At the conclusion to his assiduous, supple account of the life of Saul Bellow, James Atlas acknowledged that: “Biography is a collective enterprise.” Anyone who presumes to capture the texture and trajectory of another’s life must rely on many sources. In addition to primary and secondary texts, interviews, and his own interactions with Bellow, Atlas could draw on the work of two earlier biographers, Mark Harris and Ruth Miller. But, though his biography, which was published in 2000, was able to discuss Bellow’s final novel, “Ravelstein,’’ the novelist had five more years to live. After Bellow’s death, at 89, more information about an extraordinary American life became available.
Atlas’s formidable volume is 704 pages, but that big fish is now being swallowed by a biographical Leviathan, Zachary Leader’s 832-page take on Bellow. Moreover, Leader, a professor of English literature at London’s University of Roehampton whose earlier credits include a 1,008-page authorized biography of Kingsley Amis, has barely begun. Released to coincide with the centennial of Bellow’s birth and the 10th anniversary of his death, Leader’s Bellovian tome is just the first installment of a projected two-volume biography. Leader was able to draw upon 81 previously restricted boxes among the copious Bellow papers at the University of Chicago, a memoir that Bellow’s oldest son, Greg, published in 2013, and an unpublished memoir that Sasha Tschacbasov Bellow, the author’s second wife, let him read. He is also more sympathetic to his subject than Atlas’s portrait of a racially insensitive misogynist.
Leader begins his opus proclaiming, “Saul Bellow was the most decorated writer in American history.” A list of his awards, including a Nobel, a Pulitzer, and three National Book Awards, is extensive, but comparably long lists were compiled by Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, even Louis L’Amour, and it would be churlish to parse honorary degrees or adjudicate which glittering prizes have more luster.
Whereas Ruth Miller’s 1991 biography mines Bellow’s books for clues to an evasive life, Leader appropriates the life as a gloss on the books. That makes sense when he comes to “Herzog,’’ which transmutes into art Bellow’s personal crisis when he was the last to learn that his wife Sasha and his erstwhile friend Jack Ludwig had become a couple. Leader’s access to the previously restricted papers and to memoirs by Sasha and Gregory provide him with a fuller account of the dynamics of this betrayal as well as to other developments in Bellow’s life. However, particularly during the early years, when information is scant, Leader seems most intent on scavenging the books for parallels to the life. Contrasting tough, irascible Aunt Rosa with Bellow’s more nurturing mother, Liza, he notes that: “In Bellow’s fiction, there are hard mothers and soft mothers, Rosa types and Liza types” and proceeds to fill the next three pages with examples from “Dangling Man,’’ “The Victim,’’ “The Adventures of Augie March,’’ “Seize the Day,’’ “Henderson the Rain King,’’ and “Herzog,’’ as well as an unfinished fiction called “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son.” Not entirely satisfying as literary criticism, the result makes a reader impatient to return to Bellow’s eventful life.
“I adore running and dislike repose,” Bellow wrote his future third wife, Susan Glassman. He was forever writing, traveling, teaching, and kibitzing. He had a gift for friendship with eminences such as John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, and Robert Penn Warren, and a priapic compulsion to bed dozens of women. Bellow considered “Henderson the Rain King,’’ a wealthy blueblood’s comic, karmic adventures in Africa, his favorite of his books and Eugene Henderson the character most like himself. However, Leader’s biography comes into its own when Bellow blossoms, when the sprawling, exuberant prose of “Augie March’’ liberates him from the fastidiousness of his first two novels. Leader notes that Bellow’s third novel, published in 1953, arrived at a congruent moment of self-confidence in American culture.
Leader traces Bellow from his picaresque beginnings in Quebec as the child of Russian Jewish immigrants to age 50, when “he had arrived at the pinnacle of American letters, and he knew it.” During the next 39 years, he will marry twice more, publish a dozen more books, and, after Montreal, Chicago, New York, Paris, Puerto Rico, and Minneapolis, end up living — and dying — in Brookline. During his combative career, “Saul Bellow, alas” might have been a reader’s response if asked to name the greatest living American novelist. In our neglectful time, Leader’s massive project might revive a faded giant, or else entomb him.
THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW:
To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964
By Zachary Leader
Knopf, 832 pp., illustrated, $40
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.”