Oy, was he asking for it. And he got it, in spades, a serious pasting. The reviews for Bellow weren’t a total massacre, but the favourable notices snuffled with platitudinous reviewerese, the superlatives lacking that special zip, while the notices that mattered, the ones that penetrated the hull, were by intellectual formidables such as the critic and editor Richard Poirier, who methodically dismantled Bellow in this paper (after a patronising observation from Atlas about Bellow’s unsure footing when he ventures into ‘the realm of ideas’, Poirier dryly commented: ‘Atlas himself occasionally ventures into the “realm of ideas”, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to know that he’s in it or how to find the safest way out’), and wily buccaneers such as Frederic Raphael, who lashed ‘Atlas’s anthology of received opinions’ to the mast in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.[*]
Zachary Leader, formerly the biographer of Kingsley Amis, prudently avoided such horn toots of hubris in the amassing of his two-volume Life of Bellow, the authorised and definitive biography that groans with the graven heft of stone tablets. He doesn’t make this undertaking about him. As monumental as Leader’s investigation is, with its copious documentation and minute reconstruction of such a long, labyrinthine lifespan (just keeping track of the zigzag traffic of Bellow’s girlfriends must have made him dizzy), his manner and approach are modest and self-effacing; his personal piques and objections to Bellow’s personal and professional misdemeanours are mostly kept in a diplomatic pouch, in marked contrast to Atlas’s snorty exasperations. He endeavours to be judiciously fair. But although Leader has avoided Atlas’s egregious attitudinising, he runs afoul of several hazards that bog him and the impatient reader (me, pumping the accelerator) in extensive tracts of whichy thickets. Leader might have profited from heeding a couple of cautionary flags that were raised by someone in the know.
In 2017, Atlas, still smarting over the bruising reception of Bellow, published an entertaining, wincingly revealing memoir about the biographer’s trade and travail titled The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, in which he retraced his path and recounted every misstep and miscue in his dealings with Bellow to account for the bungling of what could have been a beautiful Johnson-Boswell partnership. The book is a goody bag of quotable incidents and a useful guide to the biographer’s tradecraft, but pertinent to our immediate interest is the section where Atlas gives a draft of the work in progress to the social scientist Edward Shils – a long-time colleague and frenemy of Bellow’s at the University of Chicago – to vet for errors, misemphases, solecisms and overall tone and conditioning, much as the critic Dwight Macdonald had served as the gruff, avuncular sounding board for the Delmore Schwartz bio. ‘Shils was adamant on one point: my book needed to be cut. He had read half, which was already four hundred pages in typescript; at this rate, it would be “far too thick for comfortable reading and far too long for the importance of its subject”.’ Moreover, ‘the summaries of Bellow’s novels were too detailed, and there was too much tracing of the characters to their real-life sources.’
Comfortable reading clearly isn’t Leader’s concern – each volume is a bulky handful – and his measure of Bellow’s importance is more pharaonic than Shils’s, whose increasing disdain for Bellow’s inflated stature acquired a mean squint. But Leader would have been wise to heed Shils’s counsel to Atlas about paring longueurs and sparing us pages of appositional dithery-do about which ex-girlfriend inspired which fanged harpie in X, which former friend provided the basis for some stooge in Y, the sausage ingredients that went into the making of even lesser character sketches, not to mention all the travel itineraries, dinner party lists, conference guests, investment schemes gone sour or bust, goldfish-bowl reports on personnel management and administrative functioning at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought (where Bellow was a prominent mover-shaker), a deep rummage through the mail bag of Bellow’s crackpot correspondents (one is described as ‘unbalanced’, another as ‘obsessive’, while others, we’re informed, ‘were certifiable’), and other surplus arcana. What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty observer beneath all his ponderous concerns and preoccupations. Bellow’s elegant assassin strikes, fly-by epiphanies and prose crescendos get periodically buried under researched word-tonnage intended to cement a legacy and ensure permanence. Like Atlas, Leader lacks gorgeous finesse.
Published in 2015, Vol. I of Leader’s biography was titled Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-64. In Vol. II, Love and Strife: 1965-2005, fame and fortune have arriv-ed with a thunderclap. The publication of Herzog in 1964 – Bellow’s semi-epistolary novel about a divorced Jewish cuckold and highly evolved malcontent who, writhing in the throes of a midlife crisis and sexual combat (‘What do [women] want? They eat green salad and drink human blood’), composes feverish letters to current lovers and dead philosophers – was a landmark moment in the power-lifting of Jewish-American fiction. ‘Over the past ten or 15 years,’ Julian Moynihan announced in the New York Times, ‘Jewish writers – Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, inter alia – have emerged as a dominant movement in our literature. Herzog, in several senses, is the great pay-off book of that movement. It is a masterpiece, the first the movement has produced.’ Herzog not only had critics whirling their propellers, but was a blockbuster bestseller, popping to number one on the fiction list just ahead of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. We shall never see the noble likes of such bestseller lists again.
Twenty years after his debut with Dangling Man (1944), after an already notable run that included The Adventures of Augie March (his breakthrough virtuoso solo), Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King, Bellow had hit the jackpot. The much coveted Bitch-Goddess of Success was now his sugar mama. ‘Guys, I’m rich,’ he declared, and told the poet Stanley Burnshaw that if the din from Herzog grew too loud, ‘I can always stuff my ears with money.’ Success radiated like a post-coital glow, but failure also took a bite, as if to remind that the gods giveth and the gods taketh away. The literary triumph of Herzog coincided with the theatrical flop of his comedy The Last Analysis, which opened and closed on Broadway within a month, done in by miscasting in the central role and poor notices pointing out that it wasn’t so much a play as a fluffed-up monologue – a lumpy filibuster. It would have sufficed for Leader to note the seesaw action of a major American author having a resounding hit and a mortifying flop in the same season, but for some buggy reason he decides to autopsy the causes for The Last Analysis’s demise, pages of production background that produce a groan when we get to the postmortem phase with a paragraph that begins: ‘The classicist David Grene, Bellow’s colleague at the Committee on Social Thought (an interdisciplinary PhD programme at the University of Chicago, also a sort of high-powered academic salon des refusés), drew an intriguing parallel between Greek comedy and The Last Analysis.’ (‘Intriguing parallel’ is one of those phrases that makes one start counting the ceiling tiles.) ‘To extrapolate from Grene’s suggestion, one might compare Bellow’s spoof of psychoanalysis to Aristophanes’ spoof of philosophy in The Clouds, both plays being simultaneously knockabout and deadly serious.’ Yes, one might, but why? Since one play is a classic, the other a seldom revived clunker, this compare and contrast exercise can only spin its wheels, and Leader finally concedes that Bellow’s own estimation of his plays – ‘trifles’ – sounds about right. The quick death of The Last Analysis was simply a blip in Bellow’s unstoppable onward and upward.
Like The Adventures of Augie March before it, Herzog won the National Book Award for Fiction, and it is a credit to Bellow’s unboxable ambition that he didn’t attempt to follow the picaresque sublime of Herzog, Augie March or Henderson the Rain King (set in a ‘shenaniganed Africa’, one critic observed) with wry owlishness and show-off facility, a reader-pleasing set of cape flourishes and diamond dazzle. Where some of his contemporaries went gonzo (Norman Mailer, Why Are We in Vietnam?), camp (Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge) or ejaculatory amok (Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint), Bellow bore down on civilisation and its discontents with the full gravitas of his brow. The successor to Herzog was Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970), a distraught elegy and state of the disunion address that might as well have been named The Pickpocket’s Penis, the provoking incident blotting out readers’ perceptions of nearly everything else witnessed through ‘the bushy eye’ of its protagonist, Artur Sammler, a seventy-something Holocaust survivor, lecturer and urban scarecrow for whom ‘everything is peroration’, as the critic Anatole Broyard put it. Haunted by the past, assaulted by the present, his world seems drawn in charcoal and ash. The spectre of urban apocalypse preying on Sammler’s mind – race war, radical terrorism, collapsing infrastructure, rampant crime and psychosis in the streets, phone booths used as urinals, the entire city as a running sore – finds its locus in a soigné black pickpocket in a camel-hair coat who, as the pièce de résistance after isolating and robbing Sammler, forces the old man to look down as he exposes himself. Quite a production is made of the Unbuttoning, and the organ itself is prosed with an exotic plump aubergine gleam proclaiming a virility intended to leave an imprint. It was the most graphic demonstration possible of the fascination-repulsion of Jewish male intellectuals towards what they feared and envied of black male muscularity, street smarts and studliness that had found earlier voice in Mailer’s essay ‘The White Negro’ and his novel An American Dream, and in Norman Podhoretz’s stentorian confession ‘My Negro Problem – and Ours’. Sure, the liberal arts are swell, but what good is book-learning in a showdown against the mightily hung?
