Son homes in on a literary lion
Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir
By Greg Bellow Bloomsbury, 229pp, $39.99 (HB), $29.99 (PB)
GREG Bellow’s memoir of his father, novelist Saul Bellow, is balanced, sympathetic, thoughtful and often curiously dull. This is not a criticism so much as an acknowledgment of Greg Bellow’s angle of approach. Where his father’s fictions are full of intellectual fireworks, in thrall to the grand tradition of European literature and thought, the son’s memoir is homespun, concerned with the domestic lining of family life.
And where Saul Bellow became increasingly associated with a reactionary politics, tinged with racism and misogyny, his son enunciates leftist beliefs. His father may have abandoned four marriages and three children in favour of art and fame, but Greg Bellow became a psychotherapist, devoted to care of others. They represent two poles of masculine endeavour, fixed in relation by heredity yet divided always by ideal and inclination.
Saul Bellow’s Heart is anti-oedipal account, then, in which the son does not wish to kill his father so much as embody an improved, alternative self. Of course, that self has nonetheless been shaped by resistance to parental material. More Die of Heartbreak is the title of a late novel by Bellow, but a few make it into a calling. ‘‘ In later years,’’ recalls Bellow Jr, ‘‘ when I had established myself as a child therapist, Saul commented that I had turned the misery of my childhood into a career. I’d characterise my gift as being able to relate to boys who suffered broken hearts.’’
Greg Bellow’s mother was Anita Goshkin, the attractive and politically committed young woman who became Saul Bellow’s first wife. Both emerged from the thriving immigrant Jewish community of Chicago in the inter-war years of the 20th century (the Goshkins, like the Bellows, had fled Russian pogroms): communist in their politics, highbrow in their intellectual pursuits and full of optimism in their power to effect social and artistic change.
The author covers this early ground briskly and well, tracing Saul Bellow’s own oedipal conflicts (his father was a stern patriarch and failed businessman; his older brother was successful, if something of a gangster) and the redeeming love of his mother. Greg Bellow suggests Anita took on some of those maternal duties, selflessly supporting Saul during early years of struggle and poverty despite his serial adultery.
Greg Bellow was born in 1944. He was a child in Paris when Bellow first set to work on The Adventures of Augie March, his third, breakthrough novel, and his youth was a spent under the growing light of his father’s literary reputation, if not his physical presence, since the marriage ended in the early 1950s, leaving Greg a ‘‘ lonely, sad . . . latchkey kid . . . with a depressed mother’’.
Unsurprisingly then, the grown author is less interested in his father’s achievements in the decades that followed than by their realworld implications. He identifies family members and friends whose lives and personalities were cannibalised for Bellow’s fiction, sometimes causing pain and anger, and he explores the implications of Bellow’s fame for his intimates. It is not that Greg Bellow wishes to diminish his father’s work. Instead he tries to show how Bellow’s writings damaged the man and alienated him from the world, even as his
audience of admiring readers was expanding: I remember seeing Saul, winter and summer, emerge from his study with his shirt soaked through with sweat. The physical and mental toll that writing took on my father was like the effect of climbing an electric pole, taking hold of the hightension wires, and letting the current run through him for a long, long time.
Bellow suffered for his art; Greg Bellow accepts this. That his children, friends, lovers and wives suffered alongside is a decidedly unromantic side-effect that Greg Bellow balances with fonder recollection. After a period of undergraduate rebellion, when the son found himself studying in Chicago while his father was an eminent presence on campus, the pair