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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution