Eight years ago, when Saul Bellow died, I wrote an obituary tribute about him for this newspaper in which I ranked him with some of his most notable contemporaries — among them Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor — and said that they were “big writers (even those who mainly wrote short stories) with big ambitions, men and women who weren’t afraid to take chances, who looked out at the world instead of into the mirror.” But this book by Bellow’s son Gregory, the first of his four children (each by a different marriage), convinces me otherwise: not that Bellow’s work wasn’t “big,” which it certainly was, but that it was always rooted in what can only be called extreme self-absorption, if not outright narcissism.
One of those to whom I compared him was Bernard Malamud. Greg Bellow tells us toward the end of this memoir of his father that he spoke with Janna Malamud Smith in the course of writing it, because he respects her own memoir of her father — “My Father Was a Book” (2006) — as well he should. Both are offspring of fathers who contributed a great deal to American literature but were, as writers tend to be, somewhat less successful as parents. “Saul Bellow’s Heart” is the testimony of a son who loved his father but was in effect deserted by him over much of their shared lifetimes, who treasured his memories of their father-son relationship when both were young but in time came to resent — with ample reason, in my view — those “dozens of self-appointed sons and daughters” who attached themselves to the world-famous, post-Nobel Prize Bellow.
Gregory Bellow, now in his late 60s, took up the study of psychoanalysis and eventually made a good career for himself, as a psychotherapist specializing in children’s behavior and problems, at the Sanville Institute for Clinical Social Work in California, from which he is now semi-retired. He readily acknowledges that his interest in the field grew out of his childhood, a complicated one indeed with his father’s five marriages and total absorption in his writing. He has tried to be both honest about and fair to his father in “Saul Bellow’s Heart” and has largely succeeded, but he also acknowledges that there are things in this book that his father would not like, chief among them perhaps that he subjects Saul Bellow to precisely the kind of close scrutiny to which Saul subjected the real men and women who became fictional characters in his work.
“Saul certainly wrote in the heat of anger after his second and third divorces,” Gregory writes. “And, to the chagrin of many, his published work gave him the last word. . . . But I remain convinced that his novels were not simply or primarily written to get even with those who hurt him because were that the case, Saul Bellow would never have become the great writer that he was.” Still:
“That is not to say that Saul’s firm line between life and art is not open to serious question. He crossed it freely in novel after novel while attacking anyone who asserted that he had done so. Such literary license can and often does bleed into blatant thievery. And stealing someone’s personhood is not a victimless crime. To the contrary, it is a crime whose victims simply have no voice. It is not — as I recently heard Benjamin Taylor, editor of my father’s recently published letters, assert — an honor to be immortalized in a great work of art.”
Certainly it is no honor to be thus immortalized if the portrait drawn from one’s role in the author’s life is unfair or vindictive; poor Sasha and Susan, wives No. Two and Three, who took their lumps, and lucky Gregory, that he never found himself portrayed or characterized in any of his father’s books. In fiction as in life, Bellow could be especially hard on women, whom he valued for sexual favors and the “deeply maternal forms of love” that his mother had given him but that he ultimately found lacking in all his wives except the last, Janis Freedman. He trusted and respected Harriet Wasserman, who was his agent for many years until he unceremoniously booted her for what he seemed to see as a better offer, and the lasting influence of his mother cannot be overestimated, but he “had little sympathy with feminist ideas, the increasing presence of women in academia, or prominent women writers.” In part this reflected the bitterness that was engendered in him by the various social, cultural, sexual and political excesses of the 1960s and later, but it was also just plain good old-fashioned male chauvinist piggery.
Still, “Saul Bellow’s Heart” is written with love mixed with vexation and frustration rather than with anger or resentment. His father was “a man who took such pains to protect what Saul called his ‘inner life,’ ” who “surrounded his heart with a thicket that I was able to penetrate from time to time, though it remained difficult for both of us to fathom.” Some of Saul’s most important characters “suffer from an inability to give and take love freely”; Gregory believes “that to have been Saul’s greatest personal flaw,” and he senses that Saul both knew this and agreed. Certainly as he grew older and more famous, the thicket or carapace around his head grew ever more dense. His son believes that there actually were two Sauls, “young Saul” and “old Saul,” and he has written this book primarily to acquaint us with young Saul.
Both young and old Saul were “always easily angered, prone to argument, acutely sensitive, and palpably vulnerable to criticism,” but young Saul was also “emotionally accessible, often soft, and possessed of the ability to laugh at the world’s folly and at himself. . . . Saul’s accessibility and lightheartedness waned as he aged. His social views hardened, although he was, fundamentally, no less vulnerable.” Thus we have this memoir, which seeks to give “equal weight” to the well-known old Saul and the little-known young Saul, little-known not merely to the public but within the Bellow family and especially to Gregory’s two younger brothers, Adam and Dan, who scarcely knew young Saul at all. The change can be traced in the novels:
“During the twelve-year span that began with the 1964 publication of ‘Herzog’ and ended with the awarding of the Nobel Prize, the idealistic ‘young Saul’ became the pessimistic ‘old Saul.’ I cannot fully explain the changes that were brewing in my father. ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ hints at how the political tumult of the late sixties affected Saul, and ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ addresses the downsides of the fame and fortune that reached a crescendo in Stockholm. From my viewpoint it was during these pivotal years that the optimism and hope I loved and admired in ‘young Saul’ were buried under pessimism, anger, bitterness, intolerance, and preoccupations with evil and with his death, which lasted for the rest of his life.”
Doubtless the reader has deduced from this that while Saul retreated from, even repudiated, his youthful leftist opinions, Gregory remains faithful to them. Though he does not use the word “betrayed,” this is plainly how he feels with regard to his father’s later political views. Yet it is odd that a practitioner of the craft of psychotherapy should be so intolerant of his own father’s midlife change of course. Gregory Bellow seems unable fully to separate the personal and the political, and thus lays a heavier burden of guilt on his father than is really deserved. He can fault him for many things — long periods of neglect, utter faithlessness to all his wives except perhaps the last, self-absorption so intense as to render even those closest to him irrelevant — but supporting the Vietnam War and falling for neoconservatism really shouldn’t matter so much as they clearly do to Gregory Bellow. As a result there are too many times when “Saul Bellow’s Heart” seems not so much the love song it was intended to be as a complaint of ideological faithlessness.
SAUL BELLOW’S HEART
A Son’s Memoir
By Greg Bellow
Bloomsbury. 228 pp. $26