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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle