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A review of Bellow, by James Atlas.
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Saul Bellow, our most intellectual writer, mainlined the European novel of ideas into the veins of American literature and infused it with a high-octane style. His prose is exuberant, energetic, torrential; his voice intimate, learned, and allusive. His characteristic hero, a flawed, high-spirited highbrow, is—as he wrote in More Die of Heartbreak—“a genuinely superior individual, susceptible of course to human weakness and unable to manage his sexual needs … his love longings.”
James Atlas—who convincingly argues that “to read his books in consecutive order is to follow the contours of his biography” —has done exhaustive research, uncovering, for example, a well disguised description of Bellow in Heinz Kohut’s psychoanalytic case studies. He has mastered the sprawling material, and written an intelligent and perceptive, lively and absorbing narrative. There are remarkably few errors, though some minor mistakes have sneaked into the text: Jiménez and Cádiz have accents; Tri-Quarterly and The Nigger [sorry!] of the “Narcissus” are mis-punctuated; socks don’t have tassels; and the quote on Mozart is by Alfred, not Albert, Einstein. Nathanael West was not going to a funeral (except his own) when he fatally crashed his car near the Mexican border; Richard Poirier is Catholic, not Jewish; Robert Hatch was literary editor of The Nation, not editor of The New Republic; George Walden, PPS to the British Secretary of State for Education and Science, was not “minister of higher education.” Atlas frequently misuses the word “comfortable,” and he misses Bellow’s allusions to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, to the artist Christo, and to Jack Warner’s “writers are schmucks with typewriters.”
There are several confusing contradictions in the book. Was Bellow unsure of himself “when he ventured into the realm of ideas” or did his great erudition allow a “mastery of ideas”? Was the compulsive womanizer an indifferent sexual performer who “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap” or satisfyingly “passionate and virile”? Was his second wife resentful in her role as Mrs. Bellow or did she “love being Mrs. Saul Bellow” and “aspire to have a salon”? Was his girlfriend Maggie Staats a “gorgeous blonde” or “not beautiful”? Is his young fifth wife, Janis Freedman (Bellow is much older than his current mother-in-law), attractive or “willfully plain”? And though Atlas is often commendably thorough, I would have liked to know much more about Bellow’s enforced exile with Arthur Miller while they both waited out their divorces in the remote Nevada desert.
Atlas’s book is marred by two flaws. Like Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul, Bellow delights in bellicose remarks—exhibitionistic, outrageous, provocative. He said of a well-endowed black woman at the U.N.: “It was her country that was undeveloped, not herself,” which Atlas quotes with humorless, archly correct, and solemn disapproval. Bellow’s notorious but hilarious challenge— inspired by Wyndham Lewis’s Paleface— “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” dared to ask a question that no one has ever answered.
This query cuts to the heart of his late political beliefs, to his distress about the irreparable damage done to higher education by the radicals of the 1960s:
In the women’s movement, the Black Power movement, the student uprisings on campuses across the country, he saw an insurrection against all the things he valued. His whole identity as an intellectual, a representative of the high culture that had celebrated his own work … was suddenly under violent attack.
“You don’t found universities in order to destroy culture,” Bellow asserted. “For that you want a Nazi party.” With a keen eye for intellectual phoniness and pretense, he blackballed LeRoi Jones, Edward Said, and Susan Sontag for MacArthur Fellowships.
In 1990, in response to my inquiry, Bellow replied: “I feel about a 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.” That same year Atlas began his decade-long slog through Bellow’s life. Though Bellow had asked, “what can you reveal about me that I haven’t already revealed about myself?,” Atlas persisted and got his grudging but generous cooperation. “He saw me at regular intervals,” Atlas writes, “provided access to documents, offered me tea and dinner, and—this is key —never interfered in what I wrote.”
But, like Carlos Baker with Hemingway and Lawrance Thompson with Frost, Atlas came to resent and dislike his subject for devouring his life, and his book is unremittingly negative. While celebrating his genius, Atlas condemns Bellow as a master of self-exculpation: self-serving and sanctimonious; a self-absorbed, unfaithful, hostile husband; incapable of forming deep emotional ties; a biblical bearer of grudges (“Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” saith Bellow); xenophobic; racist; a misogynist who found strong women threatening; a man whom “wisdom has so far eluded.” Atlas’s biography would be much more effective if he merely presented the evidence instead of offering moral judgments that suggest he’s superior to his subject. Has Atlas, for example, gained the profound wisdom that has somehow eluded Bellow?
