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Faced with this relative dearth of literary material, he keeps much of the focus on the writer's life and personality. We are guided through a world of seedy apartments and stormy relationships, through Rosenfeld's marriage (to a Greek girl), his drinking, his womanising, his precarious days as a freelance dashing off trade magazine pieces, his spell working on a barge docked in New York harbour. We catch what must surely be the authentic flavour of his intensity, his oddity and his alternate bouts of earnestness and self-indulgence. 

He could be very odd indeed, especially where sex was concerned. When he took his four-year-old son to the park, he encouraged the boy to touch the vaginas of little girls. (How did he avoid the attentions of the police?) He once said that he could be attracted by a woman only if she had a stain on her dress. And he was a fervent disciple of the crackpot sex theories of Wilhelm Reich. Needless to say, he owned a Reichian orgone box, and even an orgone blanket.

It all makes compelling reading — partly because Zipperstein tells the story with skill and intelligence, partly because it is so hard to decide what one thinks about Rosenfeld. Some accounts make him sound dreadful (Zipperstein's word). Others, and they are no less convincing, stress his warmth and generosity. When he and his wife moved to New York in 1941 (they eventually went back to Chicago), he was soon mixing with the intellectuals grouped around the Partisan Review. But he didn't feel at home in their world. He recoiled from what Zipperstein sums up as "its hardness, its calculation, its unremitting unkindness". 

There is another respect in which he stood apart from them. Most of them were Jewish; few of them were willing to identify themselves publicly with Jewish issues — not even with the Holocaust. (They felt that to do so would hamper their ability to take part in larger, more "universal" dramas.) But to Rosenfeld, suppressing his Jewishness seemed unnatural. His position was complicated — he published a notorious attack on Jewish dietary taboos, for instance, which was designed to give offence and succeeded. But he was never slow to proclaim his Jewish interests and he wrote out of a strong awareness of Jewish history.

His most virtuoso piece (written in collaboration with Bellow) was a Yiddish version of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — a high-spirited piece of vaudeville but also, one feels, payback for all the unpleasant passages in Eliot about Bleistein, Rachel née Rabinovitch and the like. And while Passage from Home is about human nature at large, much of its interest derives from its Jewish coloration. The 14-year-old hero learns that he can't trust the adults he has grown up with, that he must make his own way. But there is yearning in the book for the world he is about to lose as well, for its traditions and rituals. "In a novel devoted to escape from home," as Zipperstein notes, "oddly, the warmest moments of life are those with family." 

Although Rosenfeld's Lives retrieves Rosenfeld from under Bellow's shadow, his fascination remains that of a might-have-been. As to why he failed where Bellow succeeded, one can only guess. Perhaps, in the end, Bellow simply had more talent. If he didn't, the whole thing remains a mystery.

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