Saul Bellow would have turned 100 this June, but the Nobel Prize-winning author, who died in 2005, is experiencing a kind of literary rebirth: Last month a collection of his essays was published, and now comes the engaging first volume of a two-part biography by Zachary Leader, a London-based literary critic.
Bellow has been the subject of several remembrances and biographies, most notably one by James Atlas published in 2000, which struck some readers as resentful and overly critical. Leader offers a considerably longer, more straightforward account, with no particular agenda, thesis or ax to grind, stuffed to the rafters with the results of his prodigious research. He provides all the facts, to be interpreted as you like — a welcome alternative to overly psychoanalytical, theory-driven biographies.
Bellow led an archetypal novelist’s life; he was destined from an early age to become a writer. He was born in Canada into an immigrant Russian Jewish family — “crowded, tense, loving, fractious” — and worked dozens of hardscrabble jobs as a teenager in Chicago. He read voraciously and argued vehemently with other well-read kids his age, wrote hundreds of pages of fiction and traveled widely. After publishing two respectable but mediocre-selling novels in the 1940s, he broke through in 1953, stylistically and commercially, with “The Adventures of Augie March,” and continued to produce well-regarded novels up to “Herzog” in 1964, which is where this first volume ends.
As Leader points out, Bellow was a highly autobiographical novelist, and in the early part of the biography he connects nearly every real-life incident to its reference in Bellow’s fiction — unpublished and published. For example, at age 8, Bellow suffered an appendicitis attack and spent months recovering from it and other complications. Leader follows Bellow’s original three-page account with quotations from two novels and three unfinished works tracking all the uses Bellow made of the experience. Young Saul’s concern for his mother is followed by every reference to mothers in Bellow’s works. In nearly every instance, Bellow adjusted the facts to fit his artistic needs, a point not always appreciated by acquaintances who saw themselves depicted in his works.
Leader’s thoroughness extends to those acquaintances. As each new person enters Bellow’s life, a mini-biography is provided, and if they were writers — as many of them were — Leader gives accounts of their works, too. Bellow’s first three wives also receive full, evenhanded treatment. The amount of detail here is staggering. In addition to telling Bellow’s story, Leader succinctly summarizes all the cultural upheavals surrounding him in those heady days. (The biography doubles as a primer on the intellectual climate of the times.) But the details never become too dense or overwhelming, thanks largely to Leader’s clear, brisk style.
I was surprised to learn how erudite Bellow was from high school onward, how much teaching he did in his early days — in Europe as well as in America — how good a musician he was, and how frequently Bellow “was called upon, from Augie onward, to advise corporations, sit on boards and committees, and interact with corporate types.” This speaks to how seriously novelists were taken in the 1950s and 1960s, when they enjoyed a cultural cachet unthinkable today. (I can’t imagine any corporation asking, say, Jonathan Franzen or William T. Vollmann to advise it or join its board.)
Respectful but not hagiographic, Leader is not afraid to point out occasional flaws in Bellow’s character and in his writing: violations in point of view, uncontrolled language (especially in “Augie”), and his overreliance on spontaneity. He quotes Philip Roth on the latter point: “Usually about half way through the book the original impulse weakens and then he gets a mess in the middle.” Bellow admitted this himself when writing “Herzog”: “As sometimes happens by the hundredth page, my lack of planning, or the subconscious cunning, catch up with me,” concluding cheekily in a letter to Richard Stern, “God will provide. Consider the lilies of the field — do they write books?”
Leader covers Bellow’s relations with fellow Jewish American writers such as Roth and Bernard Malamud, but I would have liked to see more on what he thought of some other novelists who emerged during that time. I was surprised at how many quotations from Bellow’s work sounded like Jack Kerouac, yet he is mentioned (along with J.D. Salinger and William Burroughs) only as the possessor of a pseudoscientific object known as an orgone box. Nor does Leader share Bellow’s opinion of others who worked the artier side of the street in the 1950s and early 1960s (John Hawkes, William Gaddis, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon), although a few of them appeared in a short-lived magazine called “The Noble Savage” he co-edited from 1960 to 1962.
Perhaps they’ll turn up in Volume 2 — all the more reason to anticipate the conclusion of what will surely become the standard biography of Bellow for years to come.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Zachary Leader will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW
To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964
By Zachary Leader
Knopf. 812 pp. $40