Saul Bel­low’s Great­est Gift

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By Steven G. Kell­man


By Zachary Leader

Knop , 784 pp, $40

In , when the Mod­ern Li­brary polled read­ers to de­ter­mine the best nov­els in English, two books by Saul Bel­low — “Hen­der­son the Rain King” and “The Ad­ven­tures of Augie March” — made the cut. In … †, Martin Amis called Bel­low “the great­est Amer­i­can au­thor ever” — as if Melville, Twain, Whit­man, Dick­in­son, James and Faulkner were chopped liver. How­ever, by … …, seven years af­ter his death, a list com­piled by of the great­est Amer­i­can nov­els of the … th cen­tury omit­ted any­thing by Bel­low. In … Œ, a ros­ter of the “ Ž Best North Amer­i­can Nov­els of All Time,” pub­lished by The Tele­graph, in­cluded ti­tles by Richard Ford, Henry Miller and Lionel Shriver, but noth­ing by Bel­low, the Ozy­man­dias of Amer­i­can let­ters. Look on his once lav­ishly praised works (in­clud­ing Ž nov­els or novel­las), ye mighty, and de­spair!

So, Zachary Leader’s mas­sive, metic­u­lous bi­og­ra­phy of Bel­low might seem like a project of lit­er­ary pa­le­on­tol­ogy, dis­in­ter­ring the re­mains of a cul­tural mon­ster. Leader, an Amer­i­can who has taught in Eng­land for sev­eral decades, pub­lished the first vol­ume in … Ž, and he now be­gins the sec­ond — and fi­nal — in­stall­ment with the tri­umphant launch of “Her­zog,” which was dubbed “a mas­ter­piece” on the front page of The New York Times Book Re­view in ›œž. The au­thor’s place in the con­tem­po­rary canon would be con­firmed by a No­bel Prize in ›¡œ.

Bel­low’s life, though, is in tu­mult, not only be­cause of the in­creas­ing de­mands to teach, talk and write, but also be­cause of his pro­cliv­ity for messy, si­mul­ta­ne­ous ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments. Un­til the fi­nal cou­ple of decades, much of Leader’s e£ort is de­voted to cat­a­loging a harem, ex­tra­mar­i­tal in­ter­ests who are of­ten ap­palled to find them­selves trans­muted into fic­tional char­ac­ters. By the time of his death, at age Œ›, Bel­low had mar­ried five times and sired three com­bat­ive sons. His fifth wife, Janis, ž† years his ju­nior, gave birth to their daugh­ter when he was Œž. Leader re­counts Bel­low’s di­vorce from his third wife, Su­san, as “one of the long­est, most ex­pen­sive and ac­ri­mo­nious di­vorce set­tle­ments in Illi­nois his­tory.”

Alexan­dra Bag­dasar Ionescu Tul­cea, the Ro­ma­nian math­e­ma­ti­cian who be­came Bel­low’s fourth wife, de­scribes him to Leader as “very charm­ing, very funny, very witty, and he knew an enor­mous amount of things and he had a fab­u­lous mem­ory.” He was ex­traor­di­nar­ily gre­gar­i­ous, but he could also be prickly, abra­sive and de­lib­er­ately o£en­sive. I re­call a talk he gave at the U.S. Em­bassy in Tel Aviv where he rev­eled in bait­ing an au­di­ence of ad­mir­ers. Ed­ward Shils, the Univer­sity of Chicago so­ci­ol­o­gist who once was his close friend, con­demned Bel­low’s lack of any moral sense. “The one thing he took se­ri­ously,” ac­cord­ing to Shils, “was his lit­er­ary art, and that is some­thing very di£er­ent from moral se­ri­ous­ness.” Bel­low’s clos­est friend was per­haps Al­lan Bloom, au­thor of “The Clos­ing of the Amer­i­can Mind,” but the nov­el­ist be­trayed him by out­ing him in the novel “Ravel­stein” as gay and cut down by AIDS.

Leader is, af­ter Mark Har­ris, Ruth Miller and James At­las, the fourth to at­tempt a book-length bi­og­ra­phy of Bel­low. It is likely to be the de­fin­i­tive one. Though Leader lacked ac­cess to his sub­ject him­self, he has in­ter­viewed

al­most ev­ery­one still alive who knew him. He was al­lowed to ex­am­ine pa­pers un­avail­able to the oth­ers, and he had the ben­e­fit of in­cor­po­rat­ing Har­ris, Miller and At­las into his story. He re­counts At­las’s tur­bu­lent re­la­tion­ship with Bel­low, and he notes how Shils’s ad­vice helped shape At­las’s neg­a­tive por­trait of the nov­el­ist. Leader’s own text could not be called ha­giog­ra­phy; he does not at­tempt to ex­cuse Bel­low’s racially in­sen­si­tive at­tacks on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism or his em­bar­rass­ing quip: “Where is the Tol­stoy of the Zu­lus? The Proust of the Pa­puans? I’d be glad to read him.” How­ever, he en­dows Bel­low with a cul­tural grav­ity and flawed grandeur that make him seem, in the fi­nal years, like a Jewish Lear.

In this sec­ond vol­ume of the bi­og­ra­phy, Leader pro­vides de­tailed dis­cus­sions of Bel­low’s work, from the flawed play “The Last Anal­y­sis” and “Mr. Samm­ler’s Planet,” a dark med­i­ta­tion on geno­cide and ur­ban woes, to the late novel­las: “A Theft,” “The Bel­larosa Con­nec­tion” and “The Ac­tual,” as well as the oc­to­ge­nar­ian’s vale­dic­tion, “Ravel­stein.” He is more con­cerned with trac­ing how el­e­ments of Bel­low’s life show up in the fic­tion than in rum­mag­ing the fic­tion for clues to the life. Ul­ti­mately, the books are what jus­tify the years that Leader has spent pars­ing de­tails of how the man spent his time. Though they ex­hibit some of their au­thor’s flaws, the books will be read as long as read­ers con­tinue to care about the art of fic­tion. As Leader con­cludes, af­ter two vol­umes and more than ‘,’““ pages: “The fic­tion is his great gift — the great gift of his life.”

Steven G. Kell­man is the au­thor of “Re­demp­tion: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 2005) and “The Translin­gual Imag­i­na­tion” (Univer­sity of Ne­braska Press, 2000).



SEIZ­ING THE DAY: Bel­low cel­e­brates his No­bel Prize in 1976 with his fourth wife, Alexan­dra.

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