By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“The man looks as if he was born sneering,” Robertson Davies commented after witnessing Bellow tangle with G√ľnter Grass and Salman Rushdie at a 1986 PEN conference in New York. Still, reading Atlas’ account of that famously acrimonious confab, in which Rushdie accused the panelists of abdicating “the task of imagining America’s role in the world” (“Tasks are for people who work in offices,” Bellow shot back), and Grass upbraided Bellow for ignoring the American underclass, one feels a sneaking sympathy for Bellow, and not just because he’d written a whole book on the subject four years earlier (The Dean’s December). Bellow’s protagonists may not be members of the underclass, but they are certainly aware of how the other half lives. One thinks of the passage in More Die of Heartbreak(1987) in which the book’s hero, newly married into wealth, is suddenly transplanted to a luxurious duplex penthouse apartment:
. . . all he could do was look out at the city, which fills so many miles. All those abandoned industries awaiting electronic resurrection, the colossal body of the Rustbelt, the stems of the tall chimneys nowadays bearing no blossoms of smoke. One of your privileges if you were very rich was to command a vast view of this devastation.
It was Bellow’s misfortune that only a few years after he achieved fame, the mood of the country changed, transforming him from newly successful author into (in some quarters) reviled establishment figure almost overnight. A decade older than Roth, Updike, Mailer, et al., Bellow never had much time for the ’60s, and after the ’60s Atlas has less and less time for him. With one or two exceptions, Herzogis the last book he really seems to like, and he rarely misses an opportunity to take the uncharitable view. The breaking-off point comes with Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which is narrated by an elderly Holocaust survivor. As Atlas notes, it was the first Bellow novel to be narrated from the viewpoint of a father rather than a son, and for Atlas it’s the beginning of the end.
“As he grew older,” Atlas writes, “the bones of a deeply conservative, xenophobic vision of life emerged more clearly.” This strikes me as an astonishing thing to say of Bellow, who — to take the political question first — had his name removed from the masthead of Commentaryin the 1980s and is steeped to his eyeballs in global culture (as a student, he majored in anthropology). He may be Eurocentric by instinct and preference, but the last time I checked, having a Eurocentric outlook was still legal in all 50 states.
Bellowwould have been a better book if Atlas had spent more time on Bellow’s close friendships with writers such as John Berryman and Ralph Ellison (with whom he shared a house), on the influence he’s had on writers such as Philip Roth and Martin Amis, or on the reception of his novels in other countries. But evidently he was too busy persuading old girlfriends to rate Bellow’s performance in bed (distinctly average, he’s thrilled to report) to spend any more time than necessary on the literary stuff. Bellow certainly has his faults, both as a writer and as a man, but he deserves better than this. What’s disturbing about Atlas’ biography is that it makes you realize that Bellow’s unlikely to get it. “I am an elderly white male — a Jew, to boot. Ideal for their purposes,” Bellow once remarked of those out to define him by his various political sins. He’s probably correct. Making old white guys like Bellow look bad makes middle-aged white guys like Atlas look good. Apparently, it’s a prospect too enticing to resist.
BELLOW: A BIOGRAPHY l By JAMES ATLAS | Random House 686 pages | $35