Book: Being Saul Bellow

Staunchly secular, Saul Bellow was nonetheless unapologetically Jewish, eschewing writers he saw as anti-Semitic and peppering his work with Yiddishisms.

Saul Bellow (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Saul Bellow
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Zachary Leader’s superb biography convinces readers that Saul Bellow never really knew Saul Bellow.
As The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 details, the Nobel Prize-winning author, who died at 89 in 2005, left behind four ex-wives – three of whom had given him a son. His last wife, Janis, bore him a daughter when he was 84.
He also left us an incredible body of work, including his masterpieces The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog.
Bellow was a fiery cauldron of creative genius and restless angst, prone to fits of intense anger. He wrote every day while Mozart blared, and went out at night. A serial and unrepentant adulterer, he seemed to treasure most dearly his literary friendships with men like Alfred Kazin and Isaac Rosenfeld, and others who mingled with the left-wing Partisan Review crowd of the 1930s. He taught at several universities, where students would flock just to be in his presence.
He came to America at the age of nine, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who managed to make their way to Quebec before settling in Chicago; his mother died when he was only 17. During a childhood illness at age eight, Bellow became entranced with reading and never stopped. Later on, there were writing and politics and girls, and eventually attempts at all sorts of various psychotherapies he hoped would silence the demons that always haunted him.
But there were no easy answers for Bellow; he tended to rely on himself. His literary voice was larger than life and unapologetically Jewish and American, generously sprinkled with Yiddish inflections.
He spit in the eye of his literary peers, who worshiped the likes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was offended by the roaring anti-Semitism that erupted from their pages.
Bellow was a secular man, but felt a lifelong affinity with his Jewish heritage that defied explanation; it simply was something always seeping through his bones.
His Jewish literary voice bordered on rude; his friend Irving Howe, a Jewish-American literary and social critic, noted, “Rudeness was not only the weapon of cultural underdogs, but also a sign that intellectual Jews had become sufficiently self-assured to stop playing by gentile rules. At the least, this rudeness was to be preferred to the frigid ‘civility’ with which English intellectuals cloak their murderous impulses, or the politeness that in American academic life could mask a cold indifference.”
Bellow’s new voice was going to break down barriers that had been upheld for centuries. Philip Roth found his novels exhilarating precisely because they were stories about regular Jews and Jewish families who were working and fighting and trying to start businesses and wheeling and dealing while trying to love one another. Bellow was making literature out of them.
In The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow begins his novel with Augie shouting, “I am an American – Chicago-born.” This assertion of identity was unusually strident for the son of Jewish immigrants in 1953. Augie wanted to embrace the world with a zestful exuberance that allowed him to “go at things as I have taught myself – freestyle.”
The main character is undeterred by his difficult circumstances – he is living with his mother, who is going blind, and his tyrannical grandmother; his father is nowhere to be found. But Augie, like Bellow, has himself and his determination and a belief in an America where anything could happen to anyone. One just had to put themselves out there.
In Herzog, Bellow’s hero Moses Herzog is suffering from a midlife crisis and the realization that his wife has been carrying on an affair with his best friend. He feels humiliated, and wants relief from his emotional duress. He spends much of the novel writing letters he never sends to friends, family and famous people, asking them questions about the fundamental meaning of existence. Leader shows us how Bellow is often distraught by the realization that all the learning in the world can’t assuage the pains of the heart.
Leader’s narrative never feels rushed. We learn how Bellow tended never to look anyone directly in the eye, and how attuned he was to the random gestures of others.
Women were spellbound by him; the combination of his brooding eyes and full lips and his spontaneous charm proved irresistible.
But his wives and children knew another side of him; he could be cold and aloof and mercilessly self-absorbed.
Leader’s magic lies in his ability to show us repeatedly how Bellow could transfer his personal pain to the page by drawing directly from his own life experiences. He illustrates that when Bellow’s alter ego Moses Herzog learns as a child that his father has been beaten, he feels distraught, thinking that “it was more than anyone could bear, that anyone would lay violent hands on him – a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. Whom did I ever love as I loved them.”
Bellow’s actual relationship with his father was filled with violent fights and mutual resentments, and their love was intense and chaotic. Yet Bellow never doubted it.
Bellow had complicated feelings towards his mother, and Leader shows us how he transforms these feelings into his work.
Her timidity disturbed him, as did her awkwardness and expectations for him. He was her youngest child, and the favorite, and she hoped he might become a rabbi.
In Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s doppelganger Charlie Citrine reflects on the torment his mother has caused him, particularly with women. Charlie claims, “I never lost this intense way of caring – no, that isn’t so. I’m afraid the truth is that I did lose it.
Yes, sure I lost it. But I still required it. That’s always been the problem. I required it and apparently almost promised it. To women, I mean. For women, I had this utopian love aura that made them feel I was a cherishing man…” But Bellow seemed unable to cherish anyone, not even himself.
Leader’s extraordinary 800-page biography is the first part of a two-book project. He takes us through Bellow’s childhood and his astounding progression as a young and original writer.
Leader also paints an exquisitely nuanced portrait of what seems to have been an incredibly exhilarating time for Jewish intellectuals in America during the 1930s and ’40s. Jewish writers and artists and freethinkers were finally free from the constraints of shtetl life, able to immerse themselves fully in the crosscurrents of social and political change. And they were also free to express themselves without fear of condemnation.