The irresistible rise of Saul Bellow.May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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 He spoke to three of Bellow’s five wives (the others have died) and was given a copy of Bellow’s second wife Sondra’s unpublished memoir, a lively account, so it appears, of a relationship that finally went bad.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.
Finding sustenance in the afternoon serialsMar 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 25 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Why should I, an elderly literary gent who spends much of his time reading, talking, and writing about Shakespeare or W. B. Yeats, spend an hour every weekday watching a soap opera? How odd is it that after a hardworking class teasing out the syntax and ambiguities of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, or some complicated Yeatsian lyric, I come home at noon to plunge wholeheartedly into a world not of language but of characters, of people I like or dislike? After warning students not to “identify” with Prospero or with J.
The writer as celebrity, and vice versaDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Norman Mailer entered Harvard in the fall of 1939, just as World War II began. His famous novel about part of that war, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948, and at age 25, like Lord Byron, he awoke to find himself famous.
An English satirical talent hits his strideNov 17, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 10 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Although Edward St. Aubyn has received handsome praise from a number of more than respectable novelists and critics, my sense is that he is still something of a secret, less known than he should be to readers who try to keep up with contemporary fiction.
Doth this ex-Ivy Leaguer protest too much?Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
It's polemical title leaves us in no doubt of what to expect from this book. William Deresiewicz has written a passionate attack on everything that’s wrong with today’s elite universities and colleges and the credentialed students who attend them. He terms it “a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” who would have benefited from hearing about such matters.
A definitive life of the great American composer. May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Terry Teachout is a remarkable man of letters whose interest in the arts is multi-directed. Officially, he serves as drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and has reported on theater performances all over the country. He is also critic at large for Commentary, where he publishes a regular column covering the arts.
Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.
Jack London’s thousand words a day. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
In one of the most charming moments of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), our hero is about to be visited by a 14-year-old American boy, son of Pnin’s former (and dreadful) wife and her fraudulent lover, Dr. Eric Wind. Pnin wonders what gifts of welcome he can give young Victor, and decides that along with a football, he will provide some pleasurable reading.
The Indian summer of the Great Conductor on 85 discs. Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
The convergence of two events has shaped my life as a music listener over the past few months. The first was a significant birthday, after which I decided to reacquaint myself with the classical records—many of them long-playing vinyl—that I’ve lived with over the decades. I resolved to spend less time listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the songs Frank Sinatra recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s, and celebrate, instead, Haydn and Brahms and Debussy.
The definitive Updike, in two volumes. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
There have always been readers of John Updike’s work who find his most impressive achievement to be his short fiction rather than his novels.
A second look at Evan S. Connell's domestic masterpiece.Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
The death of Evan S. Connell last month prompts reflection on an American original who, over a lifetime of steady work—many volumes of novels, stories, biography, essayistic speculations—left as his permanent contribution to letters one brilliant, memorable book: the novel Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959.
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