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Only his last wife, Janis Freedman, who was 43 years younger, redeemed his marital failures and fulfilled his expectations. Plain and pliant, Canadian, Jewish and well-educated, she devoted her life to Bellow. She became his amanuensis, household major domo, surrogate parent, guardian of the flame and mother of his child when the biblical patriarch was 84. As Shakespeare asked in The Merchant of Venice: “Why should a man whose blood is warm within / Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?” Leader did not interview their daughter, Rosie, who was autistic, and does not include her photograph after infancy.

Bellow was accused of being a “lousy” sexual performer, but was more convincingly called a passionate and virile lover. He even had a fling with his black cleaning lady, “about twice as tall as he was, and well built.” During an awkward sexual encounter with Harriet Wasserman, she remembered “asking him for permission, as if it were a museum objet d’art, ‘Can I touch this?’” Many of his mistresses remained in love and in touch with him.

Scott Fitzgerald said that Hemingway “needed a new woman for each big book”; Bellow lost a woman with each big book. He spilled sperm as he spilled ink, and sex both interfered with and inspired his writing. Bellow created and lived on turbulence, thrived on chaos, courted conflict and was inspired by personal cataclysm. He reported that one lover “caused me grandes dificultades in England and in the south, but I finished Sammler just the same.” The bearers of erogenous zones made him feel younger, “it was a way of avoiding the Angel of Death,” and he cherished their provocative bitchiness. Bellow’s emotional upheavals — his guilt and remorse, multitudinous failings and need for self-condemnation — made him beat his breast at his private Wailing Wall.

But he learned to use his grief and anger, and had to have these witches to torment and inspire him. He portrayed his ex-wives, before and after they divorced him, as they declined from goddess to devil. Their sexual betrayals and financial extortions supplied the mother lode of his fictional material and generated the misogyny and guilt that fueled his creative powers. He exalted his fourth wife, the Gentile Romanian mathematician Alexandra Tulcea, as the “translucent Minna gazing at the stars” in The Dean’s December and crucified her as the “ferocious, chaos-dispensing Vela” in Ravelstein. Alexandra had cruelly evicted him from their apartment “on the basis of grievances largely imagined” and complained that “for a long time she had not been able to obtain significant results in her mathematical researches, and that it was ALL MY FAULT.” His evil fictional wives, portrayed with rabid ferocity and caustic wit, are fascinating. His last, dutiful wife — Rosamund in Ravelstein — seems dull.
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