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The frailty, vanity and duality of Saul Bellow

Sex, strife and a move to the right: how the American novelist faced up to his personal life in fiction.

Is this a good moment – propitious, welcoming – for the appearance of a long, rich and unflaggingly detailed account of the later life of Saul Bellow? Ten years in the making, Zachary Leader’s biography was rubber-stamped at an earlier and distinctively different point in time. Then, the writer still reflected the glow of adulation – from the reviews of James Atlas’s single-volume biography Bellow (2000); his final novel Ravelstein (2000) and his Collected Stories (2001); from the 50th-anniversary tributes to The Adventures of Augie March in 2003 and the appearance, the same year, of the Library of America compendium, Novels 1944-1953; and from the obituaries and memorial essays that appeared on his death in 2005, aged 89. When, around that time, I starting getting interested in fiction, I was made to feel about Bellow’s writing more or less what Charlie Citrine, in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), recalls feeling about Leon Trotsky in the 1930s – that if I didn’t read him at once, I wouldn’t be worth conversing with.

But cultural priorities have a habit of shifting, and Bellow now seems less comfortably canonical, less essential or beloved and his novels – as exuberant yet exquisite as the day they were published – patchily available in high-street bookshops, their titles and highlights (bare toes “pressed together like Smyrna figs” etc) more sporadically quoted. This is partly just literary-historical process. Virtually every writer who isn’t a late starter, a popular galactico or an unbudgeable academic favourite must withstand a period in purgatory, when attention can no longer be secured by the latest book and its ancillary noises, though before classic status is assured. Earlier assessments have precious little sway, even the sort of superlative formulations that Bellow attracted – “the greatest writer of American prose of the 20th century” (James Wood), author of the Great American Novel with The Adventures of Augie March and “the supreme American novelist” (both Martin Amis).

Revisiting that verdict last year, Amis acknowledged that he hadn’t given Herman Melville a fair shake when he defined his writing, to Bellow’s advantage, with the phrase “multitudinous facetiousness”. Moby-Dick was in fact a “unique achievement”. But Amis saw no reason to revise his other drive-by assessments. Hawthorne is still branded with “melodramatic formularies”, Faulkner pegged to “murkily iterative menace”, Henry James doomed by his taste for the lexical vice known as elegant variation. And Melville’s achievement, sui generis though it may be, is undermined in Amis’s eyes by a shortage of female characters – as if their incarnation in Bellow’s novels (adorable, bosomy, capricious) hadn’t brought its own problems.

So even in sober retrospect, Amis stuck by his guns. But to the majority of the English-reading world, Bellow inspires neither the excitement of ageing practitioners such as Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison – his only successor among American novelists to win the Nobel Prize – nor has he acquired the majestic bearing of at least half-a-dozen of his fellow dead: Amis’s band of also-rans, plus Twain, Wharton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and maybe Philip Roth – still in the first flush of posthumous glory and with a fortuitously topical book (The Plot Against America) keeping his name in tweets.

If this is the climate of opinion that Leader’s second volume confronts, it may not be the one it leaves behind: not because Leader renders an unimpeachable case for Bellow as the novelist-for-now, but because he exposes a pattern of behaviour that makes Bellow a representative man in a less flattering sense. The book picks him up in September 1964, aged 49 and looking, in the adjectives of Alfred Kazin, “grey, compact, friendly and aloof”. Bellow’s sixth novel, Herzog, is about to make him famous, and his third marriage, to Susan Glassman, is starting to implode. In the following years, he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, and had, seemingly, a similar number of sexual partners.

Apart from his fifth marriage to Janis Freedman, the most important relationship covered by Leader was with a woman called Maggie Staats. When she met Bellow at a party in New York in the mid-1960s, she was 24, and an assistant at the New Yorker. Bellow was middle-aged, well-dressed, formally invited, not, like Staats, the guest of an older married man. On the other hand, she had never heard of Saul Bellow. But far from welcoming this revelation as, say, an opportunity for a different kind of engagement, he immediately took Staats to a late-night bookstore, purchased a copy of Henderson the Rain King (1959), and then returned with her to his hotel room, where they removed their clothes and lay in bed together while he read the book – not his most engrossing – from beginning to end.

Bellow repeated the trick a couple of years later, on the 25-year-old poet Louise Glück, that time with what might seem an even more anaphrodisiac text, the grey-toned “dramatic essay” Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970). (This ups the stakes on Tom Wolfe’s definition of hell as a bus ride across America with just that book to read.)

