The first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow, 2016’s To Fame and Fortune, was largely an account of a young man who seemed blessed by shameless gods. As a youth, Bellow was unfairly handsome, supernaturally precocious, and furnished with a clique of high-school friends who, being as outlandishly brilliant as he, helped to refine his genius. By the time he was a teenager, Bellow was already devoted to a life of the mind. He read, wrote, and philosophized with the surety of an established sage. He avoided the workaday life of his father and two brothers, slipped in and out of universities, hopped from woman to woman, one marriage to another, and soon wrote a series of novels mined straight from the lives of his family and friends. Amazingly, no one seemed too bothered by it. For his part, Bellow earned a National Book Award (for his 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March), made lots and lots of money, and established himself as one of the most significant young writers in America. He more or less got away with it all. He pulled it off.
In Leader’s second volume, Love and Strife, 1965–2005, things aren’t so inexorably buoyant. The blessings continue to rain down, to be sure. Bellow writes more celebrated novels, wins the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature, dines at the White House more than once, is feted around the world, and finds the love of his life in old age. But we also see a man who can no longer outrun the costs of such wild success. There’s the nasty, drawn-out divorce from his third wife, Susan, which costs him millions. There are the fractured relationships with his three sons, Gregory, Adam, and Daniel. There are the broken friendships, usually a product of Bellow’s hypersensitivity to criticism. There are the public controversies, owing to his increasingly conservative worldview. And, as Bellow enters his final years, there are the rapid-fire deaths of family and friends, and finally, his own terminal illness.
If a biography of Bellow stuck merely to the facts of his life, as laid out above, it might be a monumental work in itself. What Leader has written is that and much more besides. It’s a sprawling anthology of Bellow’s ideas—politics, metaphysics, love, and more—and a treasure map to these ideas in Bellow’s life and fiction.
At the start of Love and Strife, Bellow is dealing with the success of his 1964 novel, Herzog, and the failure of his third marriage, to Susan Glassman. He would later fictionalize Susan in his 1975 novel, Humboldt’s Gift, as the “exquisite and terribly fierce” Denise, with her “huge radial amethyst eyes.” (Bellow routinely settled scores through his fiction.) The two were apparently a gross mismatch. Bellow felt embarrassed and stifled by the expensively appointed home Susan had made for them in Chicago, and Susan couldn’t stand Bellow’s old friends. One such friend, Dave Peltz, relays a telling story about meeting Bellow for a heart-to-heart talk in a park near the Bellow home: “I said, ‘Saul, you can’t breathe, get the f— out of that relationship. It’s smothering you….’ He said, ‘Come upstairs and maybe Susan will let you have supper with us. She made a pot of chili.’ I went up there, and she said, ‘No, Saul, we don’t have enough.’ So I wheeled around and left.” This episode, too, would be re-created in Humboldt’s Gift.
The couple split in 1967, after seven years, and Bellow, who’d been a vigorous adulterer throughout his first three marriages, became a compulsive, world-class philanderer. As Leader describes it, he was
in love with [his girlfriend] Maggie Staats, whom he frequently visited in New York. In Chicago he was seeing Bette Howland, described by [Bellow biographer Mark] Harris as Bellow’s ‘companion, Bonne Amie,’ having an affair with a cleaning lady (a black woman, ‘about twice as tall as he was, and well built, striking,’ according to [novelist and friend] Richard Stern), and in pursuit of another woman roughly half his age, Arlette Landes, whom he had met early in 1967, just months after having left Susan.
During this time, Bellow was at work on his 1969 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, an indictment of 1960s mores and the civilizational decay they’d set in motion. In its pages, his view of women in those years is on prominent display: “Females were naturally more prone to grossness, had more smells, needed more washing, clipping, binding, pruning, perfuming and training,” goes one passage. Another tells of “the female generative slime.”
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is notable for its portrayal of a black pickpocket on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a character that marks Bellow’s first foray into the kind of racial controversy he would continue to stir for decades. The pickpocket exposes himself to the elderly Artur Sammler, who had made the mistake of watching him work too closely on a bus. The dangerous yet alluring—and wholly romanticized—sexual power of this black “prince” is tied intimately to the novel’s representation of a world gone wrong.
But it is neither Bellow’s personal nor fictional explorations in the realm of the physical that are the most compelling elements of his life. Arguably, it’s his perpetual search for transcendence, for large systems or explanations that account for man’s existence. It’s what loaned his art a touch of the numinous and fueled the childlike sense of wonder he retained throughout his life. To Fame and Fortune covered Bellow’s earlier flirtation with the radical and pseudoscientific psychology of Wilhelm Reich, and Love and Strife relays a particularly fascinating episode pertaining to his more earnest interest in “anthroposophy,” the mystical teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).
