King Saul in his pomp — and dotage

Five wives and out? How Saul Bellow’s turbulent private life informed his novels

Jeffrey Meyers

Saul Bellow, born in Canada, mainlined the European intellectual tradition into the American novel and became the greatest postwar author. He was also a story writer, playwright, translator, editor, journalist, war correspondent and combative public intellectual. This volume covers the last four decades of his life when he published a series of brilliant novels: Herzog, Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, More Die of Heartbreak and Ravelstein. He won the Nobel Prize in 1976 — insouciantly commenting “I’m glad to get it. I could live without it” — and received more medals than a Russian general.

On March 19, 1990, in response to my inquiry, Bellow sardonically replied, “I feel about biography much as I do about buying a burial plot. It will come to that, of course, but I’m not quite ready for it.” James Atlas’s biography, published in 2000, was unremittingly negative, even condescending. Zachary Leader’s work, though superior to Atlas’s and better than his first volume, still has some serious flaws. He swallows Keith Botsford’s absurd claim that his subject “is a direct descendant of Machiavelli”; and misses Bellow’s allusions to the anthropological discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, to Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea”, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, Auden’s elegy on Yeats and Evelyn Waugh’s cruel comment on Randolph Churchill.

Leader constantly tries to connect every person and event in Bellow’s life to their fictional counterparts instead of emphasising his imaginative transformation of experience. In a typically sinking and superfluous sentence he writes of a minor novella  The Actual: “Bellow identified Herb Passin, a friend since high school . . . as the model for Harry Trellman; Marilyn Mann, the second wife of Sam Freifeld . . . as the model for Amy Wustrin . . . and Freifeld himself as the model for Amy’s second husband, Jay Wustrin.” As Bellow wrote of a friend’s mediocre work, “It has too much extraneous data . . . too many lists of names . . . So much lavish documentation makes the reader impatient.” As in the first volume, Leader goes in for long, boring lists, including 50 people, many of them obscure, who did and did not attend Bellow’s 75th surprise birthday party. But he is especially acute on how the literary agent Andrew Wylie, well named “The Jackal,” poached Bellow from his longtime agent Harriet Wasserman. He’s also good on Bellow’s summers in Aspen, Colorado, using an excellent source, the novelist James Salter, who admired Bellow’s work but “did not envy him as a man” with a chaotic personal life.

Bellow’s portrait of the Romantic author was self-reflective: “The artist is a spurned and misunderstood genius whose sensitivity separates him from and elevates him above the rest of philistine humanity.” But his good looks, exciting mind, sharp wit and exalted reputation were catnip to the ladies, whom he easily captured but could not control. Though not cut out for marriage, he had five wives and divorced the first four. One of his three sons explained, “He liked being taken care of. He liked beautiful, intelligent, spirited women. He didn’t like being bored.” 

Oppressed and heavy-hearted, Bellow resorted to subtle concealment of competing mistresses, moved around like a man on the run and needed bursts of frenetic activity, “even if it means constant trips to Japan, London, Yugoslavia or Israel to keep one jump ahead” of his emotional entanglements.

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.

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.

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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