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

Separation anxiety.

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

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.