A gi­ant of lit­er­a­ture laid bare

Tim Adams hails the de­fin­i­tive ac­count of Saul Bel­low’s rest­less, de­struc­tive lust for life

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

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

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