Bellow by James Atlas
Bellow: A Biography
by James Atlas
Random House. 608 pp. $35.00
In the afterword to his new biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas asks how much we would know about Samuel Johnson today if it were not for James Boswell and other contemporaries who left their impressions of him. The short answer is, a great deal. We would still have Johnson’s works.
If literary biography is not as important a genre as its practitioners understandably tend to assume, neither is it an unmixed blessing. All too often, the record of a writer’s life can get in the way of his books, or rob them of some of their primary power. This is especially true in the case of novelists. A work of fiction presents us with a world; a biographer comes along and tells us what that world is “really” all about. Even the most sensitive biography of a novelist is bound to involve a measure of demythologizing, and to demythologize, as far as fiction is concerned, is to diminish.
Yet curiosity will always get the better of us. The demand for biographies, or at any rate the eagerness to read them once they are there, continues unabated. Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, has already attracted at least two biographers, to say nothing of memoir-writers and critics with a biographical bent. Now, at the hands of James Adas, he receives the full treatment.
Atlas, a magazine writer and the author of a well-received life of the American poet Delmore Schwartz (1977), has acquitted himself well—much better than one might expect from his frequently callow literary journalism. The book is lively, intelligent, and as readable as it is thorough. Its judgments, more often than not, are persuasive. And while it will not please those for whom Bellow can do no wrong, most readers are likely to feel that it is written essentially out of admiration—or out of a struggle to preserve that admiration.
Certainly it leaves one in no doubt as to Bellow’s great gifts, or the appropriateness of his being awarded the Nobel Prize (something that cannot be said of certain other recipients). There are useful emphases here, too: a leading place among Bellow’s later books is rightly assigned to the novella, The Bellarosa Connection (1989). Atlas analyzes as well as praises, finding an excellent formulation for a central conflict in Bellow’s work, the clash between his “experience-hungry” side and his “self-protective” side. He writes illuminatingly on early drafts and evolving versions of the novels. And he tracks down literary debts that sometimes go further than Bellow himself is ready to acknowledge—to Theodore Dreiser, for example.
Where Atlas is more muted is in discussing the intellectual content of the novels. Bellow’s heroes, he observes, “share a penchant for belaboring ideas.” Apart from putting this tendency down to the novelist’s immersion in “the University of Chicago Great Books Culture” (Bellow was a student at Chicago in the early 30’s, and decades later returned to the university to teach), he wonders whether it does not also represent an impulse on Bellow’s part “to distance himself from his true and more painful material—a flight into abstraction.”
These comments are not altogether unfair. The ideas in the novels can sometimes seem insufficiently integrated or even, when they are expressed by some of Bellow’s rougher characters, downright incongruous. But they also have positive effects that make the price well worth paying. They aerate Bellow’s work; they enlarge its horizons far beyond those of most novelists. And in the later books, especially, they are often anything but abstract: they shade into strongly held beliefs and attitudes.
To label those attitudes conservative, or even culturally conservative, would be to simplify, and to pin Bellow down in a way he himself would resist: he remains first and last an independent, the guardian of his own autonomy. Still, no one is likely to mistake him for a man of the Left. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) he directed a classic blow at 60’s radicalism. Since then, he has regularly made it clear how out of tune he is with great swathes of liberal and progressive opinion.
Atlas is unhappy with this side of his subject. Every so often, he sounds a note of disapproval, and when he reaches Mr. Sammler’s Planet he goes so far as to speak of its author’s having turned into a “full-blown reactionary.” Still, the impressive thing is how neutral a tone he maintains most of the time. Anyone hoping to applaud this book—or to pick a fight with it—on the grounds of political correctness will be disappointed. Atlas’s general policy is to let the facts speak for themselves, and when he does venture a political criticism, his comments come across, in context at least, as curiously restrained, at times almost weightless.
Most readers are, in any case, likely to come to Atlas’s book with their own views about Bellow’s politics, and indeed about his novels. It is the account of Bellow’s private life that is bound to attract the most curiosity.