The episode is fascinating because it perfectly captures the intersection of some key Bellow traits: his desperate pursuit of the spiritual, his particular quirks as a writer, and his lifelong touchiness about criticism. On a trip to London in 1975, Bellow requested and was granted a meeting with the British writer Owen Barfield, considered a leading authority on anthroposophy. So begins a teacher-student relationship in which Bellow, now 60 years old, was at first uncharacteristically deferential. “That you should come down to London to answer the ignorant questions of a stranger greatly impressed me,” he wrote Barfield after their meeting. “I daresay I found the occasion far more interesting than you could.”
Things begin to take a turn when Barfield reads Humboldt’s Gift. He writes Bellow a letter containing his frank appraisal: “I couldn’t get up enough interest in enough of what was going on to be held by it,” he says. What’s more, Barfield seemed to resent the light, comic touch with which Bellow treated anthroposophy. In a follow-up letter, he alerts Bellow to Seymour Epstein’s review of Humboldt’s Gift, which concludes, “The novelist who has raised important questions owes us the integrity not to trivialize those questions by repetitive improvisation on a theme, no matter how adroit.” The epistolary relationship drags on a few more years but crumbles entirely once Barfield himself writes a negative review of Bellow’s next novel, The Dean’s December (1982).
Epstein’s point about Bellow’s fiction is sharp. While Bellow possessed a preternatural gift for description—an ability “to call all things by some name,” as Bernard Malamud described it—his work was frequently stretched out of shape by circular, noncommittal musings on abstract notions. This was an indulgence he never tamed.
By the time of The Dean’s December, Bellow was married to his fourth wife, Alexandra Ionescu, an accomplished mathematician born and raised in Bucharest. She was 19 years his junior, but with a serious demeanor, and thought by virtually everyone to have a salutary, stabilizing effect on him. His sons, having suffered in varying degrees from both his obsessive commitment to writing and the breakups of his earlier marriages, began to grow closer to Bellow with Alexandra in the picture. Bellow, too, became more loving and tender with his kids.
But if Bellow’s personal life was calming down, his public life was becoming more problematic. In The Dean’s December, he gave full voice to his revulsion at the largely black violent crime that was making his hometown of Chicago unlivable. In the novel, he included long grisly descriptions of real-life murders in contemporary Chicago. This disgust, both with the state of Chicago and the ineffective liberal response to crime, was first aired a few years earlier in a highly publicized lecture at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. During the talk, Bellow spoke of the “feeling that this miraculously successful country has done evil, spoiled and contaminated nature, waged cruel wars, failed in its obligations to its weaker citizens, the blacks, the children, the women, the aged, the poor of the entire world.” These and other discomfiting remarks led to disapproving stories in the press and a letter in the University of Chicago newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, titled “Bellow: False and Racist?” It was signed by the University of Chicago Committee Against Racism.
The question about Bellow’s racism is a fair one. Given Mr. Sammler’s Planet, The Dean’s December, public statements like those above, and later disparaging comments about the developing world, he gave his critics plenty of ammunition. But the argument against his being a racist is strong, too. At the end of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the protagonist is outraged by the violence done to the black pickpocket. And all Bellow’s vexed statements are vague enough to be interpreted as denunciations of culture, not race. What’s more, early in his fiction career, he wrote a good deal about the evils of racial injustice.
Bellow, as things turned out, wasn’t entirely through with his problematic personal life either. After a decade together, he and Alexandra split up in 1985, the same year both his brothers died. At 70, Bellow was alone and depressed. And then the shameless gods made their final, most extravagant appearance. They placed before him the 27-year-old Janis Freedman, his student and secretary at the University of Chicago. One night, he offered to cook Janis dinner, she accepted, and that was that. They would marry in 1989, have a daughter, and stay married until Bellow’s death in 2005. In Janis, Bellow had someone who was devoted entirely both to nurturing his work and caring for him in his old age. This proved to be no small task, as Bellow would succumb to Alzheimer’s.
Before his death, Bellow had one more public controversy in him. His last novel, Ravelstein (2000), was based on his dear friend and University of Chicago colleague Allan Bloom. In it, the narrator suggests that Abe Ravelstein, the Bloom character, died of AIDS. Bloom hadn’t been entirely open about his being gay, let alone his having HIV (the question of whether he died of AIDS is unresolved). When the press seized on Bellow as a backstabber, he defended himself by saying that Bloom had instructed him to write about his life “without softeners or sweeteners.” In other words, it’s what Bloom would have wanted.
In a letter to Werner Dannhauser, a friend of Bloom’s (and a one-time Commentary editor), Bellow wrote that any other death for Ravelstein would have been “lacking the elasticity provided by sin.” It’s an interesting, somewhat mysterious claim. But we do know, given that Bellow had spent his long career writing about friends and family “without softeners or sweeteners,” that if Bellow had artistic reasons for making AIDS Ravelstein’s cause of death, that’s all the justification he felt he needed to proceed.
On his deathbed, Bellow asked his friend Eugene Goodheart, “Was I a man or was I a jerk?” It’s a testament to Leader’s biography that, as with those we come to know intimately in real life, the question ultimately feels slightly too hard to answer. Bellow’s life was, above all else, extraordinary, and it took an extraordinary work to capture it. Like Bellow, Leader has pulled it off.