Saul Bellow's Heart

Greg Bellow


It can't have been easy being Saul Bellow's son. He was a towering genius, a womaniser, sharp of tongue and hard of mind, yet with a fragile core that shrank away from the type of personal criticism he was so adept at dispensing. Bellow's heart and mind were consumed by his work, producing novels that helped define post-war US literature. And, as with many influential historical figures, behind the public legacy lies the pain of the family doomed to play an auxiliary role to a great figure.

Greg Bellow clearly had a troubled relationship with his father. "Was I a man or a jerk?" Saul asked his son once in a rare display of self-doubt. A psychotherapist, he puts himself on the analyst's couch in an attempt to find an answer. The conclusion, it seems, is that he may well have been both.

The book's strength lies in its exploration of the complex familial network that surrounded Bellow and the ghetto mentality from which he never truly escaped. Bellow Jr reaches into his father's immigrant upbringing. Despite the chaos, privation and beatings from his volatile father, Abraham, a failed bootlegger from Dvinsk, Saul treasured this time. Much is made of Saul's "inability to penetrate Abraham's mask of family civility". From this neglect, stems Saul's own inability to give and receive love freely, which his son believes to be his "greatest personal flaw". Perhaps the most striking memory of Greg's childhood is the closed door of his father's study.

Despite this barrier, the author makes the most of his unrivalled perspective to identify parallels between his father's life and his art. In each of Bellow's protagonists he finds echoes of his father's self-perception, most notably in Moses Herzog, "a trusting man surrounded by an army of betrayers". Bellow had recently discovered an affair between his second wife and his friend Jack Ludwig. Greg Bellow seems aware that his father would have loathed such a public discussion of his private motivations, and in this sense the book is, at least in part, a belated filial rebellion.

The dominant theme of the book is the distinction between "young Saul", the idealistic, areligious Trotskyite radical who was a loving if difficult father, and "old Saul", a cantankerous, conservative and authoritarian man who became surrounded by admirers and distanced from his own children. His son identifies the 1976 Nobel Prize as the turning point, when "the optimism and hope I loved and admired were buried under anger, bitterness, intolerance and preoccupations with evil".

Bellow did indeed become more conservative in his later years, and returned to the Judaism of his youth. His son's resentment at this, and the rift that it caused with his father, renders him incapable of understanding or explaining it properly.

The book's greatest strength is also its weakness. Deeply personal, at times it becomes an Oedipal vendetta more about Greg Bellow's pain than his father's heart. He acknowledges at one point that "Saul always exerted more influence on me than I would have wished". In fact, the sheer size of his father's character seems to have overwhelmed him, and one is left with the hope that writing this memoir has helped lift the weight of his enormous and painful legacy.

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