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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.