In an interesting twist, Leader discloses that the original model for the chief exhibit in Mr Sammler’s Planet belonged not to some real-life totem of black prowess but to the boyfriend of Bellow’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Maggie Staats: a smelly, filthy Frenchman who funked up the joint but compensated by being prodigiously endowed. Uncircumcised too. Imagination ablaze, Bellow quizzed Maggie about her lover’s package, ‘pressing her for details, about size, shape, colour’, as if trying to plaster-cast it in his mind. ‘When she read Sammler, Maggie immediately recognised that Bellow had turned her Frenchman into the black pickpocket. Why did he make him black, she asked. “You can use what you want,” he answered.’ Meaning: I can use what I want. Bellow knew exactly what he was doing when he had the thief release the black mamba, the provocative shudder it would send. No American reader in the atomic-Afro black power tumult of the era gave two wags about some French dude’s organ, not in any psychosexual, symbolic shock value sense. What Bellow didn’t anticipate – how could he? – was the afterlife of this scene, which would trail him for much of his career.
Literally trail him, in one celebrated instance. In 1994, the New York Times Magazine printed an excerpt from the memoir Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White by the African-American writer Brent Staples, a member of the Times’s editorial board. A grad student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Staples had devoured Bellow’s fiction and committed long passages to heart, sopped up all the local gossip about Chicago’s fedora’d laureate – idealised him something mad. But he was also offended by and sore at a character’s descriptions of black people in Humboldt’s Gift as ‘crazy buffaloes’, ‘pork chops’ and Jack the Rippers (Staples: ‘a black man steps out of the shadows and with no motive slits a white woman’s throat’), and of course by the big reveal in Mr Sammler’s Planet, along with the novel’s use of the head-snapping phrase ‘sexual niggerhood’. On his evening walks around Chicago’s Hyde Park, Staples would pass Bellow’s building, toying with the idea of lingering in the shadows and staging a confrontation. Staples wasn’t sure how he’d play the rest of the improv. ‘Perhaps I’d lift him bodily and pin him against a wall … I wanted to trophy his fear.’ Sammlerise him, in other words. One night, out stalking, Staples finally spotted his prey and gave pursuit, hoping to catch Bellow in the propitious shadows, where ‘he’d have to face me in the dark’. But Bellow, catching sight of him, ‘picked up his pace’ and made a spry getaway. That damned elusive Pimpernel!
It is hard not to sympathise with Bellow’s ire when he saw the excerpt showcased in the Times Magazine, portraying him as not only a high-end purveyor of racial stereotypes but as a fraidy cat. Ire was spiked with betrayal since the editor who had selected the excerpt for publication was none other than the inescapable James Atlas. Performing emergency placating and grovelling, Atlas offered a lame-o explanation of his decision – ‘I defended Brent and described his devotion to Bellow’s work’ – but Bellow was having none of it, sensibly wondering why Staples simply hadn’t just come to visit and talk instead of tracking him like a hit man. I remember at the time that many readers and editorialists were as outraged as Bellow was by the Times’s decision to give Staples’s trophy-fear reverie the marquee treatment, but also recall a fair number of liberalish lit types who felt that Bellow deserved a dose of his own medicine for his hobgoblinising of black men.
Race wasn’t the only tripwire triggered in Mr Sammler’s Planet. The novel gave rise to accusations of misogyny, his critics citing passages that bagged and tagged women as marshy beings. In Herzog, the woman with top billing is Herzog’s ex, the redoubtable Madeleine, who wields a femdom whipcrack before which the protagonist can only flinch and squirm. In her witchy hauteur, Madeleine resembles the taunting wife Deborah in Mailer’s An American Dream, both so archetypal in their Susan Hayward histrionics that no one could confuse them as stand-ins for All Women. They’re formidable foes, not composite specimens. With Mr Sammler’s Planet, generalisations begin to creep in about women and their sloshy nature (‘female effluence … a salt odour, similar to tears or tidewater’), intended to represent a larger loosening of structural integrity in society, a slatternly letting-go: ‘In Angela you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it, too.’ Gravity’s pull and disappointment were what lay ahead for such louche creatures. ‘You women’s liberationists! All you’re going to have to show for your movement ten years from now are sagging breasts!’ Bellow once snapped at students in a seminar. Similar execrations were sputtered by Sammler against the hairy braggadocio of the student revolutionary brigade. ‘Youth? Together with the idea of sexual potency? All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling.’ Bellow himself had been on the receiving end of such Barbary ape hellzapoppin’, heckled on one inglorious occasion for being a desiccated owner of dry balls, an old whatsit unable to come (an incident incorporated into Mr Sammler’s Planet and thoroughly investigated by Leader, doing his utmost to be fair to all parties). If Bellow’s interlocutors only knew. While this Punch and Judy show was being played out on page and stage, a whole different rakish drama was rustling behind the scenes. Far from being a wizened stick in the mud, Bellow was on the make and on the move, distributing his rising sap hither and yon. As Leader nicely notes, ‘Bellow was never more promiscuous than during the sexual revolution the novel deplores.’
A proficient charmer, handsome and sleek, Bellow beguiled some of his prospective bedmates by reading aloud from his own work for hours, thus combining the pleasure of seduction with the purr of hearing his own voice. The prototype of a Woody Allen protagonist, he sought to furnish his protégées’ minds, groom their tastes, show them the world. (Bellow was suavely incorporated into the celebrity cast of Allen’s 1983 biopic spoof Zelig.) Leader’s rolling coverage of the changing roster of the often remarkable women rotating in and out of Bellow’s fickle, tortured, proprietary attentions doesn’t always make for riveting or edifying reading (much of it resembles French farce without the fun, a flowchart of logistics, near misses and hurt feelings), but, in fairness, other people’s affairs often look misguided and tacky through a distant telescope, especially when the whole tedious business of ‘age-appropriateness’ is levied as a surtax. Bellow’s girlfriends tended to be a decade or two younger than him. One of them, 21 when they started dating, said she put up with his ‘lousy’ lovemaking at the time because she didn’t know any better. ‘Overall, however, she looks back on the affair with warmth and gratitude,’ Leader writes, so who are we to get all high-horsey about it?
Even in those days of miniskirts, go-go boots and letting it all hang out, Bellow’s extracurricular friskings didn’t necessarily land well with whichever wife, mistress, girlfriend or elevated groupie he may have been tethered to at the time. Apart from the hectic wear and tear of guilt pangs, paramour juggling, deceptions and flare-ups (in a jealous fit, he once slapped Staats hard across the face – ‘you could see the impact of his hand … all through the meal,’ one witness said), a heavier toll was levied on his daily morale and bank balance by divorce, child support, alimony payments and the attendant ugly publicity. The protracted war in the courts between Bellow and his third wife, the former Susan Glassman, became a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce epic. ‘For more than a decade, while producing novels, essays, a book about Israel, lecturing all over the world, chairing the Committee on Social Thought, advising foundations and grant committees, visiting the White House, winning a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, a third National Book Award,’ Leader writes, ‘Bellow was up to his ears in lawyers. They bogged him down and bled him dry, in one of the longest, most expensive and acrimonious divorce settlements in Illinois history.’ Daniel, the son over whom custody was fought, became collateral damage in this slog of attrition. ‘From when he was four to the age of 16, his parents were at war, with only rare truces.’
