The Friend who Failed

Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing by Steven J. Zipperstein

Books Literature

Isaac Rosenfeld and Sol Bellow first met in Chicago in 1934. Rosenfeld was 16, Bellow (he had not yet started using the name Saul) was two years his senior. Both of them came from the same East European Jewish immigrant background. Both had literary ambitions and each recognised in the other something that set them apart from the smart kids they knew. Convinced that they were destined for great achievements, they became close friends. But from the outset it was a friendship shadowed by jealousy, as though they also understood that there was only going to be room for one of them at the top.

Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944. Rosenfeld made his debut as a novelist two years later, with an excellent, largely autobiographical work called Passage from Home. It was hardly the stuff of which best-sellers were made, but it was well received in the intellectual circles that meant most to him. At the Partisan Review and the New Republic, he was very much regarded as a coming man.

Then his career stalled. There was to be no second novel, and the only publisher he could find for a collection of his short stories was an otherwise unknown press in Minneapolis. (It may well have been the only book it ever published.) His reputation dwindled, and his private life was a mess. When he succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1956, he was only 38, but he already seemed a figure from the past. 

Meanwhile, Bellow was steaming ahead. The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953, had made him famous, and he was already well launched along the path that was to lead to the Nobel Prize. It is small wonder that in his last years Rosenfeld was more consumed by jealousy than ever. But the curious thing is that so was Bellow. As Steven Zipperstein writes in Rosenfeld’s Lives, the competitiveness between the two “would continue to haunt both until Rosenfeld’s death. It remained with Bellow long after that.”

The first aim of Zipperstein’s study is to liberate Rosenfeld from the confines of this relationship — to present him not simply as a bit player in the Bellow drama, but as someone who deserves to be remembered in his own right. The obvious strategy, one might have supposed, would have been to concentrate on Rosenfeld’s work. But Zipperstein can’t quite bring himself to claim that Passage from Home, for all its virtues, is a major novel, and his account of Rosenfeld’s short stories and abortive attempts at a second novel make them sound interesting, but no more than that. 

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.