The Life of Saul Bellow by Zachary Leader — pot stirrer-in-chief
In 1976, Saul Bellow not only won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the same year as his Pulitzer win for his eighth novel, Humboldt’s Gift — he was also invited to judge the Miss USA beauty pageant, since “a poll of contestants . . . reveals that you are their number one author”. He was already one of America’s highest earning writers. A decade before his double prize successes his tax return reported income of $140,000 (more than $800,000 today). At the inter-disciplinary Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he taught for 30 years from 1963, he took over the office vacated by economist-philosopher FA Hayek.
As writer, pundit, tastemaker and public intellectual, the kid born in working-class Quebec in 1915 to newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants had, on every measure, achieved “fame and fortune” by 1964. Those words subtitled the first volume of Zachary Leader’s stupendous biography: all told, a 1,500-page epic whose concluding half now thoroughly disproves F Scott Fitzgerald’s axiom that American lives have no second acts. Or rather, Bellow lived from his mid-1960s pomp until his death in 2005 centre stage in that lavishly decorated second act that the postwar superpower could offer its highest achievers. It often feels as if Bellow — the Yiddish-speaking baker’s son who grew up on the mean streets of blue-collar Chicago, and whose brother Maury worked for Al Capone’s lawyer — spends Leader’s first volume applying for jobs and grants he fails to get. In Love and Strife, lapped in honours and plaudits, he turns plenty of gigs down — from top-dollar professorships to that 1976 beauty pageant.
Bellow, always an “outstanding noticer” like his ambitious though insecure protagonists, kept his literary eyes peeled and never settled into grand-old-man complacency. As his long-term girlfriend Maggie Staats tells Leader, he “lived on turbulence . . . he caused it, and he set scenes”. In his relationships (five marriages, four children, countless affairs), his literary amities and rivalries, his needling provocations on race, culture and foreign policy, Bellow stirred every pot within his reach.
The one-time Trotskyist turned not so much into a reactionary as a mischief-making radical-baiter. His notorious remark (in an interview, not in print) about Zulus lacking a Tolstoy and Papuans a Proust “derived from contempt not for third world countries but for thought-police, verbal hygienists”. Besides, such spats brought the pot to a gratifying boil. “He needed change,” says his fourth wife, Romanian mathematician Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea: “the old muse had to be deposed, and the new muse was waiting in the wings”.
Family, lovers, friends and fellow-writers fret that this wired and crackling restlessness licensed treacherous deeds and words. His sons Greg, Adam and Daniel deliver harsh, hurt but still-loving judgments. Daniel calls Bellow’s ruinous, bitter, decade-long legal tussle with his third wife Susan Glassman “a textbook approach about how not to get divorced”. Even in 2000, aged 84, the tireless self-fashioner, who had not long past survived a near-death ordeal after eating a contaminated red snapper on a Caribbean island, was “taking heat on three fronts” (his own phrase).
His fifth wife Janis Freedman — 43 years his junior — had given birth to a daughter. James Atlas, Leader’s more partisan predecessor, was preparing his barbed biography of Bellow. The veteran novelist also wrote an incendiary swansong, Ravelstein, which in effect “outed” his beloved philosophical soulmate, Allan Bloom. Is Ravelstein “an act of friendship or of betrayal?” The same question sticks to many of the senior Bellow’s high-risk gambits.
At the start of volume one, Leader portrayed Bellow on his deathbed, asking a friend: “Was I a man [as in the Yiddish mensch: stalwart, selfless, upright] or was I a jerk?” That plea recurs as Love and Strife concludes. A formidably accomplished critic and biographical storyteller (no mean “noticer” himself) rather than a moralist, Leader leaves the verdict to us. He does argue that Bellow’s fiction — and these decades witnessed Mr Sammler’s Planet, The Dean’s December and More Die of Heartbreak on top of Humboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein — remains his “great gift”.
However, all those self-willed disturbances, erotic and artistic, helped seed the work: “the fullness of the fiction mirrors the fullness of the life”. Leader chronicles the art-life relationship with a high-definition precision and amplitude. His sedimentary method lends both volumes a richly satisfying density of texture, like impacted strata of multicoloured rock. He maps the whole fractured geology of Bellow’s mind and, at the bedrock layer, finds a curious hankering not for fuss but peace.
Bellow’s bedazzlement by modern mysticism — mostly the ideas of Rudolf Steiner as channelled through his English disciple Owen Barfield, who also influenced CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien — shifts this volume into an unexpected key. As he aged, the prose magician of the “total American situation”, whose fiction fizzes with white-hot particulars, yearned for a cool, soothing mist of spiritual uplift. Did he ever locate it? As Leader compellingly argues, “love” and “strife” contended around Bellow even at his funeral — later fictionalised by his friend Philip Roth in Everyman.
Yet he also shows us Bellow, nearing 90 and stricken with dementia, reading George Herbert’s poem “The Flower” with Janis: a bejewelled cameo of twilight harmony. “Who would have thought my shrivelled heart/ Could have recovered greenness?”, Herbert’s poem wonders. As this truly magnificent biography reveals, Bellow “recovered greenness” time and again. But did others have to wither as he flowered?
The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005, by Zachary Leader, Jonathan Cape, RRP£35, 767 pages
Boyd Tonkin is the author of ‘The 100 Best Novels in Translation’