Bellow’s other sons, Greg and Adam, also suffered the emotional deprivation of having a father who was only intermittently present and perpetually distracted, a human shuttlecraft. It was Greg who held his grievances longest and with the tightest grip, and with considerable justice: even when he tried to repair the frayed bond to his father, he received a lordly rebuff. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, he trooped the entire family with him to Stockholm (‘Altogether, 16 family members came to the event’), where they proceeded to grate on his nerves. His sister, Jane, insisted on a front row seat for his acceptance speech, then dozed off several times. His then wife Alexandra’s mother was a competitive pain. His son Dan, aged 12, kept ordering room service, running up the tab. The ‘family circus’, as Bellow called it, culminated in a luncheon in his honour hosted at the country house of his Swedish publisher. At the end of the sedate festivities, Greg stood to say a few words, addressing his father directly: ‘I never thought you loved me and I never understood what the creative process was. You were behind a closed door all the time, writing, listening to Mozart.’ The entire table of European publishers and family members was transfixed, some horrified at this bare show of psychodrama, as Greg wobbily continued: ‘And then I had my own child. I witnessed the birth of my own child and I understood what the creative process was, and I understood then that you really did love me.’ Down Greg sat to stunned silence. Had this been a Hollywood film, Father would have rushed up to Son and they would have locked in a manly, tearful hug of reconciliation as the soundtrack swelled. But instead of accepting Greg’s unburdening, Bellow raced over to his middle son, Adam, and shook his hand in mock congratulation: ‘Thanks, kid, for not saying anything.’ And then off the Nobelist went, into a stretch limo, leaving all the emotional bother behind.
Pitted against one another on these rare get-togethers, Bellow’s three sons didn’t even enjoy the solace of brotherly comradeship or commiseration, a shared memory chest of childhood lore. The products of different mothers, they didn’t grow up in the same household and spent almost no time together as siblings. Once older, they were still kept apart by their father, who only wanted to see them separately, as if fearing they would form a grievance committee. No Ben Cartwright on TV’s Bonanza, he, bringing his brood of sons together to run the Ponderosa. They proceeded on their divergent ways, uniting at Bellow’s gravesite, where, hugging one another for support, they were faced with a stellar trio of pseudo-sons, who had greater billing in their father’s esteem and appeared to be equally stricken and gutted by the great man’s death, as was an abject Philip Roth. The League of Extraordinary Literary Gentlemen.
As Atlas explains in The Shadow in the Garden, ‘Bellow had three sons: Greg, Adam, and Dan. He also had three disciples: James Wood, Leon Wieseltier and Martin Amis.’ Wood, the literary critic and novelist; Wieseltier, the former literary editor of the New Republic; and Amis, who, on the death of his father, Kingsley, declared to Bellow, ‘You’ll have to be my father now.’ Atlas: ‘These three were – I won’t say pseudo-sons, because their affection for Bellow was so deep as to be almost filial – but surrogate or substitute or perhaps alter-sons, whose love was uncomplicated by anger and the unruly demands of hereditary sons.’ And we can add a fourth alter-son, Atlas himself, who elsewhere in the book confides: ‘I had become accustomed to thinking of Bellow not only as a father figure but as a father, whose unconditional love – or at least forgiveness – I could count on no matter what I did.’ It’s difficult to imagine a less likely candidate for a chalice of unconditional love than Bellow (‘prickly’ was practically his middle name), but the whole surrogate dad/surrogate son business is a bewildering proposition, a sidebar of aberrant psychology; I’m not sure there’s anything comparable in American literary history.[†] I was a young-gun devotee of Mailer, who made possible my start in writing, but I never wanted him to file adoption papers. A patriarchal nimbus settled on Bellow in his later years that remains unique, inspiring, a little weird, a bit Holy Ghost. Attending Bellow’s readings at the 92nd Street Y was a form of religious observance. According to Atlas, ‘going to hear Bellow wasn’t a social event: it was an act of witness.’
