Saul Bellow moved from Chicago to Boston soon after I moved from Montreal to Cambridge in 1993 to teach at Harvard. Our proximity meant that, in addition to deepening the close friendship my husband and I enjoyed with him and his wife, Janis, I could invite this writer whose work was so beloved to me to visit my classes whenever I taught one of his novels or stories. I believe he accepted these invitations because he shared at least some of the pleasure that he, one of the great and expansive talkers of his or any age, gave the students not only in his prose but also in his presence.
His last such visit to my classroom came two years before he died at the age of 89 in 2005. In response to a question about how Jewish ethnicity figures in American fiction, Saul spoke at length about his early childhood in Montreal where kids played or competed in the street in English and French—Canada’s official languages—and the neighborhood’s Ukrainian and Yiddish. Inside the Jewish immigrant Belo household (the original English spelling of the Russian family name), he and his older brothers recited morning prayers with their father. Outside the home was a society with everything in flux. What’s the problem? Saul seemed to be saying. For a Jew growing up where there were no Tsars, no marauding Cossacks, and neither prohibitive censorship nor linguistic restrictions, writers like him were given the inestimable gift of working and playing with the rich North American ethnic mixture however they could do it best. That combination of cultural security and artistic freedom became his literary trademark.
Saul spoke easily and graciously about events in his life and books he liked. Yet he could be sharp with students who asked about the process rather than the product of his writing. I remember in particular his displeasure when he was asked whether he had been thinking of the historian Lucy Dawidowicz when he wrote about Sorella in The Bellarosa Connection. Ready to speak or reminisce about many parts of his life, he kept secret the alchemy of creation as though that were the private part. His emphasis on the primacy of his work reminded me of rabbinic authors who became known by the names of their published commentaries, except that Saul drew on personal experience rather than Talmudic exegesis to arrive at wisdom.
And yet the degree to which Bellow poured himself into his books makes this a more complicated matter, and poses a challenge to any biographer who must make sense of a life that exists independently of Bellow’s writing even as that life was refracted through his work in myriad ways. It is to the credit of Zachary Leader, a British professor of English literature whose first volume of Bellow’s authorized biography1 has just been published, that he does not dig up schmutz for the sake of dirt alone or produce a perverse image of the Bellow we thought we knew. These were the deficiencies of previous efforts. Rather, Leader tries to identify connections between the life and writing in exactly the way Bellow was loath to do.
Leader’s Life of Saul Bellow is likely to remain the definitive biography (assuming the second volume is as strong as the first) in part because of timing—he consulted many informants who knew Saul personally, yet he also had access to the deposited manuscripts and correspondence that were not accessible while the author was still alive—and in part because, not having known Saul personally, Leader is mindful that there would be no point in learning so much about the author were it not for the quality of his work.
he book’s subtitle, “To Fame and Fortune,” might instead have been “Nothing Came Easy.” Bellow shelved or destroyed as much material as he shepherded into print. Indeed, as a young man, he sent out manuscripts for five years before he got anything accepted. Lord Byron published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and reported, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” The young Bellow was a perfect counterexample—he was the writer who writes and rewrites, scrounges for grants, and fights hard to get his work published, reviewed, and recognized. He was more tortoise than hare, patient and steady, so that his road to success had more in common with the typical American immigrant success story than with the firecracker careers of contemporaries such as Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, and Ralph Ellison, friends whom he outlived and memorialized.
This first part of Leader’s biography takes us through the publication of Herzog in 1964, as Bellow neared the age of 50. The youngest of four children, a girl and three boys in that order, he was indulged and underrated in proportions that built his self-confidence and spurred his ambition. He was born in 1915, three years after the family’s arrival in Canada, and the immigrant condition in which he was raised was compounded when his father, who had failed in several attempts to earn the family a living, smuggled them into the United States and resettled them in Chicago. Then nine years old, Saul never stopped visiting the relatives he had left behind in Montreal, and when some of his Russian cousins later moved to Israel and to the United States, he was intrigued by certain family traits that he recognized and by a degree of connection that seemed essential and not simply acquired. He spoke Yiddish better and more readily than any native North American I ever knew, which shows how attached he remained to his parental home.
Whereas many of his Jewish contemporaries tried to liberate themselves from their families, Bellow needed to gain his independence within his family. He inherited some of his father’s demanding hard temper, but it was his mother’s protective love that kept him attached to his formative past. Separated from his family for several months as a child when he was hospitalized for complications of an appendectomy, he lost his mother just as he was emerging into manhood. His late-in-life short story “Something to Remember Me By” conflates an adolescent’s passage from innocence to experience with the impending death of his mother. The boy is literally stripped naked in a comical and wrenching misadventure that ends with him having to face his father’s wrath: It’s not enough that the street has taught him a tough lesson, so he endures face-punishing humiliation at home. Yet the boy welcomes Father’s ready fist: “When he hit me on the head the blow filled me with gratitude. If my mother had already died, he would have embraced me instead.” Father’s fist allows him, for that little extra time, to remain that parented child.
