A giant of literature laid bare
Tim Adams hails the definitive account of Saul Bellow’s restless, destructive lust for life
The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005 Zachary Leader
Jonathan Cape, £35, pp864
There is a “be careful what you wish for” tone to this second volume of Zachary Leader’s decade-long submersion into the long life of America’s most vital postwar novelist. The first book was called
To Fame and Fortune and ended with the publication of Herzog, the novel that secured both of those ambitions for Bellow. Here, we open at the swish party for the book’s launch. Bellow, aged 49, is receiving his guests – “all the old loves, would-be loves, friends and near friends, the hits and misses”, as his sparring partner Alfred Kazin noted in a diary entry, and “Saul alone of all the old gang has achieved first-class status”. Having reached something like this summit, downhill now beckons for Bellow as uphill long beckoned. He resists descent with every fibre. “There’s more yet for me, he cries in his heart,” Kazin observes, “more, much more!”
Professor Leader agrees. There are well over 800 close-typed pages in the drama of his subject’s defiant second act; it is a tribute both to the life and to The Life that so few of these pages seem superfluous. The substance of these 40 years – four decades in which Bellow wrote a dozen more books, embarked on numerous love affairs (as well as on marriages four and five) and was awarded every major literary honour, including the Nobel prize in 1976 – is the necessity to preserve his private imagination while now a resolutely public figure.
Bellow embraces many strategies to maintain the great humane engine of his creativity, several of them horribly destructive to those around him and to himself. He mines, as Leader demonstrates, every nugget of experience and turns over every significant human interaction and all the restless churn of his emotion to his novels and, mostly, hang the consequences. The famous opening line of Herzog might stand as the epigram to what follows. “If I am out of my mind,” thought Saul Bellow, “it is all right with me.”
There have been other attempts to capture Bellow’s overflowing lust for life, notably James Atlas’s (mostly) unauthorised volume published while Bellow was alive, but this will stand as the definitive account. Leader talked to the surviving three wives and drew on the memories of Bellow’s three sons, as well as more than 100 friends (and one or two enemies) and devout literary progeny including Martin Amis and the critic James Wood. There is, as a consequence, a more journalistic feel to the professor’s work here than in the first volume; Bellow’s interior life seems nearer at hand.
Leader rightly focuses to begin with on the material changes in that life. Having struggled to make a good living with his early books, Bellow was suddenly, in his 50s, not only “the finest stylist writing fiction in America” (according to the New York Times), but also a serious bestseller. “Guys, I’m rich,” he told old literary friends, “what can I get for you?”
The change in circumstance is, inevitably, felt sharply by those around him. His third wife, Susan Glassman, appears to want nothing more than to be the famous writer’s spouse and creates for him an ostentatious home, including a study with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Bellow escapes from this unwelcome reflection of his new life in the predictable manner of the time, by beginning head-over-heels affairs, notably with two women in their early 20s. “Bellow’s main problems in the late 1960s were not with art but with women,” Leader notes, “as well as with children, students, editors and publishers.”
If the sexual revolution was one aspect of those times that Bellow embraced enthusiastically, he was otherwise mostly at odds with the counterculture, generally refusing