Atlas is excellent on the early years in Chicago, where Bellow’s family moved when he was nine. (He was born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec.) It no doubt helps that Atlas comes from a Chicago Jewish background himself, but even more to the point is the fact that he has caught some of Bellow’s own fascination with the scenes, personalities, and local or family lore that the novelist has so often quarried. We are given a strong sense of the young Bellow’s faith in his own star, well marked by the time he was at college, and a step-by-step account of the forging of his literary identity, including a shrewdly judged name-change when he was twenty-one. (Before that he had been Solomon Bellow, or Sol to his friends. Saul became Paul, and Sol became Saul.)
There is also a powerful subplot, furnished by the writer Isaac Rosenfeld, Bellow’s friend and rival from their schooldays until Rosenfeld’s early death in 1956; the book deepens every time Rosenfeld appears. And there are one or two incidental adventures worthy of the hero of Bellow’s breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), including the memorable moment when Bellow and a friend, in the course of a visit to Mexico, found themselves staring down at Leon Trotsky in his open coffin. They had joined the crowd milling around outside the morgue and been waved in by the police in the mistaken belief that they were journalists.
Bellow’s admirable early novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), won critical acclaim, though not much in the way of material rewards: their combined sales amounted to fewer than 4,000 copies. Then came The Adventures of Augie March, “the big one.” With success, and the ascent into Celebrityland, some of the magic of the life-story fades.
Atlas’s diligence is, however, unimpaired. He plows on, offering highly detailed accounts of Bellow’s marriages and divorces, his friendships and quarrels, his public appearances, his legal and financial affairs, his career as a teacher, his dealings with publishers and fellow writers. Though the material is well presented, there are times when it begins to pall, when we are tempted to cry, “Enough.”
The fact that we do not, and that our interest soon revives, is a tribute primarily to the magnetism of Bellow’s personality. His wit and resilience can energize even the least promising roles in which he appears: as he made Augie March say, plainly speaking on his behalf, “there is an animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up.” Nor does Atlas leave any doubt that Bellow is a master of inspired imagery and repartee. It is hard not to respect the man who once told an interviewer, when asked to sum up his day, “I write from about eight o’clock in the morning until one. Then I go out and make my mistakes.”
Yet the charm is disarming only up to a point. The hard fact remains that much of the personal behavior chronicled by Atlas is unedifying, and the portrait that finally emerges is far from endearing. No doubt there are rights and wrongs on both sides, especially in Bellow’s marriages; few would want to get dragged into them. But if only half the hostile testimony in the dossier is true, Bellow stands convicted of having been ruthlessly self-serving on many occasions, and mean-spirited on not a few.
Perhaps this is no cause for surprise. You do not have to read much literary history to recognize that being a Great Man’s wife, or friend, or publisher, has always been a high-risk business. What may be harder to take is Bellow’s vanity, which almost everyone who knows him seems to have had to learn to live with. Atlas quotes a droll but instructive comment by Bellow’s erstwhile friend, the sociologist Edward Shils. (It has enough point to serve as Shils’s posthumous revenge for the nasty treatment meted out to him in Ravelstein, Bellow’s most recent novel, where he appears as the character Rakhmiel Kogon.) A few years after they had become estranged, Shils remarked to a friend, “Better watch out for Saul today; he’s in a bad mood. The Nobel Prize is being announced, and you can’t win it twice.”
Well, there is nothing exactly new, either, about authors’ egoism. Indeed, no writer could survive without having what in the north of England they call “a good conceit of himself.” But at least with a major writer you hope for something magnificent, for fierce pride. The dismaying thing about Bellow’s brand of self-regard, and its concomitant touchiness and readiness to lash out at others, is that they so often seem unworthy of him.
None of this makes Atlas’s biography less interesting; rather the reverse. But it does leave one more grateful than ever for the distance that fiction imposes, even in the most obvious roman à clef. Atlas is an indispensable guide to the facts; but the best place to get to know Bellow, or the Bellow who is best worth knowing, remains his novels.