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.
The time Greg Bellow had with his father was spent largely on the move. In contrast with the restlessness of constantly moving home, city and country, there were the long hours of silence when he was fearful of making a sound in case he should disturb Bellow the writer at his desk. Then there were the arguments when Saul Bellow was still living with Greg’s mother, Anita; the “sexual roving” that would become a central element in Bellow’s life had begun.
There were other reasons for tension too. Bellow did not serve in the second World War; none of the family had US citizenship. In this book it becomes very clear, very quickly, that Bellow’s first published novel, Dangling Man (1944), with its mood of being adrift and waiting, of a life on hold, is based on the writer’s experiences during that wartime period. The autobiographical pattern emerges and, with it, the structure of Greg Bellow’s thesis, that his father was and is his novels. The most personally charged of these is the brilliant lamentation Seize the Day (1956), in which the narrator, Tommy Wilhelm, grieves for his father’s love.
Yet before this was the drama of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the book that made Saul Bellow famous, and appeared to have liberated him as an artist while he was still at work on it: “With a novel that seemed to be writing itself, Saul’s dark mood and demeanour changed radically. He became a jauntily dressed young man about town who participated in a free-spirited cafe life with writers, painters and intellectuals.”
Greg Bellow identifies the creation of Augie March as the end of his father’s literary apprenticeship and the assertion of his fluent, conversational prose style. In Bellow’s world the cleverest people do the dumbest things in relationships. He tended to see himself as the Henderson figure in Henderson the Rain King (1959). By far the most significant comment in this most informed account is Greg Bellow’s inspired reading of possibly his father’s best work, More Die of Heartbreak (1987), in which the bond between a nephew (and the narrator), Kenneth Trachtenberg, and his uncle, Benn Crader, mirrors that of Greg and his father. Life as art would also be the core of the late and very fine Ravelstein (2000), based blatantly on the life of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the critic.
As with Bellow’s fiction, his son’s memoir contains a great deal of speech and many larger-than-life real-life characters; within Bellow’s immediate circle people tended to shout and bicker. It is quite a chorus, and Greg Bellow proves a capable guide. His hurt and resentments are evident yet handled with sufficient discipline that the book does not read as a vendetta.
Most importantly, Greg Bellow defines the divide between private man and public property. At his father’s funeral, in 2005, he turned to his two brothers, both of them from different mothers, and asked exactly how many sons his father had. The sons and their families were relegated to the sidelines as teams of agents and lawyers, engaged by Bellow’s fifth and final wife, marketed the legacy and took on the task of comforting the public mourners, asking famous writers – not Bellow’s sons – to deliver graveside eulogies.
Greg Bellow, now approaching 70, is in the unique position of being able to evoke the two Sauls, Young Saul and Old Saul, although, from reading this book, there appear to have been about 100 sides to Saul Bellow.
When I was on my way to interview Saul Bellow, one of my literary heroes, in Chicago, he advised me to call a cab. “This place” – the University of Chicago – “is surrounded on three sides by a black ghetto,” he said. Naturally, I took a bus.
He was kindly and courtly, stating with a sigh, “I’ve been married four times” – the fifth wedding had yet to happen – “and I’ve never figured out women.” Even then, at 74, he remained dapper, taking a smart black hat from a coat rack as we left for the train. For Martin Amis, Bellow was one of his two major literary mentors, the other being Nabokov. And in late middle age, Amis has begun to physically resemble him.
There is a savage quality to Bellow’s art, an anger as well as guilt, ego and all that self-doubt, which combined to make him an artist. It took Bellow far longer to address his Jewishness than, say, Philip Roth, whose career had been shaped by it. It is Bellow who best presents the dilemma of the emerging American eager to assimilate into the New World while staggering beneath the weight of his European, often Russian, usually Jewish past.
Shortly before his death Bellow was discussing his life with an old friend and, burdened by doubt until the very end, asked: “Was I a man or a jerk?” It is a line that could have been uttered by many Bellow characters. The truth is that he was both a man and a jerk; after all, he was human. For all his flaws Bellow remained civil to the maverick biographer James Atlas after the publication of his devastating biography in 2000.
Greg Bellow writes that his father’s headstone simply says “writer”. This perceptive, honest, at times angry memoir may not be the most elegantly written of books, but it is impressively intelligent. It is true to Bellow the writer and the man: the troubled, needy son who became a careless, distracted father, and the great writer who in the end lost his memory and his sharp talent for verbal battle.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.