In de­fence of a grumpy ge­nius

Saul Bel­low was neu­rotic, racist, sex­ist – and one of the great­est nov­el­ists of all time, says Vidyan Ravinthi­ran

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

in his mind, of the racial and sex­ual rev­o­lu­tions of the Six­ties. We see in Bel­low’s fic­tion that the in­nate en­er­gies he once thought re­demp­tive may ac­tu­ally be de­struc­tive – so­ci­ety is sick, and so is Moses Her­zog:

The glance in the mir­ror makes us think of Bel­low, writ­ing him­self into Her­zog, and see­ing his own face anew – with dis­ap­point­ment, per­haps. (One thinks, too, of Rem­brandt’s self-por­traits, and the mod­u­la­tions of aware­ness recorded in thick, glow­ing crusts of paint.) Bel­low also leaps from his hero’s first-world prob­lems to Dr Em­merich, a Jewish refugee, and the “frowzy door­man” with his First World War cap. How, Bel­low is won­der­ing, should a novel con­nect the per­sonal with the his­tor­i­cal?

Bel­low’s par­ents were JewishLithua­nian im­mi­grants. He writes with pangs of vivid­ness about mod­ern Amer­i­can life (Chicago in par­tic­u­lar, a city “blue with win­ter, brown with evening, crys­tal with frost”) while stress­ing the big, trau­matic world-re­al­i­ties from which mid­dle-class Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tu­als could ef­fec­tively in­su­late them­selves.

He didn’t fol­low the party line, re­fus­ing protest move­ments – “Peo­ple be­came or­gan­ised in camps, and while I was op­posed to the war [in Viet­nam], I just re­fused to line up with the new groups” – and didn’t join Robert Low­ell’s crew in turn­ing down an in­vi­ta­tion to the White House.

He vis­ited Is­rael and in To Jerusalem and Back de­picted it sym­pa­thet­i­cally (“al­though unashamedly pro-Is­rael”, says Leader, he nev­er­the­less reg­is­tered “the suf­fer­ing and injustice vis­ited on the Pales­tini­ans”). Even­tu­ally, sadly, he coars­ened into an un­apolo­getic sex­ist (there’s a hor­ri­fy­ing anec­dote here about him pub­licly slap­ping a lover,

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