Bellow, Marvelous, Monstrous, Scores the Right Biographer

Bellow: A Biography , by James Atlas. Random House, 686 pages, $35.

Writers’ lives are boring, the axiom goes. Maybe someone should have come up with a corollary about great writers, whose lives often are a little too interesting for comfort.

Why should this be? There is a kind of monstrosity to literary greatness. Talent, of course, is only part of the equation: Talent unfulfilled is as common as dirt. What supplies the titanic energy required not just to keep writing–a sizable enough feat in itself–but to push forward and complete important works of the imagination, again and again? The answer would appear to be, in almost every case, a grievous early wound to the writer’s psyche, an injury so deep that the writer spends every waking hour (and, one suspects, the sleeping ones, too) trying to redress it, in art and in life.

No one is a better illustration of this than Saul Bellow, the subject of James Atlas’ magnificent (and legendarily long-awaited) new biography. According to Mr. Atlas, our greatest living novelist was the victim of not just one but multiple early wounds: an impoverished childhood in Quebec and Chicago; the neglect of a ne’er-do-well father who dreamed of better days in St. Petersburg; the distance and seductiveness of a mother who died when the writer-to-be was 17, leaving him with the sense of a vast hole in the world.

Saul (né Solomon) Bellow was the youngest of four children, the baby of the family, small and slight, timorous and arrogant, belittled and indulged. His two older brothers would grow into beefy, assertive types, changing their last name to the more American-sounding Bellows and becoming Chicago tycoons in real estate and the iron business: substantial things, the opposite of words. They mocked young Saul’s aspirations to be a writer, made fun of his fecklessness. In self-defense and vanity, he put on airs. He also continued to borrow money from them into middle age.

Mr. Bellow seems, according to Mr. Atlas’ big, exuberantly well-documented book, never to have had a boring day in his life. In fact, lives of this Balzac-ian (or Bellowesque) a sweep don’t even appear to be possible anymore. From his slum childhood, sleeping two in a bed with one or another of his brothers and pasting labels on his father’s bootleg whisky, to his fervently intellectual, Trotskyite schoolboy days in Chicago during the Depression, to a brief stint riding the rails as a hobo, to postwar Paris, where he socialized with the likes of Sartre and de Beauvoir and Camus, to Greenwich Village in the early 50′s, amid the Partisan Review crowd, to literary lionization (which followed the publication of his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March , in 1953, when he was 38), to international celebrity, to the Pulitzer and the Nobel, to ever-higher levels of fame and acclaim, Mr. Bellow appears–career-wise–never to have made a wrong step on the path to Parnassus. Along the way, he married five times, sired four children (the latest, his only daughter, was born just last December, when the author was 84), and–it helps give loft to a doorstop of a biography–he seems to have had, in the immortal words of the Band, as much pussy as Frank Sinatra.

Persistence and energy. Yet the catch with those energizing early life-injuries is that they enable and disable at once: The very engine that provides the creative steam tends to make great writers disasters at living. Art may be hard, but it is infinitely more tractable than life; hence the tendency for the truly driven literary artist to throw everything–energy, attention, love–into the work, and to give life itself the short end of the stick. In the art, transformation and redemption; in the life, acting out and chaos. Bridges singed and burned, scars, scenes best forgotten.

Or remembered, with helpless clarity, and used in the work. It is one thing for a writer to put all his energy into his writing. It is something else again for a novelist to throw his life, intact, right into the burner, like deck furniture. Yet the miracle (and the paradox) of Mr. Bellow’s writing is that, on the evidence–and Mr. Atlas provides very extensive evidence, indeed–he has been able to work closer to the bone of reality than any great writer who comes to mind, never failing to produce the most sublime fictive alchemy. The strange impression left is of a life not just helplessly lived, but also constantly, carefully monitored for material–at times even consciously manipulated to provide it.

“Bellow got to a point in every book … at which he had to ‘tear up his life,’” Mr. Atlas writes. “The opposite of Flaubert, he cultivated chaos at home.” In the summer of 1957, Mr. Bellow, 42, was living with his second wife, the princessly Alexandra (Sondra) Tschacbasov and their 6-month-old son, Adam, in a white elephant of a country house into which he had sunk his father’s legacy, and writing Henderson the Rain King . Mr. Bellow’s closest friend and fervent admirer was a fellow professor named Jack Ludwig. And unbeknownst–apparently–to Mr. Bellow, Mr. Ludwig and Sondra were having an affair. The thorny situation would become the crux of Mr. Bellow’s greatest novel, Herzog . But Mr. Atlas makes the unsettling point that Mr. Bellow, who spent most of his life embroiled in innumerable extramarital amours of his own, may have actually engineered his wife’s infidelity in order to create literary grist.

Herzog is a masterpiece pitched perfectly in a key of high victimhood. The protagonist, failed academic Moses Herzog, undone by his ex-wife’s affair, wanders in a fugue state from Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard to Chicago to the Berkshires, all the while composing imaginary letters to philosophers, politicians, friends and enemies, living and dead, and conducting a brilliantly cracked interior monologue on the spiritual state of the world and his own disintegration. He is coming apart, gorgeously. He is constantly pursued by slavish women, whom he flees, claiming to have become enslaved by them.

The novel is a piercingly persuasive cry of the heart; one’s own heart goes out to the super-perceptive but nebbishy hero, who feels like a precise doppelgänger of the author. Indeed, the biography gives extensive clues about the closeness of Herzog to Saul Bellow’s disheveled life in the late 1950′s. Still, those who have felt convinced that in Mr. Bellow’s sublime authorial voice they have heard the music of the spheres will be disappointed (but not surprised) by the evidence that the endlessly wise, witty and self-lacerating narrators of his most autobiographical-feeling works–including also Augie March , Seize the Day , Humboldt’s Gift , The Dean’s December –are far too easy on themselves.

“Bellow was a master of self-exculpation,” the biographer writes. “[H]e was never to blame for the breakups of his marriages or friendships, the books that found disfavor with the critics, the plans that went awry. He could always find an explanation–one that revolved around the notion of himself as a victim. It was important for Bellow to see his life this way: He lacked the reserves of self-esteem needed to engage in rigorous self-criticism.”

This does not mean that Mr. Bellow (or any of his narrator-protagonists) has ever been unaware of his own importance. Far from it. What other writer would have the sheer sand to proclaim himself, ventriloquistically (through Charlie Citrine in Humboldt ) but utterly convincingly, “a world-historical individual”? Saul Bellow is a world-historical individual. He is also–by Mr. Atlas’ evidence and the novels’ confessions–a world-class fuck-up: a failure as a father, an inconstant lover, a serial husband. He is, by his own description, “a noticer,” whose biggest blind spot is other people. He has a legendarily wounding acid tongue. “What did I know?” Mr. Bellow said to friends, referring to the failure of one of his marriages. “I was in the middle of a book.”

But it is this very combination of strength and weakness, of clarity and nuttiness, that makes both Saul Bellow and his novelistic stand-ins such endlessly fascinating characters. He is an intellectual who embraced Wilhelm Reich’s psychology (he sat in an orgone box) and Rudolph Steiner’s theosophy; a formidable cultural mandarin who could appear weak, even cowardly, when push came to shove; a ladies’ man who, both by his own account and those of his inamoratas, was often a dud in the sack. Much of the book’s energy comes from the tension between James Atlas’ exhilaration at, and occasional repulsion for, his subject. “The [biographer-subject] relationship isn’t always smooth,” he tells us, in the book’s introduction. “[T]o disapprove, to feel exasperation, resentment, even hatred, are all parts of it. But to feel a lack of engagement is fatal.”

Mr. Atlas is thoroughly engaged here. It’s no knock on his wonderful 1977 biography of Delmore Schwartz to say that this is the book he was born to write. In a masterly feat of name-dropping–it makes the project feel like manifest destiny, or divine ordination–he says Philip Roth suggested the idea to him. Mr. Atlas writes, “Bellow was a natural choice for me … I had grown up in Chicago; my parents were from the same Northwest Side Jewish milieu that Bellow had rendered so vividly in a succession of books.… To write a biography of Saul Bellow would be, in a sense, to write my own autobiography, a generation removed.”

James Atlas is, quite simply, the right guy for the (very big) job. His writing has the perfect touch of Kosher salt. And when he speaks of Herzog ‘s anthropological rightness–”[t]he vulgar, tart-tongued lawyers in their wood-paneled clubs; the Yiddish-speaking old aunts in their Northwest Side bungalows and suburban homes equipped with new Westinghouses and French provincial furniture”–you know he knows this territory cold.

He is also a sharp enough literary critic to appreciate the genius of the prose without being dazzled by it: He is unfailingly tough on Mr. Bellow for the shallowness of his female characters. He is clear-eyed about the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” excesses of Henderson the Rain King . And in a feat of bravery bordering on recklessness, he takes on the Master’s most intimidating tic: his incessant philosophizing. “Philosophy … was one of the unfortunate legacies of Bellow’s immersion in the University of Chicago Great Books culture,” Mr. Atlas writes. “His heroes shared a penchant for belaboring ideas. They were the products of a provincial Chicago boy’s effort to show that he wasn’t provincial, that he was at home with the whole of Western thought; unconsciously, perhaps, they expressed an impulse to distance himself from his true and more painful material–a flight into abstraction.”

Mr. Atlas was also lucky in having, if not Mr. Bellow’s authorization, his permission, as well as his (sometimes fitful) cooperation in releasing materials. And what materials! This biographer is the beneficiary of a last-chance bonanza: Unlike so many modern authors, and unlike any author who will ever come again, Mr. Bellow has been an obsessive, prodigious, unfailingly witty letter-writer, his epistolary flow not, as might be expected, a distraction from literary effort, but a tributary of the mighty river.

One could niggle. There are a few odd malapropisms along the way–jarring to find in such a hyper-literate text. Mr. Bellow’s great friendship with Ralph Ellison, and his longtime enmity to John Updike, are barely touched upon. But the book’s most serious problem is that by 1968 or so–around page 400 of the 600-plus–the life, as rich as it is, starts to feel cloying, like a gourmet smorgasbord: too many honors, too many women, too much incisive wit. When the inevitable wearying and mellowing of age sets in, the narrative loses energy as well. And, taking the long view, it’s possible to find something oddly half-baked about writing biography on the fly, painting in wet plaster the still-alive subject’s portrait, instead of letting it all marinate for a while, waiting for the inevitable broadening and settling of facts that follow a subject’s death.

At the same time, there is something to be said for freshness, for speaking to the subject and sources while they’re still alive and memories (and animosities) are sharp. And no matter how tuckered-out Saul Bellow may be in his mid-80′s, he hasn’t lost his edge. Toward the end of his immense project, when Mr. Atlas remarked to his subject what an interesting life he’d had, Mr. Bellow responded dryly, “I’m glad I haven’t lived in vain.”

James Kaplan, the author of Two Guys From Verona (Atlantic Monthly) , is at work on a new novel .