Saul Bellow’s Gift: A Life Of Observation

A new biography of the American novelist presents a comic genius who never claimed to be exemplary

Saul Bellow was one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, but there is something almost paradoxical about saying so. For the odd thing about Bellow is that he seems uninterested in so much of what the novel is traditionally supposed to do. Certainly you do not read Bellow for his plots, which usually feel improvised, even desultory. When asked by an interviewer in 1964 whether he “worked out his plots in advance, or made charts, or began by writing out biographies of his characters, or used file cards,” Bellow “replied ‘No’ to each question,” writes Zachary Leader in his ample and perceptive new biography, The Life Of Saul Bellow, Volume I: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964 (Jonathan Cape, 832pp, £35). “My ambition is to start with an outline,” Bellow said, “but my feelings are generally too chaotic and formless. I get full of excitement which prevents foresight and planning.”

Nor do you read Bellow to enter into the minds of independent, three-dimensional characters. While his books are full of unforgettable people, these are usually observed from the outside, in a tumult of physiognomic detail. Here is a minor character in Humboldt’s Gift, a detective: “He had a plain seamed face, now jolly, a thoroughly experienced police face. Under the red shirt his breasts were fat. The dead hair of his wig did not agree with his healthy human color and was lacking in organic symmetry. It took off from his head in the wrong places.” This is not how the detective sees himself, of course; the staccato poetry is that of an observer, and one proud of his powers of observation, as Bellow always was. “He looked at the world sideways,” observed Bellow’s second wife, Sasha, to Leader. “His head was always [slightly] turned away from you . . . he literally did not turn his head straight on . . . like a bird, very bright, observant, like a magpie, going to take something and use it.”

Taking things and using them was, in fact, the core of Bellow’s technique. Reading his books means thinking what he thought and seeing what he saw. In a trivial sense, this is true of any novelist, since no writer has any means of gaining knowledge about the world other than his own mind and senses — “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert admits. But in a traditional novel, that knowledge is deployed as a series of experimental propositions. Knowing what he does about human nature, Flaubert proposes that Emma Bovary, placed in this town with these neighbours, will think and behave in a certain way. The hypothesis is proved in the only way fiction allows, by the acceptance of the reader; our willingness to grant that acceptance is what sets the seal on a novel’s claim to realism. Yes, we think, this is what it would be like.

But Bellow seems indifferent to this kind of assent. On the one hand, he has a Jovian indifference to probability: if he wants to set Augie March adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, or have Henderson come face to face with a lion, he does so, seemingly out of sheer pleasure at his own comic gusto. (Not for nothing did Bellow “like to write with Mozart blaring”.) Even more mundane events in Bellow’s fiction often seem to belong to the world of slapstick, as at the end of Mr Sammler’s Planet, when Wallace Gruner wrecks his family’s home in a search for the cash he is convinced his father has hidden in the pipes; and it makes no sense to complain that slapstick is unrealistic.

At the same time, Bellow doesn’t have to worry about probability because so much of what he writes about is taken directly from life, and so has the unchallengeability of fact. Charlie Citrine, the narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, is by profession a biographer — “the deceased were my bread and butter,” he says — and many of Bellow’s most vivid characters are lightly fictionalised portraits of real people, often celebrated ones. Von Humboldt Fleisher has the appearance and life story of the poet Delmore Schwartz, just as Ravelstein is a faithful portrait of the philosopher Allan Bloom — both good friends of Bellow’s. But as Leader shows, even many of the minor characters who pass through Bellow’s novels were recognisable individuals. Sandor Himmelstein, the dwarfish lawyer of Moses Herzog, was based directly on Bellow’s lawyer friend Jonas Schwarz, described by Leader as “a tiny man with a misshapen body”. Naomi Lutz, the first love of Charlie Citrine, was based on Bellow’s high-school girlfriend Eleanor Fox. Wives, brothers, cousins, friends, enemies, all made their way inexorably into Bellow’s pages, whether they liked it or not.

Indeed, when Herzog, his masterpiece, was published in 1964, many of the critics who reviewed it knew Bellow well enough to know that the story of Herzog’s betrayal by his wife Madeleine, who has an affair with his friend Valentine Gersbach, was a direct transposition of Bellow’s own betrayal by his wife Sasha with his friend Jack Ludwig. (Indeed, Ludwig himself wrote one of the reviews, in a textbook example of chutzpah.) The collapse of Bellow’s marriage had been the talk of Minneapolis, where he was teaching at the time, making headlines. Bellow did nothing to hide the autobiographical roots of the story, even boasting of the way he took vengeance on Ludwig: “By the time I’m through with him he’ll be laughed out of the literature business.”

“Is it because he so persistently writes his autobiography that he fascinates us?” Bellow asked about Ernest Hemingway in a 1953 essay. As this example suggests, Bellow is hardly the first writer to use his life as the material of his work. But Hemingway used fiction to project himself into a series of sensitive, stoical and heroic avatars who represented himself as he wanted to be. In the end, his attempt to actually become that image took a heavy toll on both his writing and his life.

With Bellow, there is little sense that he has invested his ego or his self-image in his fictional surrogates; he does not want to be, or to be taken for, Herzog or Citrine. Bellow, one might say, affirms himself too wholly and instinctively to need to use his fiction for wish-fulfilment. Rather, these characters — usually hapless, harried, overwhelmed by events — are carriers for Bellow’s thoughts and observations, which are the real subject of the book. While they are assigned various professions — academic, biographer, scientist — all of Bellow’s protagonists are really disguised novelists. By the same token, to be a novelist, for Bellow, is primarily to be a conscious observer of the world we all share, rather than a builder of worlds of his own.

The extraordinary closeness of Bellow’s fiction to his life ought, on the face of it, to make things easier for his biographer. The events and dramatis personae of most lives quickly slide into oblivion; there is no one left to testify to the events and personalities of Bellow’s childhood, for instance. If Bellow himself hadn’t recorded them in stories both published and unpublished — like the abandoned manuscript Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son, which Leader uses to great effect — we would know nothing about them. Indeed, Bellow was especially passionate and detailed in recording his earliest experiences, which he guarded throughout his life as a Wordsworthian inheritance, a treasury of pristine impressions.

“Looking back, I think I had a kind of infinite excitement going through me, of being a part of this, of having appeared on this earth,” Bellow wrote of himself at the age of just two. “I always had this feeling. . . that this is a most important thing, and delicious, ravishing, and nothing happened that was not of the deepest meaning for you — a green plush sofa falling apart, or sawdust coming out of the sofa, or the carpet that it fell on . . . Everything is yours, really. There’s nothing around you that you don’t possess.” This almost transcendentalist conviction never left him, and it is responsible for the amazing vividness of his descriptions, which are never mere scene-painting but alchemical transformations of the world into language.

As these details suggest, the setting of Bellow’s childhood was not exactly bucolic. His family had immigrated from Russia to Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, not long before his birth in 1915, and his father Abraham Bellows failed in a wide variety of businesses before finding some success as a coal dealer. By that time the family had slipped across the border to Chicago, where Bellow would spend the rest of his childhood, and much of his adult life as well. (In a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the US it is worth remembering that Bellow, one of the most ardently American of writers, was an illegal immigrant.) Early and late, Chicago represented to Bellow the sheer ugly materialism of American life, a graceless and brutal city where mind seemingly had no place. As he wrote in his first novel, Dangling Man:

I could see a long way from this third-floor height. Not far off there were chimneys, their smoke a lighter gray than the gray of the sky; and, straight before me, ranges of poor dwellings, warehouses, billboards, culverts, electric signs blankly burning, parked cars and moving cars, and the occasional bare plan of a tree. These I surveyed, pressing my forehead on the glass. It was my painful obligation to look and to submit myself to the invariable question: Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man’s favor?

A writer born in such a city was compelled to justify his calling, and if Bellow was often irritable, quick to sense slights and respond to insults, it is mainly because he felt defensive in the face of his family’s and his country’s scepticism about art. This combination of touchiness and grandiosity took its toll on many of Bellow’s relationships — not least with those who wanted to write his biography. As Leader ironically but truly says, his great advantage over those who previously tried to biographise Bellow is that he never knew the man, and so never had the chance to be thwarted or disillusioned by him.

This means that he has a far more sympathetic approach to Bellow than James Atlas, who was first in the field with his 2000 Bellow: A Biography. In outline and often in detail, the story Leader tells is not very different from the one Atlas told. Here again is the immigrant childhood, the early idealism about the Great Books, the lean years of writing and freelance university teaching, and the formative trip to Europe, where Bellow experienced the epiphany that would lead to his first great novel, The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow liked to remember the moment in Paris in the spring of 1949, when he saw street-cleaners washing down the pavements with water from open hydrants: “I suppose a psychiatrist would say that this was some kind of hydrotherapy — the flowing water freeing me from the caked burden of depression that had formed on my soul . . . I remember saying to myself, ‘Well, why not . . . have at least as much freedom of movement as this running water.’”

It was Augie, published in 1953, that set Bellow at the head of his literary generation: here for the first time was the boisterous, Yiddish-inflected, picaresque style that broke through the literary decorum of the post-war period. It was followed by Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, and Herzog, a string of masterpieces of very different kinds; and when Leader’s first volume ends, in 1964, Bellow is well down the road that would lead to the Nobel Prize a dozen years later.

Throughout, Leader acknowledges his debts to Atlas’s research on many pages of his own book, while consistently taking issue with Atlas’s sceptical or hostile interpretations of Bellow’s conduct. This is not to say that Bellow comes across in these pages as an easygoing or exemplary man. He never claimed to be one. Leader quotes More Die of Heartbreak: “The greater your achievements, the less satisfactory your personal and domestic life will be” (a prosaic restatement of Yeats’s “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work”). He was immensely charming and attractive, especially to women. (After a European tour in 1960, Leader writes, Bellow returned to America “trailed by letters not only from Helen, Annie, Jara, and Alina, but from Maryi, Hannah, Daniela, Maude . . . and Iline.”) But he was also jealous of his freedom, and inattentive to things and people he saw as distractions from his calling. “People who write,” he told a student at one writing workshop, “tend to be despotic in life, as they often are towards their characters.” His bitter divorce from Sasha included episodes of physical violence, not surprising when one remembers the murderous rage of Moses Herzog, who reflects, “There are times I could look on Madeleine’s corpse without pity.”

Leader conceals nothing, but neither does he moralise — knowing, perhaps, that few lives could stand up better to so many hundreds of pages of scrutiny. Bellow, like almost all great artists, imposed the burden of his greatness on those he knew best: not just by making high demands, but by transforming his intimates into literary characters, thus asserting his sovereignty over them. To come into Bellow’s orbit was an ambiguous fate — thrilling for some, a cause of resentment and envy for others. Leader speaks for all of those who never knew Bellow — for his posterity and his readership, who need have no other relation with him than sheer gratitude.

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