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Zachary Leader’s long-awaited first volume of his Saul Bellow biography


The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915–1964

By Zachary Leader


812 pages, $40

By Michael D. Langan


Philip Roth calls the writings of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner “the sturdy backbone of twentieth-century American literature.” I would add a few ribs to that probative skeleton: the fictional lineaments of Edith Wharton, Hemingway and perhaps Scott Fitzgerald.

Zachary Leader, the latest biographer of Saul Bellow, has immense confidence in the quality of his first volume of Saul Bellow’s life. He calls it “The Life of Saul Bellow…” not “A Life of Saul Bellow.”

Professor Leader seems to be sure that his ambitious volume will not be surpassed. Leader, an American, has lived in England for more than 40 years. He earlier wrote “The Life of Kingsley Amis” (2007).

What do those others who are expert in literature think about the book?

As one who tries to keep up, I confess to not being able to take the pulse of every book that comes over the transom. When this happens, I turn to others for tips to my temperature on the timely.

In the case of this volume, I checked out Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times. He compares Leader’s new work “an attempt at salvage” after a negative bio of Bellow, James Atlas’ “Bellow: A Biography” (2000). Atlas’ shrug is called a hatchet-job by some, because he concentrated on Bellow as a “seducer, bad husband, and money-earner who happened to write some good books”, as described by James Wood, in the New Republic.

For Garner, Leader’s new take, “The Life of Saul Bellow” “is a dry, digressive and oddly stunted biography that seems to have been written on autopilot ...” This may lead some to the view that Leader may have picked Bellow’s bones clean but has not added anything substantively new.  

For me, it’s hard to see Leader’s biography as “stunted” at 812 pages, but that’s Garner’s view.

Basically if you think about the book, what has to be asked is this: Was Leader’s method employed to describe and analyze Bellow’s life successful? 

Leader’s approach included talking to everybody who knew Bellow. The result was “interviews with more than 150 of the novelist’s relatives, close friends, colleagues and lovers.” In addition, the book included a detailed “exploration of Bellow’s writings and the private history that informed them.” Even if valuable, this approach can be overdone, burdening the reader with material not needed to be known.

Knopf’s publisher, Knopf, thinks the method worked, arguing that the first volume offers nuanced and original accounts not only of the novelist’s development and rise to eminence, “but of his many identities – as writer, polemicist, husband, father, Chicagoan, Jew, American.”

Here are some specifics Leader lays out for us.

• As Bellow lay dying, having won more literary prizes than anyone else in American history, he asked his friend, Eugene Goodheart, “Was I a man or was I a jerk? (“Man” in this context, says the author, means “mensch,” i.e., a human being, someone to rely on, someone admirable, responsible.”)

It appears that Bellow, about to die, wanted confirmation that he was an admirable person. This attitude leads one to think that Bellow had some doubts. Else, why would he have asked the question? In the end, the answer to the question mattered to him.

• The competing claims of life and art, what Yeats calls the writer’s choice, are a phenomenon prominent in many biographies, Leader observes. He also points out that it figures in Bellow’s fiction, only thinly disguised.

• Bellow made art out of his own and his friends’ lives, but at a cost. One example: “I’ll get you,” he threatened his third wife, Susan, before he “loused her up” as the shrewish Denise in “Humboldt’s Gift.” Is it important to know this? In artistic terms, it may not be. Personally, it’s a clue to whether Bellow was a “mensch” or not.

• This instance in fact, was not a one-off. Bellow used people throughout his writing career, from “The Adventures of Augie March” to “Ravelstein,” whose real-life model was Allan Bloom, the author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” according to the author. Some thought this attribution harmful, others, not so much.

• Bellow argued that the novel is “the highest form of human expression yet attained.” His justification for this was that if he trashed people, there was a love of truth to be pursued. According to the author, Bellow had a desire “to become great,” not directly asking what was dishonorable or not as he portrayed others. In a remark that gives the impression that Bellow was ducking the question, he explained further, “I ask myself if it would be dishonorable to put a thing this way.”

• Saul Bellow usually resolved arguments about what he considered art on his terms. Zachary Leader writes, “In ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ when the hero’s good-hearted but dim daughter steals a manuscript she thinks of vital use to her father’s book, she does so out of the conviction that he’d pay any price to serve creation: “A creative person wouldn’t stop at anything. For the creative person, there are no crimes.”

So is Leader’s biography of Bellow worth the effort?

I think it is. The biography gives good comparisons of the private life and detailed information of the writer’s literature and how it leans on what Samuel Johnson called “its social self.”

Here is an example of Bellow’s “social self” when he went to Paris after World War II. When he arrived with his wife, Anita, and his son Greg they settled into an apartment in the Eighth Arrondissement. “You have to draw in from the beauty of the place to accomplish anything,” he wrote back to his agent, Henry Volkening, in the States.

The Bellows were better off than most tourists in 1948 Paris. They had $5,000 to live on as well as a Guggenheim grant and a Viking advance for “The Crab and the Butterfly.” The rate of exchange, Leader tells us, was 550 to 1.

While there he praised Sydney Hook, a “witty polemicist” according to Leader. Hook was involved one year later with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, which sought to spread informational re-education throughout Europe.

Leader’s first volume of Bellow’s life is certainly too long. But it’s not the first to be so criticized. Future long-distance writers will be spurred on by Richard Ellmann’s 1960 defense of his extensive biography of James Joyce that won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. 

Ellmann wrote, “If an individual life is described too leanly, we grow anxious, we suspect distortion, we wonder if the essences are really there.” 

I still remember Ellmann’s Joyce. It was perfect.

Leader’s work won’t surpass the scope and majesty of the five-volume biography of Henry James by Leon Edel. Edel’s Jamesian writing enveloped almost 20 years before its completion.

Leader’s bio stands on its own an accomplished work with a certain sense of playfulness mixed with good judgment. I don’t see it as having been written on auto-pilot. I think it is written with care.

Still, too much of a good thing becomes tiring. Excising 200 pages of “following Alice down a rabbit hole” looking for traces of Bellow should have been cut.

Even so, $40 for the text and list of illustrations is still a bargain.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.