Reviewed: Saul Bellow’s Heart - a Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow

Separation anxiety.

Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir
Greg Bellow
Bloomsbury, 240pp, £20

Since Edmund Gosse published Father and Son in 1907, liberating biographical writing from the old codes of reverence and diplomacy, the act of prose revenge known as the Oedipal memoir has never fallen out of fashion. It was difficult for the Edwardians, following so magnificent a monolith as Victorianism, to see themselves as anything other than a special case, a generation with uniquely destructive feelings towards the previous one; but the contempt they bred would prove just as strong. Harold Nicolson couldn’t have known, when he praised Father and Son as “a signal victory for intellectual liberty”, that the book would help to bring on his defeat by easing the way for his son Nigel’s exposé of the miseries that came with the new post-Victorian morality, Portrait of a Marriage (1973).

The American novelists who emerged in the decade after the Second World War were a mutant race of truth-tellers; unabashed, apparently unembarrassable and bursting to bring the news of what it felt like, at the peak of the nation’s affluence, to be bored or mad or cloistered or adrift, a Jew, a Wasp, a veteran, a Virginian. They were rewarded for their efforts with affluence and accolades and exercises in truth-telling carried out by sons and daughters.

Greg Bellow has quite a monument on his hands – maybe the grandest of them all – in Saul Bellow’s Heart, and it is to his credit that he refrains from slinging mud or poking warts. The figure who emerges from this book is imperfect, to say the least – overprecious about his own feelings but harsh with other people’s, incapable of conceding a point, crankishly in thrall to guru-like “reality instructors” – but then any portrayal of Saul Bellow, who was married five times, is bound to acknowledge these characteristics. What distinguishes this one from those by Mark Harris (would-be biographer), Ruth Miller (former student), Harriet Wasserman (former agent) and James Atlas (biographer) is the ability to express both admiration and disapproval without becoming fully possessed by either.

If Greg Bellow conforms to a character type, it isn’t the father-killer but the spurned first-born. The rival children against whom he wants to stake his claim are not his younger half-brothers, Adam and Daniel, but the followers and protégés who crowded his father’s funeral in 2005. Until then, he writes, “I believed our relationship to be sacrosanct”, a tender bond based on what father and son called “real conversations”. The only hints that it was not had come in the last decade of his father’s life, when Bellow was comprehensively bested by a younger-sister figure, his fourth stepmother, Janis.

In reality, though, it had been a losing battle from the start. Greg Bellow was born in 1944, the same year as his father’s first published novel (Dangling Man), so he had always been the son of a dedicated artist with public claims on his attention. Bellow recounts that when asked whether he considered pursuing any other profession, his father replied that you wouldn’t ask that question of an earthworm. He was a writer, or literary celebrity, with every breath he took, and a father only on weekends.

Yet Greg Bellow is less interested in wishing that things could have been different than in exploring why they could not have been. To this end, he devotes three of the book’s six chapters to events that took place before his birth – Saul’s early formative experiences. We are born with our fathers as close-to-finished products, and to see the father’s life as merely an aspect of the son’s is to put a limit on understanding.

But then Saul Bellow’s Heart is not only. A Son’s Memoir. It is also a case study of a vulnerable boy who became a limited man, written by a psychotherapist specialising in attachment theory, and characterised almost as much by professional curiosity as by filial emotion. Apart from an on-the-hoof diagnosis of the poet Delmore Schwartz as bipolar, Bellow forgoes the tools of his trade, or at least the active wielding of them; but his speculations possess a level of authority denied to the casually Freudian biographer.

Where James Atlas’s biography (a second attempt, by Zachary Leader, is on the way) found that in his sexual relationships Saul “struggled to free himself from the intensity of his need by denying its primal hold over him”, Bellow argues that he married women with sufficient toughness to look after him only to resent the strength of will that came with it. The Atlas emphasis on Saul’s relationship with his mother (who died when he was 17) is replaced by an emphasis on his father, whose distaste for his youngest son’s softness fostered an inability to “give and take love freely”.

Bellow identifies the book as an attempt to reclaim “Young Saul”, the gentle father rather than the ill-tempered grandee, but this wasn’t the original intention. It was only after being denied access to his father’s archive that he embarked on a more intimate account, based on memory and testimony rather than recorded evidence, a book about the heart of a writer often, and not unjustly, seen as all head. As things turned out, the repeal of Greg Bellow’s birthright was the path to a broader approach, and the result, free from illusions and full of sweet writing, does greater justice to what his father left behind than any number of eulogies from his better-known literary sons, who, in their gushing gratitude for the work, make only scornful allusion to the cost of creating it.

Saul Bellow in Italy in 1984. Photograph: Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times