described as a ‘lifelong mourning … a bondage doomed to play itself out in five marriages and a string of failed relationships’. But within the same paragraph it turns out that, instead, Bellow’s problem was ‘his failure to grieve’. His ‘mourning’, it is said, consisted of ‘beating his breast’ over this ‘failure’, allowing him the ‘masochistic pleasures’ of ‘remaining connected to his mother and to an Edenic childhood past in which his claims to a unique destiny in the world could thrive unchallenged’. Whack! whack! whack! if he mourned or if he didn’t.
Even assuming that these various fault lines in Bellow’s life can be traced back to his reactions to the death of his mother, it isn’t at all clear which of these reactions Atlas prefers or is alluding to at any given moment: ‘lifelong mourning’? ‘Failure to mourn’? Some unexplained combination of the two? When evidence is wanted to show that Bellow tried to blot out the reality of his mother’s death, it is drawn not from his life, however, but from little details in his fiction, read as if these were details in his life. It is portentously noted, for example, that in a few of his novels and stories the age of a boy when his mother dies is not exactly Bellow’s age. Not 17, mind you, but 16 or 15. ‘It is significant,’ Atlas writes, that in Herzog, the hero
is 16 – as if Bellow, who was 17 when his mother died, could draw only so close to the actual, unbearable fact. In his fiction – and sometimes in interviews – he altered his age by a year or two, suggesting that he had been 15 when she died. In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm and his father spar over the exact year of his mother’s death, bracketing the real year by bickering about whether it was 1932 or 1934. Sixty years after the fact, in ‘Something to Remember Me By’, the narrator finds himself unable to name the disease from which his mother died; the ‘hidden work’ is hidden in every sense.
What could be the meaning of this arch, ridiculously melodramatic conclusion? Bellow isn’t hiding anything at all. He is exercising every author’s right to treat the characters in his fiction as if they are in fact fictional, whatever the degree to which their fictional experiences may resemble experiences in the author’s life. Characters in fiction are primarily shaped to serve the expressive needs and imaginative designs of the work in which they appear. This shouldn’t need even to be said.
Atlas’s critical naivety and the consequent indiscretions and confusions visited on his readers are glaringly evident when he alleges that in Herzog, as in other works, Bellow ‘altered his age by a year or two’. In fact nothing was ‘altered’, and the word ‘his’ ought to refer not to Bellow but to Herzog, a fictional character whose age is entirely a matter of his creator’s choice. So, too, in his remarks about Seize the Day. ‘His mother’s death’ should be a reference to Tommy’s mother not to Bellow’s, so that the argument between father and son as to whether she died in 1932 or 1934 is immaterial to the biography. Their argument doesn’t serve to ‘bracket’ the so-called ‘real’ year, by which Atlas means 1933. His absurd nit-picking is intended only to further an already absurd contention, which is that in Bellow’s fiction he is distorting his own life. Of course he is. What novelist doesn’t?
Such critical malpractice can become insidious, as it does soon enough. In the next paragraph, Atlas discusses a scene in ‘Something to Remember Me By’, one of Bellow’s most affecting short stories. While Bellow does share with the character some similarities in family background, this hardly allows a supposition that Louie, in confessing to his son, is revealing the circumstances of Bellow’s supposed failure to mourn. Atlas writes:
‘Failed my mother!’ cries Louie … confessing to his young son the shabby sexual adventure that he engaged in as she lay on her deathbed: ‘That may mean, will mean, little or nothing to you, my only child, reading this document.’ To Bellow, it meant everything.
Again, the stylistic equivalent of an operatic curtain, coming down grandly on a fiasco. Used in a context as blurred and deviously motivated as this one, Atlas’s dramatically placed ‘everything’ can refer to just about anything or to nothing at all. The suggestion seems to be that, as his mother lay dying, Bellow himself may have been guilty of the misdemeanour Louie confesses to his son. Atlas forgets that a few paragraphs earlier he has assured us that ‘Bellow came home from his after-school jobs and sat by her bedside every afternoon … His brothers and his sister were off at work. Solomon, her favourite son, the one she called moi kresavitz – my beauty – kept a solitary vigil.’
Such contrivances and mismanagements of evidence result, I suspect, from Atlas’s pressing and, at the same time, craven hostility towards his subject. The development of such hostility over the long haul of abiography is not unfamiliar, but in Atlas’s case it proves uniquely self-damaging. Each time he returns to the subject of Bellow’s response to his mother’s death he finds in it yet another occasion for a recital of his failures as a husband or friend or brother or colleague. He quotes in the final chapter a remark Bellow once made to an interviewer. ‘Ruminating on his mother’s death, he says: “She didn’t leave me; I left her.”’ Instead of speculating on what Bellow might have meant by this – when, how and in what sense could he be said to have ‘left her’? – he once again seizes the chance to tighten the frame in which Bellow has been squirming since the beginning of the book: ‘His failure to mourn, in other words, amounted,’ he intones, ‘to a desertion of the dead. No one could ever leave Bellow; he would leave them first, obviating the possibility of abandonment.’
But the phrase ‘I left her’ could mean all sorts of things, including some vague regret that he hadn’t been as loving a son as he now wishes he had been. Most interestingly and most plausibly, it is an acknowledgment that very early on he felt distanced from his family, suspecting already that his destiny was to be markedly different from any of theirs. Creators and prophets have long since testified to such feelings: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ So says the young Jesus to his mother when she comes to the temple in search of him. That’s the thanks she gets for conceiving him ‘immaculately’, with a dove standing for the Holy Ghost while Joseph was busy with his carpentry. Joyce, a writer Bellow has read and taught all his life, allows Buck Mulligan in Ulysses to give a comic twist to Stephen Dedalus’s similar pretensions that he is of divine origins and divinely inspired:
I’m the queerest young fellow that you ever heard.
My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird.
With Joseph the joiner I cannot agree.
So here’s to disciples and Calvary.
Portrait of the Artist registers not only Stephen’s estrangements from a father whose paternity he can’t accept – Bellow’s relationship to his father was on some occasions close to physical violence – but his sadness and guilt at feelings of remoteness from his ill and soon to be dying mother. Bellow’s feelings would also find echoes in another writer he greatly admired, the D.H. Lawrence of Sons and Lovers, a book he sometimes taught. There, the young Lawrence figure, Paul Morel, long at odds with his father, also feels when his mother dies an irresistible relief from emotional smothering, even though he adored and had tended her. It is symptomatic of Atlas’s uptight, prejudicial feelings about Bellow, and particularly about the outsized dimensions of his novelistic ambitions, that it would never occur to him that ‘I left her’ might resonate within some such distinguished context.
Yet another example of Atlas’s parsimonious and condescending attitude to Bellow’s aspirations as a novelist involves a passage in a letter of his written most probably in 1944, though exact dates are hard to come by in this book. He would have been 29, with one novel, Dangling Man, to his credit. Diana Trilling, who was to become an enthusiastic reviewer of later novels, didn’t much like this first one, but it did impress Philip Rahv, an editor of Partisan Review and, though less so, a fellow editor, Dwight Macdonald. Macdonald took the trouble, while returning a story sent in by a writer not yet sure of his own direction, to caution him against a tendency to ‘excess elaboration’ and ‘centreless facility’.
Bellow’s reply isn’t at all what Atlas makes it out to be: ‘a testy defence of his method’. Nor is it an indication of ‘a disjunction that was to limit his achievement and bring him much personal misery’. The author of the letter is clearly a young writer who is both impressively tough-minded about his work and prepared to admit that he faces a ‘heartbreakingly difficult’ problem:
It is not because I write too easily that I sometimes fail. I would be more successful, perhaps, if I did write with more careless dash. But what I find heartbreakingly difficult in these times is fathoming the reader’s imagination. If he and I were both of a piece, it would not be so hard. But as it is I am ringed around with uncertainties and I often fail to pull myself together properly, banishing distraction and anxiety. And so I find myself perpetually asking: ‘How far shall I take this character? Have I made such and such a point clear? Will the actions of X be understood? Shall I destroy the subtlety by hammering it? Et cetera.
This doesn’t allow itself to be read in the way Atlas wants to read it: as an admission at this early stage of ‘how little faith he had in his literary powers’. Far from doubting those powers Bellow is concerned that if he should fully release them he might well lose even the relatively small audience he has so far managed to attract. His uncertainties have to do with the difficulty of ‘fathoming the reader’s imagination’, of determining whether readers are equal to the demands he is prepared but afraid to make of them.
He would soon enough take that risk, not with his next novel, The Victim, which was better received than his first one, but the big novel after that, a bestseller published to considerable critical acclaim, The Adventures of Augie March. Though Norman Podhoretz complained that it was marred by a ‘willed buoyancy’, it was extravagantly praised by more senior and noteworthy critics, including Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Leslie Fiedler. In the novel’s memorable first sentence, it is possible to hear an exhilaration and release missing from his two earlier books. This is Augie’s Whitmanesque introduction of himself, an introduction, too, of a new voice in Bellow’s writing: ‘I am an American, Chicago-born – Chicago that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent.’
There were to be like-minded successors to Augie, including the loud-mouthed hero of Henderson the Rain King (‘I want, I want,’ he repeats, far too many times), the self-destructive poet of Humboldt’s Gift, and most recently the luxurious, overweening and powerfully connected Ravelstein, the hero of Bellow’s latest novel, ‘doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways’. Clearly Bellow has dared to go ‘far’, perhaps too far with some of these characters, despite his own hesitancies about the results: ‘In Augie,’ as he would later admit, ‘I discovered rhetoric but I didn’t have it under control. There is something delirious about the writing. It overran its borders.’
Before any of these characters or this rhetoric emerged, Bellow had already predicted their coming or, more precisely, what he hoped to achieve by bringing them into existence. Applying (a third time) for a Guggenheim fellowship, in 1948, he made an announcement in his proposal that is crucial to any serious-minded assessment of his work: ‘I am interested in considering a condition of mind in which the idea of greatness is acceptable.’ He means not simply the ‘greatness’ of his heroes, but of his own ‘condition of mind’ in the act of creating them.
Atlas can’t wait to coarsen and patronise this statement, and to debase Bellow’s motives for making it: ‘There is something almost touchingly naive about Bellow’s sombre meditation on greatness,’ he writes. ‘It was as if he had to prove to himself that the material wealth accumulated by Croesus (could he have been thinking of his rich brothers?) wasn’t the only measure of achievement.’ But Bellow’s expression of his ambitions for the form of the novel as he hopes to shape it, taken along with his remarks in his letter to Dwight Macdonald about his desire to find a way to harness his powers, are important clues to the exalted nature of his literary ambitions.
Regrettably, not even in what seem to me the best of his novels – The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) – is there any achieved realisation of ‘the idea of greatness’ as a condition of mind. And in much of the work thereafter, including Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and The Dean’s December (1982), he manages only to compromise it by resorting to self-protective ironies directed at the garrulous intellectualising of his main characters, running to chapter-length ruminations. The fact that Bellow very often intends them to stand as evidence of the futility of mere mental work when faced with the intractability of contemporary life doesn’t make them any less tedious.
Nonetheless, the ambition as Bellow formulated it in 1948 has never been impossible for a writer as resourceful as he is, and in condescending to it, Atlas shows himself, yet again, incapable of taking seriously any amibitions as large as these about the art of the novel, much less Bellow’s right to have them. He prefers the security of his own reductive characterisations, not least because these are a licence for him to rehearse his litany of Bellow’s failings and frailties. A bit earlier, with respect to the letter to Macdonald, he finds in Bellow’s expressed uncertainties about the capacities and toleration of his reader, evidence not of the seriousness of his artistic concerns but rather of ‘his failure to empathise with others, be they wives or lovers, children or brothers, rivals or friends – the knowledge that he and they were not “of a piece”’. To this he now adds, while commenting on the statement to the Guggenheim Foundation, the gratuitous allegation that ‘Bellow was never entirely sure of himself when he ventured into the realm of ideas.’
Atlas himself occasionally ventures into the ‘realm of ideas’, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to know that he’s in it or how to find the safest way out. In his discussion of Herzog (1964), for example, he reports that some of Bellow’s friends, including fellow teachers on the Bard College campus, suspected a little wrinkle in the love triangle involving Bellow, his then wife Sondra, and Sondra’s lover Jack Ludwig, also a member of the Bard English Department. Mustn’t there be, it was suggested, some ‘homosexual component’ – Atlas probably wants to say ‘homosocial’ – in the relationship between the two men? To explain this sort of arrangement, he might relevantly have mentioned a few of the critics who’ve written most instructively about triangulation and homosociality, like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick or, before her, René Girard in Deceit, Desire and the Novel.
Instead, he brings into the argument a famous but altogether less pertinent essay, Leslie Fiedler’s ‘Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey’. Quite erroneously, he then asserts that according to Fiedler, Huck Finn and Nigger Jim ‘were homosexual lovers’. Unfortunately for Atlas, this isn’t what Fiedler says, or what anyone who has read his essay with care would suppose that he says or even insinuates. The essay, in which, by the way, triangulation plays no part, unless the Mississippi River constitutes the third party, repeatedly indicates that, whatever the depth of their feeling for each other, Jim and Huck are not ‘homosexual lovers’. Fiedler’s argument is that, in accordance with the American mythology of male bonding, not only is any sexual enactment between men and women marginalised if not excluded, but any sexual enactment between bonded males would contaminate the myth and shatter the bonding.
Similarly crude and heavy-handed is the discussion of the relationship in Bellow’s most recent novel between Ravelstein and Bellow himself, as its narrator. Bellow has acknowledged that Ravelstein is modelled closely on his intimate friend and colleague at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom. According to Atlas, Bellow is ‘unsparing about his friend’s self-destructive bent, his oblivious devotion to fine wine and rich food’. The fact is that as early as Augie March many of the characters Bellow most admires share a ‘self-destructive bent’, and beginning there, too, he is himself a celebrant of nonconformists who indulge freely in splurge and appetite. Bloom is HIV positive, and while this prompts Bellow to write that he is ‘doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways’, such phrasing can hardly be called ‘unsparing’ (i.e. without mercy). Throughout the book Bellow delights in his friend’s extravagant tastes in clothing (he even joins in his selection of an exorbitantly priced jacket in Paris), in his unhesitating generosity to his lover, and his delight in expensive restaurants and hotels. Bellow himself likes to stay in the grand hotels of Paris and London, and it’s most unlikely that, except as a joke, he could have made the geographically impossible demand, alleged by Atlas, that he be given a room at the London Ritz with a view of the Thames.
Every once in a while Atlas seems to be gearing up for a concentrated inquiry into some peculiarity in Bellow’s behaviour, such as his repeated, bizarre and finally humiliating efforts to affront Lionel Trilling. And here, too, he fumbles and foreshortens. Bellow’s distaste is to be explained, so we’re told, by Trilling’s ‘patina of civility’, a haughtiness and snobbery of manner that Bellow seems to have associated with Ivy League universities like Columbia, and by the elaborate equivocations of his writing. Other New York intellectuals gathered around Partisan Review were exasperated by Trilling’s personal and literary style, including Rahv and Bellow’s close friend Delmore Schwartz, whose critical dissection in PR of Trilling’s characteristic intellectual posture was entitled ‘The Duchess’s Red Shoes’, an allusion to the Duchesse de Guermantes who, on hearing that Swann is dying, turns her attention to the choice of shoes she is to wear that evening.
The intensity of Bellow’s antagonism is unique to him, however, and its persistence and direct aggressiveness is hard to fathom. He was otherwise rather cautious, especially during the 1940s and early 1950s, about antagonising anyone with such literary prestige and power. Trilling, who seldom commented on contemporary fiction, had in fact been uniquely generous and forthcoming in his praise for Augie March, not only in a letter to Bellow’s editor but, afterwards, in his encomium to the novel in the Griffin, a readers’ subscription newsletter. Despite this, Bellow insisted on believing that Trilling (as he complained to William Phillips) had been conspiring against him and the book, and was responsible even for arranging the negative review of Augie March by Norman Podhoretz, his former student, in Commentary.
Bellow was still on the case some twenty years later, misconstruing in order to attack ‘Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious’, an essay of Trilling’s that appeared in Commentary in 1971 and was later to be part of his last book, Sincerity and Authenticity. The essay became the focus of Bellow’s attack on Trilling in ‘Literature in the Age of Technology’, a lecture delivered in 1972 at the Smithsonian Institution and published the following year. Trilling was saying in the essay what he had in fact been saying for most of his life: that fiction in the modern world could no longer command the prestige or authority it had once enjoyed. Somehow Bellow had persuaded himself that Trilling was quietly expressing satisfaction with this development, when instead he was once again expressing his deep misgivings. For good measure he then suggested that, by alluding to Walter Benjamin, Trilling had descended to pretentiousness and name-dropping. It’s a petulant and childish swipe at both men, phrased in what seems meant to illustrate how real guys put high-flown intellectuals in their place: ‘Here one cries out, “Wait! Who is this Benjamin! Why does it matter what he said?” But intellectuals do refer to one another to strengthen their arguments.’
When in 1974 Bellow got round to rereading Trilling’s essay in the context of Sincerity and Authenticity, he wrote a contrite letter to its author: ‘I feel guilty – no that won’t do – I feel remorseful about it.’ Trilling, already suffering from symptoms of the illness that would take his life the following year, was scarcely in a mood to comfort Bellow for the offence he had with such ingenuity contrived to give. He refused to accept the apology, and with a superiority of tone that must have reignited Bellow’s fury. The attack, Trilling wrote, revealed ‘a conscious and deliberate intention not to comprehend or present truthfully what I have said’. In ‘your strange transaction with my ideas, you have managed to violate the disposition of my mind’.
Presented with such material, the reader waits in vain for some sort of inquiry into its possible significance. What might such behaviour reveal, for example, about the seeming inconsistency, over the years, between Bellow’s expressions of high cultural conservatism – a position not inconsistent with Trilling’s – and his frequently expressed contempt for American universities, even while teaching in them most of his adult life? The contempt is apparent in his essay ‘The University as Villain’, and by implication in the characterisation of academics throughout his fiction, beginning with Seize the Day and, more extensively, in Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift. And can it be said that Bellow’s feelings about Trilling are of a piece with some more particular animus towards Jewish literary academics, eventually extending to admirers like Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler? And why is this animus particularly pronounced when its targets are Jewish literary academics who teach in Ivy League universities like Columbia and Harvard?
It is perhaps some measure of Bellow’s feelings in this matter that in reporting his attacks on me for writing a largely negative review of Herzog in a 1965 issue of Partisan Review, Atlas, presumably at Bellow’s prompting, identifies me as Jewish, when I am not, and as Ivy League and at Harvard, when, by the time I wrote the review, I hadn’t been at Harvard for three years. Alleged to be Jewish, etc, etc, I was, Atlas reports, consigned by Bellow to the same category as Harry Levin: ‘a Harvard kike’.
Bellow himself had reason to know that none of these characterisations was accurate; Atlas should have checked them out. I first met Bellow in 1960 at Bard College, where I was visiting my friends and his, Jack Ludwig and his wife Leah. He had returned to the campus for a short stay and we all spent part of a day together. Over the next few years I met Bellow and Ludwig, by then his best buddy, on a couple of occasions in New York and Boston. And after I had moved to Rutgers, Bellow was a guest at a dinner on Martha’s Vineyard given by Lillian Hellman, with whom I was staying that weekend. (She was helping him with his play The Last Analysis. It was, she said, ‘a novel of a play’, and was never successfully produced.) In 1964, he invited me to a publication party for Herzog, where we had a brief but pleasant exchange, though not about the book, which I hadn’t yet read. He asked, among other things, how I was getting on at Partisan Review (where I had become an editor) with William Phillips and Rahv.
After my review appeared, however, he seems automatically to have assumed that I was Jewish, even with a name like Poirier, and that I must also be Ivy League and still at Harvard. Having, as an academic critic, joined his list of enemies, mustn’t I belong to the same category as the perfidious Trilling and Levin, even though I was considerably younger than either of them and scarcely as well known? On the other hand, there was no discernible reason he should be carrying on as he did about either of them. Trilling had done nothing directly to offend him and Levin, as far as I can discover, had never showed much interest of any kind in his work.
There is, however, one thing that Trilling and Levin did have in common with respect to Bellow. His intense hostility, his evident competitiveness and desire to degrade the two of them, has a probable source, I’d guess, in the fact that each had taken a risk which he had decided not to take. Both had succeeded brilliantly in getting something he had once seemed to want. At some point in 1937, the year Bellow received his undergraduate degree from Northwestern, he had been persuaded by the chairman of its English Department that if he wanted to pursue his studies, he had better do so in anthropology. Most certainly not, he warned, in English literature. Jews had better not apply in that field. ‘I wouldn’t recommend that you study English. You weren’t born to it,’ Bellow remembered him saying.
It was also in the late 1930s that Trilling, having already completed his graduate studies in English at Columbia, was granted tenure in its English Department, despite the Department’s opposition. The appointment was made thanks only to the direct intervention, which Atlas never mentions, of the university president Nicholas Murray Butler, who had read admiring reviews in England of Trilling’s first book, on Matthew Arnold. At that same time, Harry Levin, somewhat younger than Trilling, was teaching in the Harvard English Department, where he had been a famously brilliant student and where he was clearly destined for tenure. In 1940 Bellow’s friend Delmore Schwartz, himself a graduate of Harvard, was invited to teach for a year, and then for several subsequent years, in its English Department. Housed with his wife next door to Harry and Elena Levin, Schwartz soon developed an intense dislike of Harry. Might he have communicated this to Bellow? Atlas would know, but never bothers to say.
In sum, two other Jews had succeeded brilliantly in achieving what he’d had a mind to do, had he dared take the risk. And it would have been a risk. To a nature as competitive as his, this constituted a provocation, a challenge to his will to triumph, especially over anyone with whom he might closely associate himself, including his brothers, his wives and children. That he had gone on to succeed as a novelist seems to have made little difference. Two such Jewish literary academics were not only in the sort of position denied him as a Jew, even though they, too, were Jewish, but also authorised to decide whether or not he had succeeded in what he’d ended up doing.
It is consistent with Bellow’s obsessiveness, however, that he manages to discover a price that Trilling and Levin have paid for their Ivy League academic success. What has he managed to keep that they in the process have lost? They have lost precisely what he celebrates in his novels and parades, when he chooses, in his conversation, letters and polemics. In their cultivation of Ivy League manners, in the refinements of their dress, their manners, their speech and prose style, Trilling and Levin have lost their Jewishness. As Gore Vidal once put it, and with a wit that protects him from the worst of Bellow’s self-torture: it isn’t enough to succeed, others must fail. Especially when the others are friends, relatives, anyone with whom there are reasons to feel closely identified.
Rivals and competitors are an incentive for that unrelenting, at times forced energy that pushes its way into his writing. The fiction offers only infrequent occasions of achieved calm, of meditative quiet or contentment. Novels like Henderson the Rain King, Humboldt’s Gift, Herzog and Augie March all become at times unrelentingly hectic. It wasn’t until Ravelstein that he seemed at last to be more or less at peace with himself. Even the award in 1974 of the Nobel Prize didn’t appease him for long. Just a few years after that, his colleague and formerly close friend at the University of Chicago, the sociologist Edward Shils, sent a shrewd note of caution to Allan Bloom: ‘Better watch out for Saul today; he’s in a bad mood. The Nobel Prize is being announced, and you can’t win twice.’
Most of the appeasements he does manage to achieve are self-bestowed. They usually occur when to his own satisfaction he succeeds in re-creating in his fiction persons who in life have offended or injured or rivalled him: members of his immediate family, friends as loyal as Delmore Schwartz or as disloyal as Jack Ludwig, or his former wives. Having in life served themselves at his expense, at least in his version of things, such persons can now be transformed so as to serve a much higher purpose: Bellow’s own artistic and, as a crucial part of this, his most deeply rooted emotional needs. It is as if, having imposed the terms on which any one of them is to be sacrificed to his reinvention, Bellow can then forgive them for having been as once they were. He can then – and at times, does – readmit them into his life, as happened with his brothers and at least three of his former wives.
Herzog is the best example of the way this process works to the apparent gratification of the principal parties involved. In this case they include Bellow himself, slightly caricatured in the figure of Moses Herzog, and Jack Ludwig, magnificently caricatured in the comic, brilliant, treacherous and flamboyant Valentine Gersbach, a truly marvellous Falstaffian creation. Far from being hurt or shamed or angry, Ludwig happily went about for a time announcing to his students: ‘I am Valentine Gersbach.’ And then, as if to fulfil that role in all its permutations, he went on in 1964 to write a rave review of the novel in Holiday. It was, he said, comparable in scale to Ulysses and, as if in defence of Bellow’s imaginative powers, he then declared that the novel was not in fact autobiographical: ‘as if an artist of Bellow’s enormous gifts were simply playing at second-guessing reality, settling scores and justifying the ways not only of Moses to Saul, but of Saul to Moses’.
For the occasion, Ludwig has indeed become Valentine Gersbach, so that even as he surrenders his identity to Bellow’s fictional transformations, he seizes an opportunity to outwit and outflank him. Everybody can be said to have won something, though, the game is entirely of Bellow’s creation. It’s possible even to surmise, as some close observers did, that Bellow had all along known about the affair between his wife Sondra and Ludwig, that he watched it develop until it reached the point where his magic could begin to work on it.
In a letter to Alfred Kazin, with whom he was still friendly, Bellow expresses delight in Ludwig’s review. It is, he writes,
a great virtuoso performance on the high wire of self-justification, ingenious, shrewd, supersubtle, shamanistic, Rasputin-like. I’m really rather proud of the man. His cast-iron effrontery is admirable, somehow. If I ever commission a private Mt Rushmore I’ll stipulate that his head be given plenty of space.
Having so dauntlessly fulfilled the role in which Bellow has cast him, Ludwig has earned a kind of immortality. But even that is in Bellow’s power to ‘stipulate’. It is as if the tumultuous antagonisms and desires which in life have transformed many of those closest to him into enemies, real or supposed, are also the source of a still more powerful transformative power that in his fiction makes some of these same people compliant to his extraordinarily devious needs and purposes. It is a monstrous enterprise but an altogether fascinating one that to some extent belongs to the nature of fiction itself.