Bellow the Belt 

James Atlas’ pugilistic bio

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
Photo courtesy Maggie Glotzer

Saul Bellow, one of two living Americans to have won the Nobel Prize for literature (the other is Toni Morrison), hardly lacks for recognition. He once complained that he had won so many medals he felt like a Russian general. But Bellow, James Atlas’ sharply critical new biography, is one medal he won’t be pinning to his chest anytime soon. Demonstrating that no personal or literary failing is too minor not to be dwelled on at length by the contemporary biographer, Atlas proves so persistently needling, so obsessively keen to cut his subject down to size, that you wonder if, deep down, his intention isn’t to prove that Bellow is just another fairly talented writer — sort of like Atlas himself, in fact.

In a way, this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable book. After a while you get into the rhythm of the thing, and wait for the blows to fall. Every few pages — BAM! — Bellow gets it between the eyes, and you brace yourself for the next time. If this is an often willfully small-minded biography, it’s also a readable one. Atlas writes clearly and gracefully, keeps one turning the pages, and maintains a largely sympathetic tone until the publication of Mr. Sammler’s Planet in 1969, the book in which Bellow registered his distaste for the “narcotized, beflowered” citizens of the ’60s. At that point, the knives come out.

Atlas’ account of Bellow’s early life is the best part of the book, and a mere two pages into it I already felt at home. What Bellow fan wouldn’t? For there, generously quoted on the second page, was the great man’s voice sounding off on the deprivations of his early days as a novelist (“If I had been a dog I would have howled”) and on the decidedly unliterary nature of the tough, broad-shouldered city in which he learned his trade:

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Bernanos, the French religious novelist, said that his soul could not bear to be cut off from its kind, and that was why he did his work in cafés . . . Cafés indeed! I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago. There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who brought his manuscripts into a tavern.

Even in that throwaway paragraph, buried in an otherwise obscure commencement address, it’s all there: the range of reference, the flash of humor, the electric crackle of the prose. No one else writes sentences like that, and as Bellow’s most recent novel, Ravelstein, shows, the 85-year-old novelist can still turn them out. Of an academic, he writes: “He looked like a tyrant, with the tyranny baked into his face.” Of a neurologist examining a seriously ill patient: “Dr. Bax, like a skillful Indian scout of the last century, pressed his ear to the rail and heard the locomotive coming. Life would soon be back . . .” Of a seductively dressed woman: “She is gotten up to persuade, to monopolize approval. In political terms, it could be said that she is out to be elected by a landslide.” There are plenty of writers who could read politics into a woman’s dress, but only Bellow, I think, would have the wit to connect it to an actual election.

Saul (originally Solomon) Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec, in 1915, the youngest child in a family of working-class Jewish immigrants whose other members were all born in Russia. In 1924, Bellow’s father, in trouble as a bootlegger, moved the clan to Chicago, and as a result the nearly Russian, nearly Canadian Bellow can now be called an American novelist. His beginnings were hardly easy, and Atlas, who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood a generation later, captures them vividly. One of the surprises of the book is learning just how long Bellow was willing to be unsuccessful, even unpublished — to serve, in other words, a true literary apprenticeship — despite the incomprehension of his father and the derision of his older brothers, both of whom were already successful businessmen when Bellow was still racking up sales of 5,000 copies and scrambling for teaching jobs in the sticks.

Bellow’s first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), were masterpieces by most novelists’ standards, but sober, apprentice works by his. The true “Bellovian” voice, ably characterized by Atlas as “a comic mix of high-flown erudition and vaudeville brio,” emerged in the rambling, digressive, word-besotted The Adventures of Augie March (1955), and announced itself unmistakably in the book’s celebrated opening sentence:

I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

  • James Atlas’ pugilistic bio

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