Episode after episode reveals the sad, tawdry terms of Bellow’s relationships in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his longest period as bachelor. Glück told Leader that Bellow had chosen her because she was “nubile”, not because she was intelligent. A former student who became a lover was informed that he wasn’t sure what she could contribute to his seminar on Joyce, but at least she would be “decorative”. When Frances Gendlin showed Bellow a review she had written of a new Einstein biography, in her capacity as editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, he read the draft and responded by holding her breasts while reassuring her that there were “other things you do so very well”. Leader reports that Maggie Staats made her way through The Feminine Mystique while continuing to serve as Bellow’s “handmaiden”, even quitting her New Yorker job so that she would be available throughout the summer. After Staats suffered a breakdown, her psychiatrist ordered her to steer clear of Bellow, a move that she says saved her life.

Yet, as Leader repeatedly points out, Bellow could also be a very astute analyst of male cruelty. If the first volume of this biography, which came out in 2015, encompassed work that was in some ways perfect but with a strong dose of personal revenge (Augie March, Seize the Day (1956), Herzog), this time Leader has to deal with a series of stories and novels that, if lacking the earlier virtuosity, replaced defensiveness with an urge to face facts. To an age awash with male mea culpa lacking any hint of culpability, or apology, or awareness, Bellow, albeit with the comforting barrier of fiction, offers something closer to the real thing.

This is to say nothing more morally approving than that a novelist with narcissistic personality disorder wrote well about aggression and need, although, it might be added, with less emphasis on their sources than on the pain they caused. “I wounded you for life,” writes the narrator to his victim in “Him With His Foot in His Mouth”, the title story of his 1984 collection, which explores a scornful sexist remark that Bellow made, syllable for syllable, at Bard College, in 1953.

And in “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”, originally published as one of the “other stories” in Him With His Foot in His Mouth, but justly reclassified by its appearance in the final Library of America volume, Novels 1984-2000, Bellow explored, from the perspective of Katrina Goliger, mistress of the writer Victor Wulpy, the sort of lopsided long-term on-off relationship he had with Maggie Staats. In so doing, he laid bare the mechanisms of the sexual inequality that in life he exploited – the way that patriarchal power dynamics survive by providing a short-term fix for the desire for dominance that created them and the instinct for compliance or collusion they in turn created.

Marooned at a faraway airport during one of his celebrity lecture tours, Wulpy demands Katrina’s immediate presence, regardless of her two daughters and her extensive divorce proceedings. “Well, I was sent for, and I came,” she thinks. As in Humboldt’s Gift, where Renata, another Maggie stand-in, complains that on a trip to London, Charlie Citrine paraded her as his “lay” or “whore”, the precariousness of Katrina’s status is dramatised with sympathy and clarity. “Widows are forgotten pretty fast,” her sister, Dotey, tells her. “So what happens to girlfriends?”

Wulpy seems to share a CV with the writer and critic Harold Rosenberg (“a world-class intellectual, big in the art world,” and so on), but the details come from Bellow’s life. A regretted trip to a popular counterculture comedy, suggested in reality by Staats, is agonisingly recalled from the victim’s view: “She spoke cautiously… Even now she couldn’t be sure that Victor had forgiven her for dragging him to see M*A*S*H.” In an unsparing glimpse of Wulpy’s mind, we are shown that Katrina is right to be fearful:

She had no idea of the attraction of her hands, especially the knuckle folds and the tips of what he called, to himself only, her touch-cock fingers. Katrina was his manifest Eros, this worried, comical lady for whom he had such complex emotions, for the sake of which he put up with so many idiocies, struggled with so many irritations. She could irritate him to the point of heartbreak, so that he asked was it worth it, and why didn’t he spin off this stupid cunt; and couldn’t he spend his old age better, or had his stars run out of influence altogether?

At one point, following a flight delay, Katrina approaches a man in a blue-grey uniform for information, and he pushes her and grinds his heel on her instep. In a line with broader implications, she thinks: “I’ve put myself in a position where people can hurt me and get away with it.” But she soon finds herself “shrinking down the incident” and absolving her attacker (“just a person from a nice family in the suburbs probably”), much as Renata, on show in London, felt obliged to ignore the “private feel” she received from the chancellor of the exchequer.

Zachary Leader is a professor of literature, with a strong interest in the creative process (he has written books on revision and on writers’ block), but his book, though solid and riveting, isn’t very bothered about things such as influence or ideas. Novels are mined for data, or revealed as data transposed.

