Mr. Bellow’s Planets: A Conversation with Zachary Leader
By George StanicaOctober 18, 2023
For Bellow, the novel was, as D. H. Lawrence once wrote, “the highest form of human expression yet attained.” But what did he really mean by that? In May, I talked with Leader about the long, arduous years of research he undertook to find out how Bellow transformed a large part of his own life, and the lives of people in his entourage, into such intricate literary fictions.
GEORGE STANICA: Could you tell us some details about the long time you took to write this book, the archives you had access to, the people you spoke with, and the connections you discovered between Bellow’s life, his fictional characters, and the plots of his novels?
ZACHARY LEADER: I really began work on the biography in 2007; the first volume came out in 2015 and the second in 2018, but altogether I would say I worked on it for eight years. It proved longer than I expected.
There were well over 400 boxes of papers at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, and I was given full access to everything, which was not the case with previous biographers who had some materials restricted. I got a grant to do this work, but I also was hired by the Committee on Social Thought to teach a course on Bellow’s novels. I spent a year at the University of Chicago teaching my course one day a week, and the rest of the time I was buried in Special Collections at the Regenstein Library. Bellow was pretty famous for much of his life and had secretaries, so everything was carefully preserved. It’s not just a question of the many drafts that were involved in the novels he published; he also wrote several novels that were never published. Some of them are not complete, but they are very interesting and tell you a lot about the development of his career. I think one of the reasons they were not published is that bits of them were cannibalized and used for other novels.
Let’s start with his debut novel, Dangling Man (1944). Critics noticed a certain European tone in that book and detected influences attributed to Kafka, Dostoevsky, French existentialism. During his formative years, his childhood in Canada—in Lachine and Montréal—and his adolescence in Chicago, he probably felt as if he was dangling between his Canadian childhood and his American adolescence.
He was also dangling because he was waiting to be inducted into the army, which kept not happening, and he felt he could not be settled until his draft status and his relation to the war were settled.
It’s a kind of existentialist novel, written like a diary, similar to Camus’s or Sartre’s diaries or novels. The mood of the character is depressed, low, unhappy with his predicament; he does not seem to identify himself with the United States a lot; he is struggling to adjust. He feels like a misfit.
That is absolutely true. Of the influences that you mentioned, the most important was Dostoevsky, I believe. The most influential at the time in the high literary culture of the United States were Kafka and the existentialists, but I think the actual influence of Kafka is perfunctory, just that the main character is not given a second name, as in a Kafka story.
There is something attributable to his Russian background and his parents.
Absolutely, but the influence of Dostoevsky cannot be underestimated, especially in the emotional extremity of his novels, an emotional extremity that some people could call Russian, that certainly was present in his family, in his father and brothers and so forth.
This tone is not just due to the influence of the great Russian novelists; it’s also due to the general sense he had from his education, his experience with the Committee on Social Thought, his experience at the University of Chicago, the great books—he was always committed to the personal and placing the personal in a larger cultural, sociopolitical, and philosophical context. This was part of his character, just as the street was part of his character, as when you read The Adventures of Augie March (1953), where he goes from hamburgers to Heraclitus. This was all part of his background and being.
Let’s focus on Augie March, the novel that takes Bellow back to his childhood in the suburbs of Chicago and goes deep into his family background. Is this the most realistic of his novels in terms of the description of his American Jewish roots and upbringing, the role played by Yiddish culture and Judaic tradition in his life?
I don’t know if it’s the most realistic, but it draws almost every incident and many of its main characters from his life. But that can be said about others of his novels. The interesting thing about Augie March is that the most fantastic episodes turn out to have real-life origins. This business about the eagle that has to be trained in Mexico and the seeing of Trotsky’s body, riding these boxcars with hobos, all this did happen to him. There was someone he met who was training an eagle or knew about training eagles in Mexico. He did see Trotsky’s body almost immediately after he had been assassinated, he did ride the boxcars, and so forth. And the characters, particularly of his older brother and his mother, figure prominently in the novel. As does the milieu of Humboldt Park Jewish immigrants. There are two elements here. The title alone tells you something—like the most famous American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it announces itself as American. But also, as Twain was bringing into serious fiction the vernacular, the idiom, this is the key thing about Augie March: at last Bellow found a way to write that was adequate or true to his experience.
He found his true voice with this novel. and he continued to write in the street vernacular that was spoken in the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. But at the same time, he displayed an amazing talent of mixing highbrow academic philosophical language with street language.
Absolutely, and it’s exciting too to find hamburgers and Heraclitus in the same sentence. Americanness and the immigrant experience are well connected in his mind, so the opening sentence of the novel, “I’m an American, Chicago-born,” not “I’m a Jewish-American immigrant or son of immigrants,” just “I’m an American.” The larger point of the novel is that the immigrant experience is seen as the Jewish experience, and he felt that the world he was depicting of the Jewish immigrants in Humboldt Park in Chicago was not adequately or properly depicted in literary fiction. So, at the end of the novel, when he calls himself a “Columbus of those near-at-hand,” he means, “I am discovering America like Columbus,” but by discovering a part of it that is near-at-hand. This immigrant experience is quintessentially American.
Bellow burst open the floodgates of his fictional imagination in Augie March, but then, in his next novel, Seize the Day (1956), he seems to restrain his tone again: his writing is more controlled, less expansive, less effusive.
This is a novel in which biography, I think, really helps one understand a writer’s development. Seize the Day was published three years after Augie March, but it was not written immediately after because Bellow was working on the draft of a novel that he completed called “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son.” In Augie March, his mother is a prominent character and his father doesn’t exist; in “Bootlegger’s Son,” the father does appear, and he is central. Bellow’s father was a bootlegger in Quebec, in Lachine and Montreal. This novel is written in a style closer to Augie March than Seize the Day. The other element in Seize the Day worth mentioning is the extreme emotionalism of Tommy Wilhelm, the son of Dr. Adler, whose character grows in part out of Bellow’s attraction to the ideas of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who advocated a kind of freedom of expression, the cultivation of free emotion.
This same topic is further developed in Herzog (1964), which starts with the famous words, “If I’m out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog.” He seems to defend the position of the academic intellectual who is out of step with life: his wife has cheated on him and left him; he is struggling to continue his academic research but finds himself unable to carry on; he travels from city to city with his valise full of papers trying to find a bridge between his Romantic ideals and the failure of his marital life and his life as an academic.
Yes, this is a novel that was born out of a betrayal on the part of his best friend, Jack Ludwig, and his second wife, Sasha. This was a real-life betrayal. And these feelings he labels as a kind of insanity, and over the course of the novel he comes back to health. This novel made him famous with general readers and also made him very rich; it transformed his life—he was number one on the bestseller list for quite a long time.
It’s still the most widely read novel written by Bellow; when anybody mentions Saul Bellow, they immediately associate him with Herzog.
It’s not the most widely taught novel, however, which is Seize the Day because it’s the shortest. Bellow wrote long books, and his continuing influence is under threat partly because of that, as well as because of the ideas he expressed in his novels. The thing that made Herzog successful, even though it had these highbrow philosophical and academic references, is that Herzog himself sees that these references finally don’t really help him with the things that are important personally. Spinoza is not going to help you when your wife is unhappy and is having an affair with your best friend.
With Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Bellow moves the stage to New York, the tone is livelier, and he describes the friendship between Charlie Citrine and Von Humboldt Fleischer, who is undoubtedly based on the poet Delmore Schwartz and his very tragic life.
This is the point of connection with the anti-materialist bias of The Dean’s December (1982): Von Humboldt died of a heart attack, but he also died because he was a poet unvalued by American culture, with its rampant love of money and success. He is in part a symbol of the fate of high culture and anti-materialist culture in the United States.
Charlie Citrine, by contrast, succeeds—he benefits from everything he learns from Humboldt Fleischer; he becomes a great Broadway success while Humboldt is descending into illness and madness, ending up in a flophouse. So, we have the success story of Citrine and the failure of the Delmore Schwartz figure, which is attributable to his sensitivity, his pursuit of poetry at all costs.
That’s right. Citrine has obvious connections with Bellow. Citrine’s great success is due to the gift he got from Von Humboldt Fleischer, and his ability to put this gift into popular mode. You could say it’s the same combination of high and low that allows Bellow to be true to himself; that’s what made him a popular as well as a critical success.
Having researched Bellow’s life and literary output, what are your general views on his literary achievement? What is Saul Bellow’s place in American and world literature?
I think he is a great novelist. I don’t know if Bellow is a novelist as great as Tolstoy, but he is a great novelist. It’s a shame that some of the views he held make it hard for him to be taught today in universities and also that he wrote works of such length. Even his short stories are the size of novellas. It’s a shame that he is losing his audience. Yet all his works are in print. He is a great American novelist. Whether he is the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, I don’t know.
If we talk about aspects of his fiction that do not quite satisfy, the capaciousness of his novels, their Dostoevskian bagginess, those baggy-monster novels, is sometimes to the detriment of plot. There is a familiar farce-like tone at the end of several of his novels, where everything has to be tied up and hence everything is sped up. He would write the first 150 pages of a novel and then he would look up and have to create a plot for it. So, this is a kind of oddball characteristic of his novels: they are not the most carefully or perfectly or pleasingly plotted.
Would you rate him at the same level as William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald?
I think he is a greater novelist than Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. He had great skills on the local level, the level of the sentence, the phrase. He was the greatest of noticers: he had a wonderful way of perfectly capturing, perfectly seeing, and at the same time he had the power to take these particulars and weave them into a larger sense, a valuable sense of, for instance, what it is to be an American or what the limitations of capitalism are. I may not agree with the conclusions he draws, but they are intelligent and thought-provoking; they are worthy of their scale.
Zachary Leader is an emeritus professor of English literature at the University of Roehampton in London. He is the author of numerous books, including a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow—The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915–1964 (2015) and The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965–2005 (2018). He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and general editor of The Oxford History of Life-Writing, a seven-volume series.
George Stanica worked as a radio producer, presenter, and correspondent with the BBC World Service in London. He taught and translated English, American, and German literature, aesthetics, and philosophy and wrote a dissertation on Saul Bellow.
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