The queue of writers eager to get their hands on the life of Saul Bellow in recent years must have been long and boisterous. The Canadian-born Russian immigrant to Chicago has been America's top literary cannon for nearly half a century. In a succession of long, garrulous works - The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog and Humboldt's Gift - and more compact modernist tales - such as The Victim and Seize the Day - he evolved a grand new style, a bewitching brew of reckless soul-searching and damn-it-all worldliness, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1976. He could aim high, while talking low. "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog", is the first sentence of the novel that bears his name, before Herzog begins to fire off heady, wrangling letters to "everyone under the sun" - thinkers, policemen, cereal manufacturers, lovers. The novel turns on a superb comic idea: what on earth is a learned man, in possession of most of the intellectual ammo that western civilisation has to offer, supposed to do when his wife leaves him? Like all the other novels, it was both a hot personal drama and an energetic tract on the way we live now. And as if this literary achievement were not enough, Bellow had also led a notably promiscuous private life, leaving a bemused sequence of wives, friends and publishers churning in his wake.
He is, in other words, a plum commission for any biographer. So one can understand why James Atlas decided to jump the gun, inveigle his way into the shadows of Bellow's declining years, and produce 700 assiduous pages while his subject is still alive. But it can't help feeling premature, and not only because it deprives us of one of biography's most reliable attractions: an affecting deathbed scene. Atlas has put together a shrewd and well-stocked account of his subject's busy life; he has pressed his face to the window. But circumstances prevented him from stepping back quite as far as we might wish. Apart from anything else, those four ex-wives must have vibrant stories to tell about life with the maestro. In Atlas's account, they enjoy only walk-on parts. Bellow himself leaps from the pages at full throttle, and is a magnificent spectacle. But we usually see him through the prism of his own smartly turned-out words, hardly ever with his shirt hanging out.
Atlas enjoyed neither the collaboration nor the opposition of his famous subject (in fact, we can almost sense the author sniggering as his biographer trudged gamely through the margins of his life). Bellow was a "good sport", apparently, but declined to help. When Atlas broached the subject, Bellow responded by telling him about a wise man who, when asked for the distinction between ignorance and indifference, replied: "I don't know and I don't care." That's a typical Bellow riposte, and the book vibrates with them. It is quite an asset - a bit like having a film scored by Mozart. The pages ripple with brainy bons mots and heated witticisms, and Atlas makes the most of them. It is by no means a hagiography - he is alert to, and unsparing of, Bellow's many failings as a man, a friend, a husband and a father. But his book remains, at heart, a tribute, a respectful account of a warm tussle with greatness.
Essentially, the plot of Bellow's life is much the same as the plot of his literature: it is all about the travails of a sensitive brainbox trying to make sense of human life in a world - or at least, in an America - that gives a higher value to action and graft. Bellow himself was candid about the connections: he described his novels as "bulletins" from his own life, rhapsodic accounts of marriage break-ups, in which the fervent hero is besieged by grasping women, hoodlum lawyers, and every other sort of cowboy and huckster America can provide. He loved to portray himself as a victim of these mysterious and cruel furies. "I'm deaf, dumb and blind," he would cry, "the slave of unknown masters." Atlas is quick to note, however, as he pedals resolutely through each new cycle of marriage and dismay, that Bellow hugged his sense of outraged indignation tightly to his breast, almost to the point of seeking out fresh excuses for it.
We finish the book with an unsettling sense that all of those unhappy marriages were, on some level, carefully contrived fuel for Bellow's superb rhetoric. Like a predatory hawk, he would build his nests, hatch his fledglings and then devour the lot of them, acting injured and jilted as the wounded limped away, and off he flew to Stockholm to collect the Nobel prize.
That is a harsh judgement, but there is plenty in the book to make even Bellow's most fervent fans gulp a little. He emerges as far from likable - splendid company, coruscatingly funny, but also selfish, greedy, needy, sexist, racist and exploitative. Those close to him paid a high price for his vocation; there are casualties in literature, as in war. This is one of literary history's best ironies: Kafka and Tolstoy would not have been much fun to live with either. And it is never easy to make a simple calculation about whether greatness is "worth" the trouble it causes. Bellow had genius, and he honoured it. The rest he left to fate.
His novels deal with what some have been keen to see as parochial concerns - the agonies of divorce, the travails of being a Jew in America, the unique flavour of Chicago. But Bellow's hard- driving eloquence and eye for transcendence made these part of a universal modern story. In prose that is hearty and high-flown, vulgar and philosophical, he wrote rich, defiant cris de coeur from characters who feel dwarfed. And it was all enlivened by his top-notch wit, about which Atlas is a touch po-faced, tending to see Bellow's jokes as flip defence-mechanisms.
But they are wisecracks. When an interviewer asks the ageing author how his new wife is pregnant, Bellow says: "Practice, practice, practice." And asked what he thinks of the modern world, he replies: "We are temporarily miracle-sodden, and feeling faint." He was lavish with put-downs. "Who'd want to be a critic anyway?" he asked, when one of them was rude. "I'd rather inspect gas mains in Chicago."
Winning the Nobel prize threatened his status as a hapless slave tossing on stormy seas. Bellow was now, officially (and materially), a success. But he didn't let a small thing like that slake his sense of being a lone voice in an unkind wilderness. What would he do with the money? "At this rate, my heirs will get it in a day or two," he retorted (not quite true: lawyers took the lion's share). A few days later, he rose in full dinner dress to give a post-Nobel speech. "After years of the most arduous mental labour," he said, "I stand before you in the costume of a head waiter." When his first son, Gregory, phoned to congratulate him on the award, he said: "Now you know why I was after you to be quiet 30 years ago."
The quips gush out of him, and Atlas catches them gratefully. Exhausted by the persistence of his own self-absorption, Bellow remarked that the unexamined life might not be worth living, "but sometimes the examined life makes you wish you were dead". In old age, he returned to his birthplace in Canada to revisit childhood haunts. Asked how he had such a good memory, he said: "I forget."
All of which makes Atlas's book a tremendous entertainment. Like nearly all biographers, he succumbs - too willingly for my taste - to the basic Freudian join-the-dots story by which any man's life is an extended conversation with his parents. It leads him to some dopey pronouncements: he is able to say with a straight face that Martin Amis found in Saul Bellow a "convenient surrogate writer-father" (as if one were not quite enough to contend with). Again, like all lives of writers, this one offers a distorted view of the man in question. We spend a lot of time peering through the bedroom door, but hardly ever go into the study, where the real work was going on. We learn, as a point of fact, that Bellow wrote every morning from eight until one ("then I go out and make mistakes"). But we do not see him at it: how could we? Bellow's life was more than merely the scaffolding of his work: it was its essence, and Atlas's biography is a significant gloss on all those resonant novels. But it does not fight very hard against a fairly dismal stereotype. Behave badly enough, it seems to say, and you too can be a great writer.
Robert Winder's NS reviews appear monthly