Saul Bellow died in 2005, a few years after he was accorded full biographical treatment by the critic James Atlas. In 700 pages, Atlas provided a crisply written, fair-minded account of the novelist and fellow Chicagoan up through the publication of his final book, Ravelstein (2000). With some notable exceptions (Richard Poirier and James Wood), the biography was well received. Now, the scholar and biographer Zachary Leader has produced a book of about the same length, but taking Bellow only up to the appearance of Herzog in 1964, with a second volume to follow that will cover the remaining 40 years. As a biographer, Leader tends to write long: His life of Kingsley Amis clocked in at over 900 pages; similarly, this new book seems to have overlooked nothing in laying out a life, along with extended commentary on the writings.
One of the attractive things about Leader’s manners as a biographer is his relation to his predecessor. He never attempts to justify his book by claiming that Atlas had left out this, or didn’t know or misinterpreted that. In fact, he refers to Atlas a number of times, uses him often to confirm things, and generously acknowledges him as the most important source for making his own book possible. Nor does he claim that this or that aspect of Bellow’s character has been revealed for the first time. The man he writes about doesn’t seem to be essentially different from the one Atlas presented.
Deference to his predecessor doesn’t mean that Leader has shirked the tasks of interviewing and consulting the libraries and archives. He spoke to three of Bellow’s five wives (the others have died) and was given a copy of Bellow’s second wife Sondra’s unpublished memoir, a lively account, so it appears, of a relationship that finally went bad. Bellow’s three sons were also cooperative. And Leader makes use of a short memoir, “Mugging the Muse,” written by Bellow’s third wife, Susan. Other new sources are very interesting transcripts of conversations between Bellow and Philip Roth, as well as Roth’s New Yorker essay “Rereading Saul Bellow.” Roth gave Leader a valuable piece of advice when he warned him about the interviews Leader would have to conduct: “Saul was no monster,” said Roth, “but he loved monsters and you’re going to have to interview them.”
One example may do to suggest the size of Leader’s enterprise and the leisurely pace of his narrative. It took only eight pages for Atlas to tell of Bellow’s birth in Lachine, Quebec. Thirty-five of Leader’s pages lead up to that event. In them are sketched the life in Russia of his parents and related family matters, the ship to Canada, and the settling-in of the parents and older siblings, culminating in the birth of Saul in 1915. Atlas writes of the “bibulous obstetrician” who (Bellow later claimed) delivered his mother Liza of the new boy: Leader, after describing the French-Canadian doctor as “quite drunk when he arrived,” thinks of the narrator of Bellow’s fine story “The Old System,” who is delivered by a similarly drunken doctor. Then there is a mention of Bellow’s 9-year-old sister, June, who, in a letter decades later, recalled “a beautiful white bundle with an angelic face . . . lying at the foot of Ma’s bed.” Leader also refers to Bellow’s unpublished “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son” for another instance of a child “being delivered after great trouble.”
Leader has committed himself to using scenes and characters from Bellow’s writings whenever they help to illuminate some “real life” event. This practice provides a fuller, rounded-out picture of things, but it also takes up more narrative time, and it is doubtful that even the closest student of Bellow’s life and work is going to pay careful attention to all of the illustrations. As for Leader’s scrupulosity of documentation, there are over 100 pages of single-spaced endnotes. The text itself contains (for better or worse, depending on your taste) plenty of documentation of Bellow’s erotic life. Particularly after the bitter marital breakup with Sondra—in Leader’s words, a terrible time for him—Bellow entered what Leader deftly calls “a period of strenuous womanizing.” As we read about the writer traveling throughout Europe on cultural business, his biographer provides a list of conquests with specific names and countries attached: Poland, Yugoslavia, and so on. Near the end of the trip, Bellow assures Ralph Ellison in a letter that he’s “much better, I’m beginning to sit up and take nourishment.”
Perhaps the most memorable summing-up of Bellow’s sexual appetite was made by a painter, Arlette Landes, who remarked that “he had a biblical Old World morality, but his fly was entirely unzipped at all times.” It is to Leader’s credit that he doesn’t attempt to “explain” this by psychologizing.