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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood