Son homes in on a lit­er­ary lion

Saul Bel­low’s Heart: A Son’s Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

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

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