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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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain