On his deathbed, Saul Bellow asked a question of himself that he might have asked at the time of his first novel and his first marriage: ‘Was I a man or a jerk?’ You could say it’s a good question for anyone to ask, especially someone who wrote 18 books and had five wives. Next to Norman Mailer, who did equally well on the spouse-mongering front, Bellow was a worker of slow, monkish application, always tied, seldom happily, to a university department, and agonising over a book. John Updike, who had a modest two wives and wrote 63 books, was, in a way, worldlier and more comfortable, finding nests at the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books that he never left. These writers are dead now, and the only thing that can be said with certainty is that, of the three, Bellow got the best biographer. This first volume by Zachary Leader might be the most intelligent, fair-minded and most carefully furnished Life of a contemporary novelist I have read. I’m not sure Bellow would agree, and that’s one of its strengths: it challenges both the official and the fictional versions, it upends the one-sidedness of Bellow’s furious and self-justifying letters, and offers an account that is never knowingly uncomplicated, sentimental or prejudiced, and never dull when it comes to the business of examining the writer’s inner world.
Bellow’s community was his subject and his subject was his voice. It was all in the particulars: where they came from and how; what they said and how they said it. He was trying to give birth to a new freedom of expression and a new kind of American. The hell with people’s complaints, you might say, and that’s what Bellow and his admirers do say. ‘The number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands,’ James Wood wrote, ‘yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.’ Leader quotes this early in the book and goes on to split the moral difference. ‘Though opinions will differ about the morality of this calculation,’ he writes, ‘that Bellow accepted it is something worth knowing about him, as a man and as an artist.’ It is also worth knowing – and Leader agrees – that Bellow was obstinate and insecure to a degree that is extreme, even in a novelist. He persistently saw himself as operating on a wholly different level from everybody else. He could be a jerk about ordinary things, as if the extraordinary things he was doing at his typewriter would always settle the score. He absolutely refused the notion that facts could belong to people. He was in charge of whatever facts he chose to be interested in, and his genius, which can’t be doubted, outstripped anyone’s claim to possess their own story. Here he is writing to his oldest friend, David Peltz, who is thinly fictionalised as Woody Selbst in the story ‘A Silver Dish’ and as George Swiebel in Humboldt’s Gift. ‘What matters,’ Bellow wrote to Peltz when he complained of being used,
is that good things get written … We’ve known each other 45 years and told each other thousands and thousands of anecdotes. And now, on two bars suggested by one of your anecdotes, I blew a riff … What harm is there in that? Your facts are unharmed by my version … Your facts, three or four of them, got me off the ground. You can’t grudge me that and still be Dave Peltz. Now David, the nice old man who wants his collection of memory-toys to play with in old age is not you … The name of the game is Give All.
Bellow’s friends had a lot of ‘facts’ to give – so did his own life – and we quickly find ourselves embroiled in a community of people who all want to be something else, or somebody else, which is just a way of saying they want to be American. For the first four decades of his life, Bellow was considered by his family to be a straight failure. They didn’t care for his books and they didn’t care for themselves in them. His elder brother, Maury (the basis for Simon in The Adventures of Augie March, Julius in Humboldt’s Gift, Shura in Herzog, and at least two other characters), was a liberty-taking, criminally minded businessman who loved his bookish brother but thought him a waste of space, not a success in the way Americans could be. Their father was born in a small town on the border between Belarus and Latvia. He was intense – ‘whirling with impatience’, according to Bellow, ‘furious’, ‘passionate’. He moved to St Petersburg with forged papers and a new wife, Lescha Gordin, in 1905, and from there went to Canada, then Chicago. In North America, Abraham Bellow was variously a dealer in wood and a bootlegger. He had four children. By the time they reached Chicago, Maury felt the urgent need to escape from the family – into American selfhood, and away from any old-world orthodoxy. ‘Being older,’ Saul said of him, ‘he had a more urgent sense of the need to Americanise himself, to repudiate the family.’ Maury was clearly a boor and a show-off, constantly wheeling and dealing; a ruthless man, hard on other people, he had no interest in playing the little Jew. ‘He had no need of us,’ Bellow wrote. ‘He has no past, no history … he probably has some money – he thought of little else all his life.’
Leader shows us how Bellow made sense of Maury in fiction. ‘I loved my stout and now elderly brother,’ Charlie Citrine declares in Humboldt’s Gift. ‘Perhaps he loved me too. In principle he was not in favour of strong family bonds. Possibly he saw brotherly love as an opening for exploitation … he wished to be a man entirely of today.’ It was important for Maury to be in the money and he made a fortune more than once. He played the anti-intellectual (while secretly reading books), and when his brother won the Nobel Prize he felt they had honoured the wrong member of the family. In the fiction Maury gets his due – Bellow had a tenderness for the self-made – but is shown as monstrous, too. Simon, in Augie March, has rages and charges at people, and Maury was similar, collecting women and thinking nothing of abusing them and throwing a cheque in their direction at the end. Bellow made his brother an archetype, the sort of man who glories in his freedom to shout abuse at passers-by from the window of a moving car. Bellow had a genius for resurrecting the Ubermensch in the average Moishe, and Maury, the fat, ‘successful’ brother who moved to Miami, as if promoted by the 20th century, was a goldmine for Bellow as a novelist and a constant critic in life.
Bellow’s mother died when he was 17. (Maury, naturally, was her favourite.) In her place comes the ‘Bellow woman’, often a full, bright, large-eyed person with a propensity to love the novelist and argue back. Leader is painstaking in showing the stew of politics and friendship and creativity that surrounded the young Bellow, and because the friends were bookish and often writers – Isaac Rosenfeld, Harold Kaplan, Oscar Tarcov, then Harold Rosenberg, David Bazelon, Herb McClosky, and then the entire New York intellectual clique, Kazin, Howe, Trilling – Leader is able to pick through their letters and memoirs to establish Bellow on the way up as a firebrand with a sense of destiny. But there was always tension. ‘Bellow’s relations with these friends were often fractious,’ Leader writes:
The effort required to overcome his family’s disapproval and incomprehension, to get into print and establish his identity as a writer, made him combative (‘he had his dukes up all the time,’ in Harold Kaplan’s words), resentful of slights, real or imagined. Nowhere is this touchiness clearer than in his correspondence with Tarcov, the mildest of his close friends. Tarcov was a junior when Bellow returned to Chicago from Madison in December 1937. Like Bellow, he was determined to be a writer. After taking his degree in the summer of 1939, he worked briefly as a bartender in a rough area west of Hyde Park, then moved for several months to New York (where all true writers lived) … ‘It was complicated,’ Nathan [Tarcov] explains, of the movements of his father, Bellow and Rosenfeld in the late 1930s and early 1940s: ‘Oscar, Isaac and Saul went to New York at different times. It was almost like they took turns … There was a sense that [New York] was the centre of the world. There was the fear that the others would go to New York and you would be left behind in Chicago.’
Bellow had a dark talent for making relationships disagreeable. He disported himself with friends the way one might with enemies, and often, in these years, he appears riddled with enmity, paranoid, full of doubts about loyalty and fears of rivalry. He wanted, at some level, to experience life exclusively and he was no sooner in the Socialist Workers Party than he was out of it, as many were after the Hitler-Stalin Pact. But we see in this first volume, during the low dishonest decade, the beginning of an aversion in him to any kind of group thinking, including the sort on which political parties depend. This can be a strength in a novelist, though one feels that Bellow’s views were always more likely to have been influenced by Partisan Review than by Trotsky. This was Bellow’s Kafkan phase as a novelist, but also one where he describes himself as wishing to reach for the ‘Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure,’ he admitted, but restrictive, ‘because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as a son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately.’
It is one of the pleasures of this biography that we look on open-eyed as Bellow finds his voice. When he gets there, it is like the slow opening of a valve, leading to a gush, a torrent, and a new kind of American sentence. Yet seldom can a writer as good as Bellow have harried himself as much. He had a nearly insane gift, it seems, for drawing human obstacles into his path. Everybody was wrong, everybody was plotting; nobody was getting him right, he wasn’t getting what he deserved. If he hadn’t possessed such a sublime way with metaphor, one might struggle to ignore the fact that he was probably the biggest pain in the arse in the history of American letters. If he hadn’t proved to be a prose master, turning careful perceptions and ruddy speech into fiction that is mad, free and replenishing, it might not have been so easy to forgive his manic obliteration of other people’s needs. Leader gives a full account of the pressures Bellow made for himself, the ones he inherited, and the ones bad marriages thrust on him. The biography is a primer in how not to look after your psychic wellbeing if you’re engaged in the serious writing of fiction. It’s one thing to fall in love with the wrong people, and it can be a pattern, but the story here is of someone who made his actual wives into harridans with as much energy as he made the rest of his family into memorable fictional characters. In this life everybody gets angry and everybody wants to get even, but Bellow is alone in the depth of his willingness to dishonour the women he previously loved.
It wouldn’t be worth going on about – one would just put it down to bad character – if marital discord wasn’t also the central entanglement of his fiction, fuelled by a passion for self-justification, but a spur to his more sublime powers. In writing about his marriages he found a way both to oppose himself and find himself again, sentence by sentence. We have three real wives in this first volume, as well as the fictional wives and husbands in Augie March, Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog. These novels, taking us up to 1964, trace Bellow’s intellectual and emotional development. Leader’s achievement is to portray for the first time the codependency of Bellow’s experience and his imagination. For years, people read Bellow’s novels feeling that they were fuller of life than life itself, but now we can see how that came about, and take account of what the famous generosity of his prose cost others.
‘Saul was not an easy person,’ his former lodger Max Kampelman says, a comment that can be taken as an understatement and an overstatement at the same time. Bellow’s first wife, Anita, like Daisy in Herzog, was ‘an utterly steady, reliable woman, responsible to the point of grimness’, according to Bellow. Anita came to feel he was ‘irritable’, ‘inaccessible’ and ‘impossible to live with’, and by the time of his second book he was already complaining of feeling like an old man. (He was 32.) When Herb McClosky advised Anita not to worry and told her that’s what you get with genius, she said: ‘Genius, shmenius, his father’s the same way.’ The marriages and the novels fed off each other, the negative energy of one creating an atmosphere of dense necessity in the other; whatever he couldn’t manage in life he could manage with beautiful dexterity on the page. And he went out to bat for his books in a way that he never did for his wives. The Victim ‘is a powerful book’, he wrote. ‘I take my due for it. There aren’t many recent books that come close to it and I can’t take seriously any opinion that doesn’t begin by acknowledging that. There you have it. I’m not modest.’ Yet you feel he endured more than he enjoyed his middle years. The teaching got him down almost as much as what he saw as the brutal single-mindedness of the wives. His friends worked to get him positions, but it didn’t make him happy. ‘Three years of teaching straight is more than flesh and blood can endure,’ he wrote to his agent.
There comes a point when you realise that Saul and Maury are made of the same stuff and differ only in their circumstances. I’m not saying Bellow was a boor – though he could be, dragging his wife round by the hair – but he had as much Cold War chutzpah as his brother. You see it when Bellow and Anita went to Paris in 1948, a place he found too beautiful and too French, where the old books smelled of spit and the intellectuals (Sartre and Co) smelled of left-wing satisfaction. He felt that the Americans had saved them from themselves and that France had no business looking down on Americans as cultureless. America was the winner, and he hated both the collaborationist bad faith in France and what Janet Flanner called ‘the tourist intelligentsia’. At one point he compares his feelings to Dostoevsky’s. ‘I, too, was a foreigner and a barbarian from a vast and backward land,’ he wrote. ‘That is,’ Leader adds, ‘he was treated as such. In explaining the indifference and inaccessibility of French Parisians, he “often” reminded himself that “old cultures are impermeable and exclusive – none more so than the French.”’ This, I believe, is the beginning of that whoosh of confidence that makes Augie March, that limber and proud American, ‘Chicago-born’. It was while he was contemplating, or living amid, the nihilism of modern French literature that he turned away from the person who wrote Dangling Man and The Victim and cleared his throat for Augie. If there was a thinness to American culture he would remedy it. He was growing with America, sowing seeds for the flowering of a neoconservative politics that will play a part, I’m sure, in Volume II. Here is Bellow’s friend Harold Rosenberg planting his row in Partisan Review:
For more than a hundred years, America was culturally dependent on Europe; now Europe is economically dependent upon America. And America is no longer the raw and unformed land of promise from which men of superior gifts like James, Santayana and Eliot departed, seeking in Europe what they found lacking in America. Europe is no longer regarded as a sanctuary; it no longer assures that rich experience of culture which inspired and justified a criticism of American life. The wheel has come full circle and now America has become the protector of Western civilisation, at least in a military and economic sense.
