Saul Bellow died in 2005. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. The first installment of Zachary Leader’s exemplary, scrupulous, dispassionate, detailed, well-read, enthralling biography runs to over 800 pages and takes us only as far as 1964. The length is important. It allows Leader to adjudicate calmly, weigh the evidence — sometimes remaining undecided — and quote Bellow freely, so that the biographical narrative is enlivened by Bellow’s prodigally gifted prose, little injections of bliss.
In his introduction, Leader quotes the appearance of the turtle from Herzog — ‘it trailed a fuzz of parasitic green’ — and makes it clear that Bellow’s fluent, unstoppable descriptive kleptomania, as much as the lurid personal life, littered with lovers and disfigured by painful divorces, is why he undertook to write the life. Bellow was a great looter of life, a pillager of the functionally invisible present. He makes the reader his receiver, his fence: his work is a warehouse of stolen property. He gives us the goods. ‘In the east Nineties an open hydrant gushed and kids in clinging drawers leaped screaming.’ Clinging.
Some biographies have a timeline across the running heads. Leader’s doesn’t because his innovative technique — perfect for such a crowded lifespan — is to pause his narrative and write definitive essays about individuals and topics as they crop up. The milieu of Partisan Review — bullying, sexist, competitive, poisonous with intrigue — is conjured in a couple of vivid pages. He is unafraid to look ahead.
The novelist’s family could have been an inept nightmare of loose ends and ramification, but Leader encompasses first the father, Abraham, and then the brothers, methodically, one by one, from childhood to death, with the economy of entries in the DNB. He makes the record in his own way — as the characters occur, they are fully dealt with. He isn’t cowed by strict chronology. John Berryman is encapsulated, clean-shaven then big-bearded, his mumble metamorphosing from shyness to full-blown alcoholic inaudibility. It is almost as satisfying as this little touch in Bellow’s introduction to Berryman’s novel Recovery: from his high-sided hospital cot, Berryman reads his latest poem: ‘He put his finger to the bridge of his glasses, for nothing was steady here…’
The last full-length biography of Bellow was written by James Atlas in 2000. It ends as Atlas, having dinner with Bellow in a Petit Chef in Vermont, records his gratitude, telling Bellow — as any biographer might —what an interesting life he’d had. Good grist, in other words. Bellow’s tart retort: ‘I’m glad I haven’t lived in vain.’ There are drawbacks to having your subject alive — and kicking. Bellow was charming but prickly. (As you would be with your life in their hands and possibly their knife in your glands. Atlas quotes a partner on Bellow in bed: ‘boring’.) They didn’t hit it off, and it shows.
Atlas runs to 686 pages. There is some duplication, necessarily, in Leader. For example, Bellow’s encounters with Marilyn Monroe. (He shared a publisher with Arthur Miller.) But Leader includes a lovely anecdote absent from Atlas. Bellow and Sasha (his second wife) were invited to dinner by the Millers. They met at their apartment and were given a drink. No sign of Marilyn. Miller disappeared into the bedroom, returned and served up another drink. Still no Marilyn. Miller again absented himself: there was a ‘problem’. Sasha’s offer of help was accepted. In the bedroom, Marilyn was naked on the bed, surrounded by a slew of dresses, an haute couture of fallen angels. She couldn’t decide what to wear. This is more about Monroe than Bellow, but we’re glad Leader has found room for it, ignoring the criterion of strict relevance.
More germanely, there is nothing in Atlas about the sexual abuse suffered by Sasha at the hands of her painter father — possibly a factor in the breakdown of the marriage. Atlas had access to unpublished material in the Bellow archive, but Leader has read Sasha’s memoir, the third wife Susan’s memoir and Greg Bellow’s ‘biographic sketch’, and interviewed everyone in sight.
There are things in Atlas that don’t find their way into Leader’s narrative. For example, details to do with Jack Ludwig, the friend and colleague of Bellow who betrayed him with Sasha — the raw material for Herzog. Leader tells us, interestingly, that Sasha didn’t actually sleep with Ludwig at first. The affair ‘began’ in May 1958, but it wasn’t until July that ‘I really started having the affair’. That sounds right, true to the actuality of transgression. Evidently, Ludwig, club-foot and all, was more sexually proficient than his more handsome friend. A later rapprochement between the Bellows apparently profited from Sasha’s newly acquired expertise.
Atlas is more prurient than Leader. He floats a homosexual hypothesis, the notion that Ludwig was perhaps as interested in sleeping with Bellow as with his wife — and he quotes an excised passage from Herzog where the Ludwig figure intrudes on the Bellow figure in the bath: ‘I was soaping myself and then I realised that he was staring at my genitalia. And perhaps I showed off a little, for lathering makes it semi-tumescent.’ Not conclusive evidence of repressed homosexuality, I would say; base curiosity, rather, the desire to know where and how you stand.
Atlas also cites examples of Ludwig’s recklessness. Asked at a dinner party if he knew Bellow, he replied, ‘Know him? Hell, I’m fucking his wife.’ Why the indiscretion? For Atlas, it is a closet boast: Sasha, the wife, is a surrogate. Another explanation might be that Ludwig wanted the affair out there because he wanted to leave his own wife and live with Sasha openly. Sasha’s memoir implies that he was the keener adulterer. As the affair progressed, she became more aware of Ludwig’s flaws and inexorably withdrew.
The Ludwig-Bellow-Sasha triangle is the basis for Herzog. And it is the transaction between life and art — more intricate in Bellow than most novelists — that is Leader’s overall organising principle. It isn’t a simple question of universal currency exchange. In Herzog, one of the great scenes shows the estranged Herzog watching his rival through the bathroom window as he washes the cleft of Herzog’s little daughter — tenderly, swiftly, matter-of-factly. Bellow had no daughter. He had a son, Adam, by Sasha. Likewise, Ludwig’s club foot becomes Gersbach’s amputated leg — and provokes an extraordinary, moving imagined account of the loss of the limb.
The translation of reality into literature isn’t unproblematic. This is Herzog, in
another great passage, describing how his bootlegger father has been robbed and beaten by hijackers:
He had a gap in his teeth. His coat was torn and his shirt and undergarment were blood-stained… ‘Sarah!, he said, Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out — empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him — a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it.
But the truth is rather different. The dishevelled Abraham Bellow was met in the street by his eldest son Maury, who asked in a shocked voice what was wrong and was beaten up by his father. Why? Think of Noah accidentally seen naked, drunk and disadvantaged by his son Ham, who is made thereafter the ‘servant of servants’. Abraham Bellow was humiliated by the pity of his son, further shamed by this witness to his shame and failure, incensed at his helplessness, slaking his thirst for revenge on an innocent object. And the novelist cannot deal with this contradiction to his filial construct — the irascible but idealised patriarch.
In the end, he manages an accommodation in the story ‘Something to Remember Me By’. The mother of the young hero, Louie, is dying. A whore throws his clothes out of the window and leaves him naked to find his way home. Louie is afraid of his father’s reaction. His father hits him — and he is glad to be hit because he knows that his mother is alive. Had she been dead, his father would have embraced him. The blow is given a tender import. It is translated — and gains in translation. And loses in translation. Which is the argument of this brilliant book.
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