Breaking free from the father he did not cease to honor and from Jewish attachments he later reclaimed, he also liberated himself from American literary models.
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
The narrator’s native claim to the United States bespoke the author’s newfound literary authority, but the main difference between Canadian-born Bellow and his Chicago-born hero lay elsewhere. Saul lost his mother, whereas Augie is without a father, hence liberated in a way that Bellow never really was or wanted to be—as we see from the book that followed, Seize the Day (1956), which shows a grown son’s struggle with his father on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Judgment.
In fact, one of the prototypes for Augie may have come to Bellow early on when his father read the Yiddish works of Sholem Aleichem aloud to his family. Often likened to Huckleberry Finn, Augie may be more similar to Motl Peysi, the Cantor’s Son. When Motl’s father dies in the opening chapter, the boy exults, “I am lucky, I’m an orphan!” and describes how adults who would otherwise have punished his mischief protect and nurture him now that he is fatherless. Similarly, fatherless Augie is adopted by a succession of guides and guardians who engender in him none of the guilt that oppresses Bellow’s filial protagonists. Motl’s adventures circa 1906 take him from Europe to America, while Augie’s take him in the opposite direction, into postwar Europe. And yet Augie confronts the devastation of his people without any apparent Jewish awareness. Bellow released his hero both from familial and Jewish duty.
This takes us to a second major theme of Bellow’s work—the encounter with America, land of unquestioned blessing but ambiguous influence. Having grown up during the Depression, Bellow appreciated how much he and his cohort of writers and intellectuals benefited from the freedom of low expectations and temporarily limited opportunities. To go at things “as I have taught myself, free-style,” as Augie does on Saul’s behalf, became less possible for adolescents raised in the bourgeois prosperity of the 1950s, which may be why Philip Roth’s work is so much more stuck in adolescent rebellion than Bellow’s ever was. Much as Roth learned from Bellow and perhaps matched him in talent, his protective childhood seemed to have left him underdeveloped in character. Bellow had had no choice but to grow up fast. Breaking free from the father he did not cease to honor and from Jewish attachments he later reclaimed, Bellow also liberated himself from his American literary models. Augie March proved that a Jewish writer could create an urban American kid as true to the altered nature of the country as Twain’s Huck Finn or Hemingway’s Nick Adams had been in their time.
The transition from son to husband and father is a key theme. There is no doubt about the interplay between Bellow’s poor mariages and brilliant writing.
psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who counseled patients to sit naked in a black box that had supposedly absorbed the “universal life force.” In the heart of an imaginary Africa, Henderson finds between the breasts of the Arnewi tribe’s Queen Willatale the vital pulsating heart of life that Rosenfeld, and briefly also Bellow, sought in the black orgone boxes of Wilhelm Reich. Augie was a Jew turned American; Henderson was the American turned Jew. His pursuit of wisdom moved into the heart of darkness in a comic mixture that Bellow called “characteristically Jewish” for the way it combined laughter and trembling—and when he read it aloud, Bellow delighted in laughing along with his audience.
In the 1950s, the cohort known as the New York Intellectuals, having won their struggle to become acceptably American, came to grips with being Jewish. Some studied Judaism. Most abandoned their love affair with Trotsky and warmed to the national struggle for Israel that Trotsky’s Communist International had tried to crush. For the landmark Treasury of Yiddish Stories published in 1954 and co-edited by the New York intellectual Irving Howe and the Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, Bellow translated Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”—the work that introduced this writer to the American public. Bellow’s degree of Yiddish literacy set him apart from most of his contemporaries, for he could translate into as well as out of their native tongue. He and Rosenfeld together composed parodies of Milton and T.S. Eliot—a snippet from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” became a coterie favorite. Part of this recovery of Jewishness marked their transition from sons into fathers, from looking not only ahead but also back to where they had come from.
The transition from son to husband and father is an emerging theme of Bellow’s mature work. Much of Leader’s biography charts Bellow’s marriages, divorces, and intermittent liaisons that dictated the conditions and occasionally also the subjects of his writing. When Herzog appeared in 1964, its titillating resemblance to the events in Bellow’s life attracted attention almost in the way tabloids exploit the crises of the rich and famous. The novel’s plot turns on the extramarital affair of Madeleine, Herzog’s wife, with their close family friend, Valentine Gersbach, in whom the hero blindly confides. Leader explores how the parallel real-life “betrayal” of his wife, Sondra, with his friend Jack Ludwig tormented Bellow, but since Leader also had access to Sondra’s unpublished autobiography, he provides nuance to the liaison that Herzog examines only from his own tortured perspective. That this was the second of Bellow’s five marriages, each of which figures in some way in his fiction, raises the question of whether fiction followed life or whether the writer may have been looking for substance for his fiction and found it in the melodrama of his conjugalities. Leader spares us such speculations, but there is no doubt about the interplay between Bellow’s poor marriages and brilliant writing.
Unhinged by the affair that stole his pride—for how could an otherwise intelligent being remain blind to what had become common knowledge?—Moses Elkanah Herzog undertakes the very opposite of a Reichian analysis. Through unsent letters to living and dead persons and unproductive confrontations with those who may have schemed against him, Herzog flails his way back to psychic balance. The “breakdown” produces some of the wittiest passages and comic scenes in modern American fiction. But while Saul may have drawn on some of his own experience in fashioning this brainy protagonist, he writes with the moral authority Herzog only seeks. Marriages produce children, and children bring us back to family—no longer just the family that bore you but also the one(s) you create and for which you bear responsibility. Herzog is out to recover his balance; Bellow is after something more.
When Herzog recalls his childhood, he remembers being pulled by his mother in a sled at the end of a winter’s day. “Mama, dark under the eyes. Her slender cold face. She was breathing hard. She wore the torn seal coat and a red pointed wool cap and thin button shoes.” An old woman on the street says to her, “Daughter, don’t sacrifice your strength to children,” but the boy in the sled pretends not to understand. Herzog is ironic at the expense of that child he once was: “One of life’s hardest jobs, to make a quick understanding slow. I think I succeeded.”
By the end of the novel, in tragicomic reversal, Herzog the cuckolded parent is driving his daughter around Chicago, trying to understand how his love for her overpowers the pain he has been caused: “I had this child by my enemy. And I love her. The sight of her, the odor of her hair, this minute, makes me tremble with love. Isn’t it mysterious how I love the child of my enemy? But a man doesn’t need happiness for himself. No, he can put up with any amount of torment.” Once content to let his mother expend her strength for him, this same man learns that love requires exertion. He can no longer feign ignorance of the duty that his love demands.
One of the ways the novelist does his duty is to show the fumbling way his characters do theirs. But Herzog, the imperfect father of two children, one from each of his two failed marriages, is only a symptom of a much uglier reality. Saul kept close tabs on civic affairs, often hanging out in Chicago’s city hall, police stations, and courthouse, and had no illusions about injuries far greater than those he suffered or caused. As Herzog waits in the courtroom for his own lawyer, he is an accidental spectator at the trial of a crippled woman who joined her boyfriend in hurling her three-year-old son against the wall to death. However imperfectly the Bellovian father may care for his child, how can this compare with the child who is smashed to death by his biological parent, herself so impaired that her act defies any concept of justice? Though Herzog tries with all his might—mind and heart—to obtain something for the murdered child, he experiences nothing more than his own human feelings. (The emphasis is in the original.) He asks what there is for him to pray for in modern post-Christian America. He cannot pray away the monstrousness of life. Herzog in his helpless grief speaks for Bellow, who cannot alleviate the horror he uncovers. The novelist cannot heal our world; he can only make it harder for us to pretend that we don’t know what we are required to know.
The most remarkable feature of Saul Bellow’s climb “to fame and fortune” is not in his life but in the way he probed life’s flaws in his fiction to arrive, humbled, at a measure of moral clarity. Herzog speaks for Bellow when he mocks “the canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s ‘Prussian Socialism,’ the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Unauthenticity and Forlornness”; when he scorns those “touting the Void as if it were so much salable real estate.” Bellow returned obsessively to the question of what it means to be human and as part of that search Herzog learns that the “real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us.” The timing of this novel was just right: The civil-rights movement was about to reach its goal, the war in Vietnam was not yet fully engaged, and Americans were ready for affirmation tempered by Jewish wit. Herzog was one of those cultural rarities—a critical and popular success that won Bellow the National Book Award and may have laid the groundwork for the Nobel Prize in Literature he was awarded a dozen years later.
But Bellow was just hitting his stride as the country headed for the shoals. In the years that followed, Bellow’s critics condemned him for his insistence on civilization, which offended those whom his “reactionary” and “bourgeois” civilization oppressed. His anti-radical wit enraged the radicals. The pipsqueaks of forlornness objected to his easy optimism. Already the appearance of this biography that ends with Herzog is being used in some quarters as an excuse for reviving attacks on the fearlessly confrontational Bellow of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970. This proves, if proof is needed, how much Saul Bellow matters to our democratic society, which ignores its own fragility when it is not fortified by reminders of what individual freedom requires. Bellow believed that the novel was best equipped to deliver those reminders, and that he was destined to write them. Zachary Leader has our gratitude for showing how Bellow met the terms of his contract.
1 Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964, Knopf, 832 pages