08 Dec 2018

Saul Bellow, “Insufferable, Spoiled Monster”

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Saul Bellow on the Subway in NYC.

Marc Greif reviewing Zachary Leader’s second volume of the Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005 concludes that, Yes, success really did turn Bellow into a pretentious total prick.

Here in Volume 2, “Love and Strife,” the novel “Herzog” is published on the very first page and reaches “No. 1 on the best-seller list, supplanting John le Carré’s ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.’” Never again would Bellow, about to turn 50 years old, lack for wealth, power, awards or flunkies to stand by him, ready to take his coat and do his bidding. The temptation for someone in his position was to become an insufferable, spoiled monster.

And Bellow quickly gave in to temptation. “Bellow’s bad temper in the late ’60s was by no means directed exclusively at would-be biographers, radical students and aggrieved wives,” Leader begins a sentence, apologetically, on just Page 65. Bellow had so many targets to attack, whether insulting them face to face or in blistering letters or put-downs circulated through intermediaries. One of his favorite one-liners ran: “Let’s you and him fight.” The most salient recipients of Bellow’s bad temper in this biography were his three sons, each from a different mother — the oldest 21 when this volume starts, the youngest just 1 year old and about to be abandoned after yet another divorce.

As previous biographers have discovered, it’s difficult to write an endearing biography of Bellow. “Was I a man or was I a jerk?” Bellow inquired on his deathbed. Leader put the question on the first page of Volume 1, and it bookends this two-volume opus. Nevertheless, he has managed to write a sympathetic, judicious, 700-page second volume here, which one can recommend on its own merits. I even came to admire Bellow more at the end than the beginning. How on earth did Leader do it?

One means is those sons. I found myself reading for the reappearances of Gregory Bellow, Adam Bellow and Daniel Bellow, who are richly realized as characters and emerge as thoughtful commenters on their father’s life. The sons’ humiliations climax with the oldest, Gregory’s, tumultuous speech at a luncheon after Bellow accepted the Nobel Prize. He announced, generously, that he finally realized his father loved him after all, but his father’s way of loving was to work so hard and single-mindedly. Bellow, rather than embrace his firstborn, walked in front of the crowd to his middle son, Adam, shook his hand, and said: “‘Thanks, kid, for not saying anything.’ And off he went, in a stretch limo, entourage at his side.”

Equally vibrant are the characterizations of the adult women who intersected with Bellow. Two of his five wives, Alexandra Tulcea and Janis Freedman, sat for wide-ranging interviews and come through admirably. So do many women Bellow dated in the 1960s and 1970s. The celebrated writer kept romances alive in different cities, two or three at any given time — with students and faculty divorcées at the University of Chicago, assistants at The New Yorker, even his housecleaner. Half a century later, women like Maggie Staats and Arlette Landes are affectionate but frank in remembering the half-liberated ’60s milieu, and make the otherwise dreary train of affairs surprisingly captivating.

RTWT

Personally, I’ve never read a Bellow novel that I liked. I’ve always thought him to be an enormously over-rated terrible writer who received vast amounts of undeserved attention owing to ethnic favoritism.

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One Feedback on "Saul Bellow, “Insufferable, Spoiled Monster”"

gbear

I cannot argue with either assessment of Bellow. He did some articles in the Village Voice (as I recall), that were readable. I will say the wicker seats on the previous subway cars were more comfortable.



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