Triptych image: Jeff Lowenthal/Lebrecht, “Saul Bellow”
“I AM A POOR LOST WOOF from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to.” The Bellow tone: This phrase from his letters gives us the winsome Bellow, seeking succor for his battered heart. This is Herzog the mess, trod upon by life; reading the letters (Saul Bellow: Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor, 2012) we regularly come upon the Bellovian combination of demotic and exalted, Schopenhauer and sauerkraut, as if a teenage driver got hold of a high speed test car. Bellow’s style is street sophisticate, ornate and slangy, a tough dressed in tails, guided by a supernally shrewd intelligence that scoops up an entire character in a passing metaphor.
Bellow knew all this before we did, of course; each effect was written and rewritten, and his almost formless books are the messy, canny reflection of a remarkable mind. Still, he hides less than other authors, giving himself to his readers with both hands; this is not Joyce’s artist, like God beyond creation, paring his nails. This is the author as courtesan, beguiling us not only into reading, but loving him.
So what reader of Bellow does not wonder about the man? After James Atlas’s 2002 biography, widely panned, with its portrayal of an altogether unappealing philanderer, is there balm in Gilead?
“Our father was always easily angered, prone to argument, acutely sensitive, and palpably vulnerable to criticism.” Reading this sentence in Greg Bellow’s new memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart, one remembers the saying attributed to a French King, “I would rather be killed by my enemies than by my children.” Maybe we should have stuck with Atlas.
But Greg (permit me the first name, to distinguish from his father) has done something complicated and remarkable. He has spared none of the unsavory parts of his father’s character and still enabled us to understand why this man could generate, throughout his life, so much love. Greg expresses anger along the way — this book does not pull punches with the characters who moved through Bellow’s life — without the rancorous bitterness that suggests still unsettled reflections. Greg has opened his own heart. If there is any truth to the old adage that you judge a parent by the child, Greg is a testimonial.
As the oldest of the Bellows (four children from five marriages; three boys and a much younger daughter born when Bellow was 84) Greg feels as though he knew the “young Saul” in a unique way.
“But I found the man [that Saul’s niece] Lesha called ‘young Saul’ to be emotionally accessible, often soft, and possessed of the ability to laugh at the world’s folly and at himself.” Those qualities tended to harden over time, and part of the narrative momentum of the book is watching the man Greg will call “old Saul,” but might be better termed sclerotic Saul, undergo hardening of the emotional arteries as he disapprovingly watches a more diverse and less deferential world emerge.
Saul’s competitive ethos came from the usual place: he had brothers. As late as his Nobel lecture, he cited them as the reason he wanted to excel (his older brother Morrie did not attend the ceremony, arousing the suspicion that it was too much Saul-success for him to swallow). Later in life he characterized one brother as a sadist and the other a masochist, frustratingly omitting to characterize himself. He rose above the ‘competition’ through enormous talent, good looks, and legendary (if intermittent) charm. And on the evidence of this memoir, Atlas certainly got one thing right — he was an epic philanderer.
Years after the breakup of his first marriage, strolling old streets with Greg, Saul still muses about how (a few marriages later) he feels guilty for having hurt Greg’s mother with his affairs. Their divorce, as Greg writes, “split my life in two.” His father got him in a unique way: Saul could understand like an openhearted man and articulate like a brilliant novelist, a heady combination for a young boy in a father. Suddenly, after the split, he was snatched away, and Greg saw him far less often. His love for his son may have been constant, but his presence was not: Saul was a grandmaster of self-protection. Very touchy about money, vain of his looks, more vain of his writing, always able to attract admirers and lovers, he didn’t make things easy. Family quarrels among all the parties — children, ex-wives — thread throughout the pages. Saul forges along, wrecked and wrecking, then shaping the detritus of life into art.
Occasionally, a phrase whose acuity reminds us of the psychotherapist Greg became will pierce the undergrowth of anecdote: “Saul left my room in a silence that typified his response to being outflanked.” Describing Saul’s defense of sociologist Edward Shils, a colleague with whom he later fell out, Greg writes in a sentence with equal portions of insight and anguish: “my father, always loyal to the friend or wife who was currently in favor, defended him.”
Yet such is both the honesty and vividness of this memoir that just as one is about to give up on Saul’s character, there is a redemptive passage, a reminder that one who wrote such magnificent books could spin the human heart on his finger. “It was not what Saul said that I treasure. It was what he confessed to not understanding, questions without good enough answers, that made me feel close to him because we were puzzled together.” The Saul who could be open, puzzled, funny, searching, who knew so much but would be willingly ignorant in seeking — such a man anyone would want for a father.
Sadly for his sons Greg, Daniel, and Adam, the engaging Saul did not last. At least not in Greg’s view:
From my viewpoint it was during these pivotal years [around the time Mr. Sammler’s Planet was written] that the optimism and hope I loved and admired in “young Saul” were buried under pessimism, anger, bitterness, intolerance, and preoccupations with evil and with his death, which lasted for the rest of his life.
As Greg becomes more independent and their arguments escalate, Saul grows more conservative. Greg views this shift less as a political decision than as a collapse of personality, betraying the openness of “young Saul.” The hand threading the barbed wire is Bellow’s absolute terror of death. A lifelong student of the esoteric writings of Rudolf Steiner, Bellow was always engaged in the possibilities of other realms. Older now, he began an intensive study of writings on immortality. The last line of Ravelstein, Bellow’s novel about his friend Allan Bloom who died of AIDS, reads “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.” He might have been writing about himself.
In his dotage, the art critic Bernard Berenson, long estranged from Judaism, only wanted to hear and tell Yiddish jokes. Bellow had a deep Jewish education and spoke Yiddish beautifully (possessing a prodigious memory) but had, as did many of his generation, an ambivalent relationship to his Jewishness. By his own admission, for many years he did not seek to reckon with the Holocaust, the shattering event of his time. In later years he grew somewhat closer to the tradition and historical experience of his people. But his project of self-invention was consuming: it involved a discarding of old identities and, too often, of old associates, friends, and for periods, even family.
The book offers a sort of uneasy, seesaw truce between a famous, domineering, and rageful father and a sensitive son. When his father tells him, “I can see the goodness in your soul,” Greg thinks he cannot ask for more from the man who gave him life. When Bellow, with transparently trumped up excuses, does not bother to attend Greg’s daughter’s wedding, the wound is deep and abiding. Shortly before his death, Bellow asked his friend Gene Goodheart, “Was I a man or a jerk?” The opposition may seem too stark, but neither description can be discarded.
A reader, of course, has a freedom to judge without consequence not given to family. But even here there are stakes. As with many others, Bellow hit me early and hard. For a few years I carried Herzog around like a talisman, as though it contained all the desire and venom and betrayal and wonder of the confused heart. I have spent many hours following Henderson into the jungle, Corde into Romania, and Humboldt into madness. I knew little about the man except that his sentences sang high and low, and if you found a page of his lying on the street stripped of its title, it would not take more than a moment’s reading to recognize the voice of Bellow. Knowing all this raises yet again the question of whether the work survives the shortcomings of its author.
Greg Bellow has written an honest book, which is to say a work of appreciation and disenchantment. He has not spared himself or his family, but the overwhelming impression is less of score settling than of sad truths wrung from a kind heart. Let that kind heart have the final word: “A son not only turns a blind eye to his father’s failure but also finds admiration rather than the pity or the blame that might crush them both.”