Greg Bellow: Believe me, there was plenty of fighting and screaming, plenty of friction and grief

Greg Bellow, son of Saul Bellow and author of Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir, on family, psychotherapy and writing.

One of the things that distinguishes your book, Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir, from previous portraits of your father is that he doesn’t emerge as a hero or a villain – it’s more nuanced. Was this your conscious intention?
Yes, I wanted it to be different. Saul was all about nuance. You couldn’t generalise about him. He wanted to get to the bottom of everything – and I wanted to show how complicated he was. I can’t say whether he would have wanted an honest portrait or not. I suspect not. But I thought it was necessary.

Do you think your father knew that writing about friends and family members would cause those people pain? Or did he really hold to an artist’s credo that made it OK?
Saul subscribed to that credo – no doubt about it. I’ve spoken to Janna Malamud Smith and she says that her father [Bernard Malamud] also subscribed to it. Saul believed in the sanctity of art; he had himself convinced. But if you waterboarded him and asked him if he really believed it, I don’t know what he would have said.

One of the book’s main subjects is family ties.
Saul’s relationship to his family was just primordial. I am sure that the loss of his mother at 17 was just earth-shattering for him. Those bonds were very tight and they lasted until his death. His tie to his three sons was nigh-on the same. It was unbreakable – and believe me, there was plenty of pushing and pulling and fighting and screaming, plenty of friction and grief, probably with me more than anyone, because I was the oldest and I was the stubbornest.

By profession, you are a psychotherapist but you make a decision not to try to explain your father.
I didn’t want to answer those kinds of questions, very consciously, and I don’t like that kind of determinism. I don’t subscribe to it professionally and it’s not a good idea if you’re trying to write a book about a complicated person to say that A is caused by B. I’ve been in a psychobiography group for a number of years and I’ve read a lot of books by people who did that. You’re putting a big bullseye on your chest and saying, “Shoot here.”

Did the book change your attitude to your father as an artist or public figure? You express disapproval, for example, with his often-quoted question: “Who is the Proust of the Papuans?”
The answer while I was writing the book was no. Now that I’ve finished it, my answer is different. I don’t know whether it was a block or an impairment or a blind spot or a form of self-preservation but it wasn’t until he died that I could even think of it. I just didn’t pay attention because I couldn’t afford to psychologically. I have more cognisance of him now as a literary hero and a lot more respect for him as a writer – but do I think he should have said that thing about the Papuans or those things about blacks and women? No. I’ve still got a way to go with that.

Was it a painful book to write?
Yes, some bits more painful than others, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The hardest part was probably getting my writing under control. I taught myself to write over the last five years.

What was the process?
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. As my themes became clearer, it was easier for me to say what did and didn’t belong and to leave out stuff. But I didn’t leave out the contradictions. People would ask me, “Why did your father, who was so logical, spend ten years studying Rudolf Steiner?” My answer is, he wasn’t just logical. He was also a man very preoccupied with his own death and he was willing to put his logic on the back burner if this stuff could show him something that Plato or Hegel couldn’t. I left in what was important, to the best of my ability. It came from my gut. And believe me, you wouldn’t want to go through the drafts.

Greg Bellow’s “Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir” is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

Greg Bellow's father, Saul, in 1992. Photograph: Goran Mikic.

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

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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