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Bellow punctured the pretentious, unmasked the delusions and deflated the reputations of several intellectual phonies, blackballing LeRoi Jones, Edward Said and Susan Sontag for MacArthur fellowships. He was severely condemned for his provocative but hilarious challenge: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” But no one ever answered his attack on cultural relativism and he did not apologise. Leader criticises Bellow’s willingness to offend by refusing to write an introduction to a late friend’s book. But he was surely right to uphold his high standards and not endorse a mediocre work.

Despite his keen intelligence Bellow was also a gullible dupe who indulged his weakness for mitteleuropäische cranks. He spent fruitless days trying to improve his virility while trapped in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box and devoted years to the study of Rudolf Steiner’s fatuous anthroposophy. A close friend asked, “If he has to dabble in mysticism, why not Jewish mysticism?” Bellow also went in for pseudo- scientific medicine. He ingested massive doses of vitamins and amino acids “to slow or even reverse the aging process” but, unsurprisingly, continued to grow old.

After he became famous and won the Nobel Prize, his life became intensely charged and dangerously damaging. He observed, “Once you had picked up the high-voltage wire and were someone, a known name, you couldn’t release yourself from the electrical current,” but confessed, “My sensation-loving soul was also gratified.” Leader summarises Bellow’s distracting yet stimulating activities in the 1970s: “For more than a decade, while producing novels, essays, a book about Israel, lecturing all over the world, chairing the Committee on Social Thought, advising foundations and grant committees, visiting the White House, winning a Pulitzer Prize, a third National Book Award, Bellow was up to his ears in lawyers” during his punishing struggle with Susan.

Bellow once wrote that “he would like to die wide awake and fully conscious, because death is such a crucial experience he wouldn’t want to miss it.” In November 1994, when he was 79, he came as close as possible to death and still survived to write about it in “View from Intensive Care.” On the Caribbean island of Saint Martin he ate undercooked red snapper that was contaminated by a toxin called ciguatera, found in many species of the local coral-reef fish. He developed dangerous symptoms: headaches, muscle aches, numbness, vertigo and hallucinations, and collapsed on the bathroom floor.

Janis saved his life by flying him to Boston where he was placed in the Intensive Care Unit of Boston University Hospital and put into a medically-induced coma. It took a month to defeat his pneumonia, reduce his sedation and diminish his troubling delusions.

Bellow lived for another 11 years but did not, as he hoped, have a clear-minded death. After slipping in and out of consciousness for several weeks, he had a series of minor strokes and died of vascular disease at the age of 89 on April 5, 2005. It’s surprising, since Leader is so thorough, that he doesn’t mention the value of Bellow’s estate and beneficiaries of his will, presumably Janis, Rosie and his three sons by his first three wives.

Leader’s exhaustively researched, well-written and impressive biography does justice to the intriguing character and tormented life of a literary genius. It reveals that Saul Bellow was the most coruscating stylist, the most brilliant intellect, the most compassionate and great-souled writer in modern American literature.
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