Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, by Greg Bellow
The American writer’s psychotherapist son has written a perceptive, honest – and angry – book about life with a literary giant
Saul Belllow's Heart: A Son's Memoir
Among the legions of great Jewish jokes is the well-worn one in which a mother shrieks: “Save my son the doctor, he’s drowning!”
One of the giants of 20th-century literature, the 1976 Nobel literature laureate Saul Bellow, having endured a hit-and-run biography in 2000 while still alive, is now re-presented to the world, as a man, by someone who knew him, loved him and hated him, often at the same time: his first child, Greg, born in 1944, who also happens to be a retired psychotherapist.
Saul Bellow was complex, brilliant and cruel, emotional, very funny, and detached. His most pressing concern in life, as his son makes clear in this memoir – which reads with the clarity of a scientific paper, if one undercut with a subtle tenderness – was himself.
Born in Lachine, Quebec, in 1915, Saul Bellow never recovered from being the bullied son of a harsh father, aptly named Abraham, who grew up in Lithuania and set off for Canada. He would become a bootlegger. When that enterprise failed he became embittered. Eventually the clan entered the US illegally and settled in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Abraham never showed any interest in his son’s writing, which drew early inspiration from the anger of childhood poverty.
Greg Bellow can balance his memories with his professional detachment. His book is candid, based in fact and feeling. Unlike many biographers, Greg Bellow does not have to speculate or assume; he was often either present at the events he describes or at the receiving end of his father’s actions and, more frequently, absences.
Bellow the writer is a colossus; he possesses a visceral, organic power. Few writers are better at conveying the turmoil created by ambition and need. Bellow’s characters are not saints; they are real and greedy, they want and demand, they live. As did Bellow, whose vivid, physical and always philosophical fictions are, as his son confirms, intensely autobiographical.
This memoir, which is thoughtful and considered and fuelled by Greg Bellow’s hurt as much as his memories, opens with a telling anecdote. It is discreetly operatic, an overture that helps makes sense of all that is to follow:
On a visit to Chicago when I was eight, I witnessed a terrible argument, in Yiddish, between my father and my grandfather. Driving away from his father’s house, Saul started to cry so bitterly he had to pull off the road. After a few minutes, he excused his lapse of self-control by saying: “It’s okay for grown-ups to cry.” I knew his heart was breaking. I knew because of the bond between my father’s tender heart and mine.
It is a gentle anecdote. The volatile Saul Bellow, ever quick to detect a slight, was supremely selfish and, because of his festering boyhood hurts, never quite grew up. He would marry five times, the first time in the full flush of youth and beauty, the final time in old age because he knew he would need practical support as much as romance. Greg Bellow makes no secret of what it was like to move from the warmth of a father’s love – as in the jacket photograph of father and son, taken when the author was a sleepy child – to coming home alone from school, his mother out at work, to change into his cowboy suit and run upstairs to watch TV with the neighbours.