Book review: The Life of Saul Bellow: Life and Strife 1965-2005

Stoddard Martin salutes a big warts’n’all biography


The Life of Saul Bellow: Life and Strife 1965-2005 By Zachary Leader
Jonathan Cape, £35


After an acrimonious 70th birthday dinner with his lifelong fellow man-of-letters, the critic Alfred Kazin wrote of Saul Bellow: “God how I hate these princelings bathed in their own conceit.” The genial sense of entitlement, neglect of family, jostling for primacy, adoption of appurtenances of wealth and, notoriously, what Kazin saw as a drift into right-wing attitudes, can all be glimpsed behind the handsome, humane face of a novelist who was arguably the greatest in a now-late, great generation of Jewish-American authors.

Self-conscious heir to Balzac, Joyce and James, Bellow is often seen as the type of artist to whom no connection is sacred. Wives, colleagues, the inner life — all are “material” to be transmuted in the crucible of the work. Thus, to inspect Bellow’s “fictions” against Zachary Leader’s impeccable, detailed biography — now completed in this second, colossal volume — is to both admire and cringe. Along with autobiography-ransacking contemporaries such as Updike, Mailer and Roth, they can evoke the arrière-pensée: when are we going to get beyond this cult of the Great Man, the self-privileging Writer?

Leader does not indulge in such fault-finding. His formidable book comes to record Caesar, not to judge him; he leaves that to others — Bellow’s sons and lovers, observers and calumniators.

Leader’s work is comprehensive. It will almost certainly become a prism through which his subject is seen from now on. Yet why so long? Whose decision? Heirs’, author’s, publisher’s? Half-a-million words crowd a volume which treats only the downhill side of a life. As the emperor commented to Bellow’s favourite composer: “Mozart, too many notes!” A “softened” Bellow of advanced years might smile and deflect, praising Leader’s work as a larger history of a time and place of immigrant Jewish enfranchisement — post-1960 America.

Another way of taking the book might be as a product of the end of an epoch, analogous to Mahler’s Gargantuan symphonies or Proust’s unending novel —- the extension of a well-worn genre as far as it can reach, intimating its swansong.

A character in one of Bellow’s later novellas wonders if Jews will be able to “hold their ground, or will the USA be too much for them?” Bellow’s portraits of Chicago’s deterioration may be portentous, especially in his controversial treatment of non-whites. Equally portentous may be his encouragement of Allan Bloom to write The Closing of the American Mind, which became a runaway best-seller. Leader is acute on Bellow’s bromance with Bloom, as on the contradictions and self-detections which lend his contemporary fictions their complex irony. The dapper oldie was a continuing student of his civilisation’s dark side.

Escape from worldly concerns is also a Leitmotif, notably Bellow’s fascination for Rudolf Steiner, which annoyed Bloom: “If he has to dabble in mysticism, why not Jewish mysticism?” Bellow made a pilgrimage to Steiner’s Goetheanum in Switzerland en route to one of his many trips to Israel, where he was “treated as royalty”, not least by “the schemer, the finagler, the arranger” Teddy Kollek.

Finally, it seems that many of the novelist’s most mellow hours were spent in Paris and Tuscany — beauty spots on a continent redolent with nostalgia for cultivated Jews of his descent, despite “a Wagnerism [which] in one form or another would reject them”.

“For the Jew,” Bellow said, “there is no religion without remembering”. Leader’s work is a monument to this iconic figure’s legacy. Exhaustive, respectful, essential.


Stoddard Martin is a writer and critic

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