Being on the receiving end of such reverence was ego buffing, but filial friendship fed deeper needs. The three alter-sons formed a protective cordon, a knightly contingent to defend and honour the sire. When Greg Bellow brought out Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir in 2013, it was panned in the New Yorker by Wood – an alter-son administering a magisterial smackdown to an actual son, an act of chutzpah that might have been amusing had Wood deployed a dabber touch rather than making with the pained regrets: ‘It is a hard book to read, and even harder to write about, because it is really a child’s complaint, with much unfinished business,’ etc. Beyond the buffer zone they provided, the alter-sons and Roth (more of a fellow officer than an acolyte) provided intellectual camaraderie – a shared wavelength – in the early winter of Bellow’s life when it was easy for him to feel cut off, beleaguered, the Last Mohican. Not only were contemporaries and family members dying off, the funerals gathering apace, but many of Bellow’s former friends, university colleagues and literary cohorts had turned on him, or he on them, a mutual aggravation society. Some, like Shils, found sustained exposure to Bellow’s vanity and droit de seigneur too hard on the eyes; so did Alfred Kazin, who had known him when they were both terriers on the Partisan Review scene and was now put out by Bellow’s imperial aura of serene self-possession and superiority, ‘sitting congealed like frozen matzoh ball soup in his conceit’, and the hardening of his politically conservative shell. Bellow’s former agent, Harriet Wasserman, whom he had jilted for Andrew Wylie, published a memoir titled Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow to vent her scorn. Others were less hostile but obtuse, such as Owen Barfield, a member of the Inklings who had tutored Bellow in the esoteric cosmology of Rudolf Steiner, but had a faulty receptor as far as Bellow’s fiction was concerned, publishing an unbearably prissy and patronising review of The Dean’s December (1982), Bellow’s most Zola-esque outcry, as the work of a Henry Jamesian intelligence ‘perched on the apex of excruciating self-consciousness’ and refusing to take flight. No wonder Bellow craved the company of younger vital book-besotted high intensity bulbs who appreciated his worth and bucked up his spirits. Having Martin Amis in his corner, even if he insisted on dragging Christopher Hitchens along for dinner (the pre-neocon Hitchens brought up the tender topic of Israel and a predictable debacle ensued), helped compensate for all the grumblings into his soup of a Kazin or whatever ill wind was blowing out of the New York Times.
The wonder of it all was that despite age, affliction, family friction and near death from food poisoning that plunged him into a coma while on vacation in the Caribbean, Bellow conjured a third act finale to beat anything in American letters. He re-fructified. His marriage to his fifth wife, Janis, 43 years his junior, was solid and happy, and, at the age of 84, he became a father again, this time to a daughter, Naomi Rose (everyone called her Rosie), on whom he unabashedly doted after a lifetime of dodging and weaving with his sons. Shortly thereafter, in 2000, at the age of 85, he brought out Ravelstein, its protagonist modelled on Bellow’s friend and colleague Allan Bloom, whose twilight lament The Closing of the American Mind, endorsed with a foreword by Bellow (though what a snoozer of stale seminar hem-hawing that was: ‘It would be a pity if intelligent adversaries were not to read Professor Bloom’s book with disinterested attention. It makes an important statement and deserves careful study’), became a surprise monster bestseller, a Godzilla out of nowhere. It sold more than a million copies in America alone. Given chapter titles such as ‘The Nietzscheanisation of the Left or Vice Versa’ and the Greek toga pomp of most of its disquisitions, it may have been a book more bought than read, but it caught a disquiet in the atmosphere, striking a requiem tone in the midst of Reaganite triumphalism, and it made Bloom one of publishing’s most unlikely lottery winners. Such irony. The mainstream market that Bloom bemoaned for its stunted, philistine, onanistic tastes and ignorance of the ensouled depths and heights of the best Western culture rolled out the red carpet and enriched him like a pasha. He was even granted the closest thing to a coronation in my country: an interview on Oprah. Like Bellow with Herzog, Bloom was a decades-in-the-making overnight success story. But unlike Bellow, Bloom didn’t have to divvy up the royalties among wife, exes and kiddies; he could lavish it all on himself and did, living large and lapping up everything luxury had to offer: Persian rugs, Chinese furniture, fine porcelain, Lalique crystal, Lanvin jackets, Mercedes Benzes with customised interiors. He dined on rich food even as his cholesterol rocketed.
Ravelstein is a valentine treat, a valedictory salute, a Romantic ode to a fellow high-flyer in the realm of ideas, a sparkling ripple of reminiscence, perhaps the most purely readable novel Bellow ever wrote, a smooth pour astonishing in a writer his age. (He was ably edited by Beena Kamlani, of Viking, who testifies to his mental dash and stamina even as he was physically wracked.) But its charm offensive is deceptive, a manoeuvre. Beneath its floating Cheshire grin and chummy airs (Ravelstein, whatta guy … ) there flexed the tiger claws of Fu Manchu, exhibiting patience and cunning. Although it’s a relatively brief novel, Bellow – through his alter ego, Chick – manages to slide the dagger into fictionalised stand-ins for Shils; Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion at Chicago; the owner of the restaurant where Bellow got food poisoning; and his previous wife, the mathematician Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, another addition to Bellow’s vampire gallery. The portrait of Bloom as Ravelstein, for all its pizzicato embellishments, is imbued with ambivalence and passive aggression. Bellow may have been harbouring resentment over the lasting harm to his literary standing caused by his championing of Bloom, the blowback unleashed by an offhand comment Bellow made to (yes, him again) Atlas for Atlas’s 1988 New York Times Magazine profile of Bloom: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them.’ The resulting furore produced an outbreak of bad faith on both sides with pundits and professors riding their rocking horses at full steam, but when the sawdust settled, it was Bellow who came out the loser. Leader: ‘Few words by Bellow [did] more to alienate liberal and academic opinion than these, or to banish his fiction from college syllabuses.’ A banishment that continues today. None of this was Bloom’s fault, but it may have left knots of resentment in the upper reaches of Bellow’s pride.
Although it was an open secret in many circles that Bloom, despite his oracle status as defender of traditional values and norms, was homosexual, the portrait in Ravelstein outed him to the public at large as an epicurean dandy in a Japanese robe whose interest in young men wasn’t entirely pedagogic. Some cried foul. One of Bloom’s former student-disciples, Kenneth Weinstein, writing in the Weekly Standard, rued ‘the fact that Ravelstein shatters the dignity with which Bloom maintained the privacy of his personal life and, as such, will engender a reductio ad homosexualum of Bloom’s thought that he would have detested.’ More vexing for many who knew and revered Bloom, Ravelstein’s death in the novel is attributed to Aids, which led many to believe that that was the true cause of Bloom’s death too. This is much disputed – Bloom fell ill to Guillain-Barré disease, a debilitating auto-immune disorder, and the cause given in the initial reports was peptic ulcer bleeding from liver failure – and it was a bold liberty for Bellow to take. Weinstein again: ‘Bellow recently acknowledged that Bloom never spoke with him about having Aids or HIV. Why then suggest that he did?’ I keep coming back to Bellow’s chilling reply in a Playboy interview to a question on his view of the Aids epidemic: ‘If I believed in God I would say that this is God’s way of restoring the seriousness to sexual connections. Because Aids is a phenomenon that comes from promiscuity, which is wider among homosexuals than among heterosexuals.’ Asked in the same interview why Truman Capote loathed him, Bellow replied: ‘I don’t know enough about homosexual psychology to be able to explain it.’ The interview appeared in the May 1997 issue, three years before the publication of Ravelstein, and this arched eyebrow of animus toward homosexuality may reflect the undercurrents of Ravelstein, a not entirely reined-in disapproval. Every writer has a bit of a bastard in his or her make-up, mixed motives that sharpen one another to a fine edge. The novel is the thing and Ravelstein improbably lives, a wizard’s last spell before retiring the wand.
After Ravelstein, it was a rocky, inevitable descent into fading faculties, physical enfeeblement (the housekeeper carries him upstairs like a baby), dementia and rounds of recrimination. Bellow’s reasonable-sounding decision not to attend his granddaughter’s wedding in Park Slope escalates into a crisis and a one-sided shout fest, with Greg reportedly screaming at his 88-year-old father. Bellow’s memory flutters in and out like a radio with poor reception, he asks about people no longer alive and is crestfallen when informed they’re dead. When the agent Andrew Wylie tells Philip Roth that Bellow seems depressed, Roth volleys: ‘You’d be depressed too if that universe was shutting down on you.’ The galaxies were going black, but there were consolations. Rosie remembers being pushed in a stroller by her father through the zoo and seeing the lions: ‘He was crazy about the lions.’ Death came like a benediction, with Bellow and Janis looking at each other with love as life left him, ‘a transcendent moment’, one witness recalled, a beautiful gift. As news of Bellow’s passing swept the news, Atlas sent a fax to Janis, asking permission to print a tribute page of Bellow’s earliest writings that would include unpublished letters and college journalism. Attempting to make amends, Atlas regretted that his biography of Bellow had created difficulties, but that he loved Bellow and wanted ‘to do this for Mr Bellow and his readers’. Across the top of the fax, Janis wrote, laying down the law: ‘IGNORE’ and ‘Absolutely NOT’. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow is that rarest of things, a towering biography that closes with a satisfying click.