Eager to plough on, Leader never considers what Bellow might have got out of teaching yet another “course” or “weekly seminar” on Joseph Conrad, an enthusiasm that intensified in the years covered by the book, and he touches just briefly on John Updike, the only person who gave Bellow any competition as, in Updike’s phrase, “our pre-eminent fiction writer” during his 30-year pomp, and a fruitful source of comparison and contrast.

Reviewing the novella A Theft (1989), evidently having forgotten about “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”, Updike noted that Bellow had not previously portrayed “a woman as an autonomous seeker rather than as a paradise sought”. But generally his concern was less with Bellow’s attitude to the opposite sex than to homeland, and whether he thought a paradise could be found there. Updike’s increasing disillusionment with Bellow’s later work was basically a response to its Conradian strain, its vision of a world divided into purity and noise, “truth” and “maya”.

In novels such as The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow had been, in Updike’s phrase, street-smart and book-smart with an equal intensity, a combination – borrowing the literary critic Philip Rahv’s dichotomy – of rugged “redskin” and urbane “paleface”. Leader’s second volume traces the political lurch rightwards that prompted Bellow’s retreat to bookish pallor. With the support of his Chicago colleague Allan Bloom, a philosopher whose explosive Jordan Peterson-like screed, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), sold millions of copies (somewhat invalidating its own argument), Bellow started to see the pursuit of seriousness as everywhere under attack, on campuses no less than on TV.

Portents of a split within Bellow had always been there, but Updike noted their fruition in Humboldt’s Gift. Bellow’s large, vigorous, at points thriller-ish novel follows a well-known historian and playwright, Charlie Citrine, who struggles, in his hedonistic and egocentric Chicago existence, to honour the ideals of his old mentor, the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Citrine’s own sense of material reality as simply “maya”, a painted veil that hides the truth. (Citrine’s division was partly enacted by the novel itself, which attacks the Pulitzer and then won the Pulitzer.)

“The veil of maya isn’t what it used to be for Bellow,” Updike claimed, noting that the novel “scarcely wants to touch” the surface of American reality. Where Augie March describes himself as “a Columbus of those near-at-hand”, Charlie Citrine calls himself “a connoisseur of the near-nothing”.

But didn’t Bellow, whatever the excesses of his position, have a point? Shouldn’t the artist be at odds with the temper of the times? Updike, as a patriot, Protestant and, maybe most crucially, suburbanite, was well-equipped to find a route to transcendence in American particulars. Bellow, the cosmopolitan intellectual, Jewish immigrant and university professor, living in a Chicago that bore little resemblance to the one he knew as a child – when slum kids read Plato – was more liable to notice the obstacles.

The list of phenomena that he offered in a 1975 lecture as distractions from deeper thinking is very familiar: the technological future, Arab oil, arms talks, racial tension, street crime, inflation, détente. Updike aspired to give the “mundane” its beautiful due; Philip Roth, praising Rabbit at Rest, told him, “you’ve made [US sitcom] Roseanne into art”. Bellow was too busy being assailed by the “moronic”. (“The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought,” Citrine laments.)

So it’s not quite true that the “events” of Humboldt’s Gift pull away from the “issues”, as Updike complained. They are rendered distinct because, as the century wore on, Bellow no longer felt, as he had during the Depression (“great time for reading”, he observed in some seminar notes) and the capitalistic yet Great Books-worshipping 1950s, that they could be comfortably or coherently fused. God, for the later Bellow, simply didn’t show his face at the local car dealership. (When Bellow published his realist and nostalgic story “By the St Lawrence” in 1995, Updike, in a letter Leader appears not to have seen, wrote to him, calling the story “wonderful” and “immense”: “The writing part of you seems immune to time.”)

Of course, Bellow also mocked Charlie Citrine – insulated by bookshelves from the siren blare at street level, while standing on his head and seeking to commune with “the essence of things”. Bellow’s fiction, just as it escaped the myopia of his private conduct, also displayed nothing like the polemical certitude of his essays and speeches. The Citrines and the Wulpys, while resolute in their elitism, are none the less attracted to what they disdain. So Citrine the great seeker is heartbroken by the damage done to his Mercedes 280-SL (“my shimmering silver motor tureen… my gem, my love-offering”), and shows a keen interest in a man called Rinaldo Cantabile, a small-time crook and “agent of distraction”. A writer so implacably questing, so intimately attuned to his own frailty, vanity and duality, will always have something to tell us. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005
Zachary Leader
Jonathan Cape, 864pp, £35

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

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis