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:
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.
Augie March, identified as that mythical beast, “the great American novel,” by both Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, sold only a modest 30,000 copies when it was published but helped pave the way for later Jewish-American novelists like Philip Roth, and even won Bellow a measure of respect from his father. But it was too little, too late. As Atlas tells it, family scorn was central to Bellow’s development both as a writer and as a notoriously irascible and touchy human being. No amount of praise, no number of adoring lovers, friends and critics, could ever compensate for that initial hurt. Wives, of whom there have been five, were cut loose just before their appearance in the next novel; friends who failed to maintain a stance of adoring admiration went straight into the reject pile; and critics whose ardor cooled even momentarily, Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin not exempted, became enemies overnight. The more famous and decorated Bellow became, in short, the more rancorous grew his mood, the more reactionary his politics, the more narcissistic and narrowly autobiographical his fiction. So Atlas charges, and to be fair, he’s not the only one to have made the claim.
“The man looks as if he was born sneering,”
Robertson Davies commented after witnessing Bellow tangle with Günter 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, Herzog is 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 Commentary in 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.
Bellow would 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