One of Bellow’s legion of lawyers noted that “his life is always in flux and therefore there is no even temporary permanence.” His name came from byelo, which means “white” in Russian; far from being, like Augie March, “American, Chicago born,” he was born Solomon (not Saul) on the outskirts of Montreal. (Like his brilliant literary contemporaries Leon Edel, Hugh Kenner, and Donald Greene, he came from north of the border and made his career in America.) Atlas, transcending the leaden sentences of his opening chapters (“Among those singled out [in high school] as promising ‘new material’ were Ted Cieslakiewicz, Casimir Wrzecionkowski, Ray Frelik, and Sol Bellow”) offers some telling details of Bellow’s life. He had an Iroquois nurse; wore the Orthodox fringed prayer-shawl as a boy; and frequented the Tolstoi Vegetarian Restaurant in his neighborhood. MGM, spotting his photograph in a newspaper, offered to make him a movie star, another John Garfield. When he left his house, he stored his manuscripts in the freezer in case of fire. When he went with two friends down to Greenwich Village to pick up the Formentor literary prize, they all waited for a bus instead of taking a taxi. And Atlas deftly deflates John Updike’s “magisterial condescension masquerading as generosity.” Though Bellow wound up with more medals than a Russian general, he struggled for many years before achieving success. He attended Crane Junior College, the University of Chicago (where Jews comprised one-third of the entering class), and Wisconsin before graduating from Northwestern in 1937. He studied anthropology in graduate school because “he was a savage himself,” but each chapter of his thesis turned out to be a story. A legacy from his mother paid for a first trip abroad, and Mexico inspired some of the most vivid scenes in Augie March.
Bellow has a characteristically Jewish sensibility: nomadic and emotional, gossipy and intellectual, “steeped in irony and a consciousness of history.” But he is also guarded, distrustful, distant—in other words, an egotistic artist. Like Hemingway, Bellow carried around his exciting sense of destiny well before he made it as a writer. Like D. H. Lawrence, he rewrote an entire manuscript instead of revising it and threw out better work than most novelists published. His first novel, Dangling Man (1944), which, in Atlas’s sound but scarcely original judgment, “announced the arrival of a new and distinctive voice in American literature,” sold only 1500 copies. The Victim (1947), inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Eternal Husband, didn’t do much better with sales of 2250. The more ambitious Adventures of Augie March (1953), his stylistic and commercial breakthrough, sold 30,000. But after Seize the Day (1956)—with sales of 5000—“he was financially and geographically back where he’d started a decade earlier.”
The first great success was Herzog (1964), his most intellectual and difficult novel, which became first on The New York Times bestseller list and racked up astonishing sales of 142,000. Atlas, typically negative, wrote that More Die of Heartbreak (1987) “sold fewer than seventy thousand copies in hardcover, and Dell, publisher of the paperback edition, sold less than half of its six-hundred-thousand printing.” Most serious writers would be ecstatic about such spectacular figures.
During all this time, and throughout his career, Bellow kept alive with a series of teaching jobs (a “marvellous racket,” interspersed with two Guggenheim fellowships) at Minnesota, NYU, Princeton, Bard, the New School, and the University of Puerto Rico. He did not have a permanent job until 1962 when the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago offered what became a tenured appointment. In 1993, seeking a change with his fifth wife and wanting to be near his summer home in Vermont, he was lured away by a salary of $155,000 at Boston University. Atlas’s account of Bellow’s teaching ability is also contradictory. His performance clearly depended on whether he was stimulated by his students—and whether they grasped his learned allusions and understood what he was talking about. Atlas states that “Bellow had trouble engaging his students; they simply weren’t real to him,” and quotes a Bard pupil who “gave him low marks as a teacher” but generously conceded that he knew the material. (Bellow would have loved teaching evaluation forms, which a colleague of mine once disgustedly set on fire in front of his class.) Bellow (unlike most professors) clearly loved literature and responded to it enthusiastically. A more perceptive student at Chicago called him “inventive, eloquent, and discursive,” said he spoke as he wrote and enchanted his audience with intellectual coruscations about his life as a writer. When I heard Bellow lecture at a PEN conference in London in March 1986 he was stiff-gaited and parchment-skinned, exhausted by jet-lag and pussy-whipped by his fourth divorce. He ranged widely and wildly and, like Pound in the Cantos, could not make it all cohere.
Bellow thrived on chaos. He loved contention, courted conflict, and was inspired by personal cataclysm. “The worse my personal disasters became,” he observed, “the funnier Henderson seemed to get.” He wrote all morning and then, he told a reporter, went out and made his mistakes. “Life, ourselves assisting, broke everyone up.” His preeminent disaster was the long-running affair between his second wife, Sondra, and his close friend Jack Ludwig. Bellow, self-absorbed as always, remained unaware of the cuckoldry for many years, then used it to inspire the pain and passion in Herzog.
Fitzgerald and Hemingway, midwestern puritans, slept with only half-a-dozen women apiece. Bellow, freed of all moral restraints and desperate for his quota of adultery, had scores, perhaps hundreds, of mistresses—the rock on which his marriages crashed. In an amusing passage (not quoted by Atlas), Harriet Wasserman, Bellow’s longtime agent, described their only sexual encounter. After he peeled off her condom-like black Lastex body suit and they got into bed, “I kept asking him for permission, as if he were a museum objet d’art. ‘Can I touch this?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Can I touch this?’ ‘Yes.’”—and ran out of “thises” after only two touches.
Bellow’s first three wives were “nice” Jewish women from the midwest and, as Stein said of Hemingway, “Anyone who’s married three girls from St. Louis hasn’t learned much.” The most difficult and most vindictive was the third, Susan Glassman, the daughter of a Chicago surgeon, who felt she had married below her and disliked Bellow’s family. When a carful of relatives showed up for supper, she was “offended to see the antique refectory table littered with bottles of Pepsi cola… . When the relatives began singing Yiddish songs, it was the last straw.” Susan, who pursued him mercilessly through the divorce courts, once extracted an additional $500,000, plus $125,000 for her lawyers’ fees. Bellow, always ready with the one-liner, ruefully noted: “her fig leaf turned out to be a price tag.” “A real Klondike,” Susan supplied a mother lode of material for future novels.
It’s fascinating to see how Bellow organized his misery and portrayed his wives, from goddess to bitch, before and after they divorced him. His fourth wife, Alexandra, a Romanian mathematician, he depicted as elegant, sophisticated, and very sexy in To Jerusalem and Back and sensitive, refined, and beautiful in The Dean’s December, partly set in her native country. After their acrimonious split (she got “only” $100,000 and their luxurious double apartment in lakeside Chicago), she appeared—transformed and transfixed—as Vela in Ravelstein, a cold, emotionally constrained, self-absorbed professor who ignores her needy husband. In his novels, Bellow rewrote his affective past, unpersoning and unloving his once-beloved women.
Bellow also satirized his former friends and current enemies, and Atlas carefully identifies the original models of his fictional characters. Jack Ludwig is Valentine Gersbach, Sondra Bellow is Madeleine in Her- zog. Delmore Schwartz is Fleisher, Susan Bellow is Denise, Hilton Kramer is Magnasco, R. P. Blackmur is Martin Sewell, Edward Shils is Richard Durwald, Keith Botsford (Bellow’s old sidekick) is Pierre Thaxter in Humboldt’s Gift. Isaac Rosenfeld is Zetland, Harold Rosenberg is Victor Wulpy in Him with His Foot in His Mouth. Susan reappears as Matilda in More Die of Heartbreak. Maggie Staats (a “serious” marathon mistress) is Clara Velde in A Theft. Allan Bloom is the eponymous hero, Mircea Eliade is Grielescu in Ravelstein. (And Bellow himself appears as Felix Abravanel in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.) All these people, of course, are both true to life and miraculously transformed in the novels. Many of them, though skewered, were pleased to achieve this immortality.
His sometime friend Joseph Epstein synthesized the progress of Bellow’s career:
From the skeletal Dangling Man (1944) to the more artistically rounded The Victim (1947) through the spirited breakthrough of The Adventures of Augie March (1953) on to the urban intensities of Seize the Day (1956), to the exuberance of Henderson the Rain King (1959), to the rich comic complexity of Herzog (1964), to the masterwork that is Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Bellow has advanced from being a promising writer to an interesting writer to an exciting writer to a major writer.
We can say of the lively and profuse Bellow—our version of a Japanese “Living Treasure”—what Dryden said of Chaucer: “Here is God’s plenty.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 February 2001, on page 64
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