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Bellow’s most merciless and eviscerating tormenter was his third wife, Susan Glassman, who defeated him in a long, acrimonious and expensive divorce suit. In 1974, after he had fraudulently misrepresented his projected income, the court, hostile to a successful Jewish intellectual, “ordered him to pay Susan $2,500 a month in alimony, backdated to 1968, plus $600 a month child support, plus lawyers’ fees.” Ignoring his own lawyer’s sound advice to settle the case, he surrendered to a self-destructive impulse, continued to appeal and deliberately prolonged his agony. By 1978, two years after the Nobel windfall, the penalties had increased to $650,000 alimony and $800 a month child support, plus his son’s medical and educational expenses.His legal fees had also soared to a crippling $200,000 and he seemed to be writing solely to pay for the court case. Bellow declared the whole thing was monstrous, but bitterly allowed that it had very considerably “expanded my understanding of human beings.” His lawyer ruefully remarked, “They wanted to hurt each other. It was a matter of who was going to hurt who the worst.”

I heard Bellow deliver the PEN speech on “American Writers and Their Public” to a packed hall in London on March 22, 1986. He had just suffered the death of his brothers and agonising break with Alexandra. Exhausted by jet-lag, stiff-gaited and parchment-skinned, he seemed terribly old and shattered. His talk ranged widely and wildly but, rambling and unfocused, he could not — like Ezra Pound in the Cantos — make it cohere.

Leader defines Bellow’s recurrent themes as “the relative claims of life and work, the intensity of childhood experience, sexual insecurity.” He could have added Jewish life and identity, the perils of matrimony and the defects of modern civilisation. Bellow vividly defines his settings and characters by minute particulars. In a frail and aged man, “only the pacemaker under his shirt had any weight.” An oppressive character “wouldn’t put you in his fish-tank for an ornament.” In his eye-witness description of liquefied and viscous Arab corpses on the battlefield after the Six Day War in Israel, “swollen gigantic arms, legs, roasted in the sun. The dogs ate human roast. In the trenches the bodies leaned on the parapets. The dogs came cringing, flattening up. In the sun the faces softened, blackened, melted, and flowed away. A strange flavor of human grease. Of wet paper pulp.”

The highly disciplined Bellow devoted almost every morning to the sacred writing hours from nine to one. He also gave other authors excellent advice: “go to your studio every day since nothing can happen in the studio unless you are in the studio” and ignore all material considerations: “don’t let the business of art intrude” on your creative work.

He taught for most of his adult life, mainly at the high-powered Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, then as a professor at Boston University. Its humanities faculty was more distinguished than Chicago’s and it was much closer to his beloved summer retreat near Brattleboro, Vermont. His favourite novelists, who recurred in his courses, were Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Conrad, Dreiser and Fitzgerald. He also admired the satires of Wyndham Lewis. Reports of his teaching ranged from “he was a dud, all he did was read from [Erich Auerbach’s] Mimesis” to “his seminar was amazing, as you’d imagine.” He was most effective with students who could follow and respond to his intellectual fireworks.
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