The future of freedom fries was assured. But it would be wrong to think of Bellow as a politician: he floated above politics, seeking miracles not remedies. Again and again, however, we see him mired in the difficult business of being him. He was one of those men who had affairs and wanted to pore over the details of his marital agonies with friends. On a long journey with Herbert and Edith Gold, he ‘wailed and wept as we drove’, according to Herbert: ‘His need was exclusive, unflagging, draining.’ But Leader never trusts a single view; he checks letters and does interviews and finds that Bellow says it was Gold who talked non-stop, and that poor Edith, another in a long line of deeply engaged and tolerant wives, said: ‘They both talked.’ Bellow made a performance of liking and not liking his wife, and the fact that Anita had worked to allow him to write only made his guilt more acrobatic. Who would be a writer? He spent his younger years building compounds to live in – philosophical, social, romantic – and would then tear them down brick by brick to get a book or be somewhere new. ‘I haven’t been able to resist safety,’ he said of his academic career, ‘and I haven’t been able to rest in it.’
He seems to have got angrier the more successful he became. He tore a strip off anybody who didn’t immediately love his work, including his publishers, whom he would happily jettison if they failed to come up with the required ‘support’. Leader shows how embedded this was in his life:
His volatility, like the ‘mad fear of being slighted and scorned’ felt by Joseph in Dangling Man, was an inheritance from his father and his family (‘a people of tantrums’) … It was a tendency exacerbated by early struggles against father and family, by the restrictions of his background, by prejudice, and by his immediate circumstances in the early 1950s (the protracted dissolution of his marriage, guilt over his son, worries about money). Over and above these factors, however, stood a perfectly defensible conviction that Augie March was a work of power and originality. He was damned if he would let pass any slighting or lesser valuation.
People weren’t fodder to Bellow: he was a large-hearted man. But he was born with a talent for seeing the fictional potential in a blade of grass, so give him a Delmore Schwartz, give him a John Berryman or a deep-souled, big-eyed woman like wife number two, Sondra Tschacbasov, and watch the trouble begin and the pages pile up. Yet at what cost? People felt used, they felt robbed, outclassed, out-worded, and Bellow knew it. Leader tells us of a period around 1960 when Bellow entered therapy with a shrink called Albert Ellis. (Ellis had published a book called Sex without Guilt in 1958. A second volume I like to imagine, Writing without Guilt, seems never to have appeared.) ‘Ellis,’ Leader writes, ‘described the “goal” of Bellow’s therapy as “to get him unangry”, which wasn’t easy with a person like that because he was a novelist, and novelists think that all emotions are good.’
Bellow always felt he was overcoming ‘low seriousness’, a tendency in readers to miss the rabid comedy in the high style, and this biography shows us that it doesn’t matter whether a novelist is right so long as he is fully alive. Bellow admired Sherwood Anderson and aimed to take a leaf out of his books. In his essay ‘An Apology for Crudity’, Anderson promotes the necessity of getting human messiness onto the page. ‘The true novelist,’ he wrote, ‘is a man gone a little mad with the life of his times … If he be at all sensitive to the life about him, and that life be crude, the figure that emerges will be crude and will crudely express himself … We shall, I am sure, have much crude, blundering American writing before the gift of beauty and subtlety in prose shall honestly belong to us.’ Leader offers a lively concordance of Bellow’s influences and it brings you to a sense of clarity about what turned Bellow’s difficult, serious novels of 20th-century life – high and low, here and there – into masterpieces of magical thinking.