Mr. Bellow’s Planet: Saul’s Son Speaks Up

Saul Bellow. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Saul Bellow. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Born in 1915, Saul Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944. He would go on to write 18 books of fiction (14 novels, four story collections) which between them would win him the Pulitzer Prize (Humboldt’s Gift, 1975), a record-setting three National Book Awards (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953; Herzog, 1964; Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970), the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature and countless other accolades besides, not the least of which was mainstream commercial success. He died in 2005, 89 years old and on his fifth wife—a former student exactly half his age.

Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir is by Greg Bellow, Mr. Bellow’s oldest son by his first wife (Anita Goshkin). Greg was born the same year that Dangling Man was published. After a long and apparently successful career as a “psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist,” Greg—himself a man of some 70 years now—has, “despite my doubts about writing publicly … determined to learn more about my father, to reassess my patrimony as a writer’s son, and to have my say.” Bellow fils describes his discomfort over the many public laments for and lionizations of Bellow père that appeared after the latter’s death.

As soon as Saul died, his lawyer, Walter Pozen, set the tone for what was to come. Instead of calling the family, Walter phoned the public media. I learned of my father’s death on my car radio. The chosen speakers at Saul’s funeral were Martin Amis, the literary “son,” and Ruth Wisse, the dutiful Jewish “daughter.” Though no family members were asked to speak, I rose to praise Saul’s widow, Janis, for her devotion during my father’s last years. Strangely silent was another literary heir, Philip Roth, who, like a kind of brooding Hamlet, wandered the edges of the funeral in deep thought.

Greg Bellow’s anger and disgust are palpable (the chapter from which the quote is drawn is titled “Awakened by a Grave Robbery”), though they do not always arise in the places one might expect. Indeed, Greg is capable of showing great sympathy and reserve of judgment when discussing Saul, who required exorbitant portions of both—and often demanded more still. Here, for example, is Greg on Saul’s infidelity to Anita: “Saul was now well able to construct rationales to justify his sexual behavior. But his feelings toward women were grounded, I believe, in deeply maternal forms of love like that I find in the selfless, protective love of Grandma Lescha.”

It is an emblematic passage. Greg uses his professional experience (and its attendant lexicon and tone) as a way of accessing and attempting to understand—if rarely to justify—a father who was somehow always, as the man himself put it in More Die of Heartbreak, “knee-deep in the garbage of a personal life.” The pervasive calm is admirable, if a little bit strange, especially considered in light of the moments when the tranquility is broken and true, raw rage shines through.

The literary agent Andrew Wylie’s name alone, for example, is enough to send Greg around the bend. He quotes a memoir by Harriet Wasserman, his father’s longtime pre-Wylie agent, in which Ms. Wasserman claims that Mr. Wylie boasted he would turn Bellow “from a cash cow into a cash bull.” Mr. Bellow cites this as proof that his father’s legacy “was now clearly in the grip of the Philistines, people who emphasized money rather than culture, about whom he had complained for decades.” Well, maybe. On the other hand, if one is going to quote Ms. Wasserman’s memoir, it seems only fair to note that her book, Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow, was written and published as payback to Saul for firing her. (It ends with a likening of Bellow to King Lear and Wasserman, by extension, to Cordelia.) Whatever one thinks of Mr. Wylie and his aggressive courtship of aging authors with posterity on their minds (not for nothing is his nickname “The Jackal”), it is only reasonable to take Ms. Wasserman’s testimony with a grain of salt. Besides all of which, status and money were always on Saul Bellow’s mind.

Every Bellow novel of consequence takes the conflict between material and—presumably—nobler concerns as a central theme, but the result is typically inconclusive; the conflict never quite resolves. And status—in the old-school sense of being a public figure, but still—is consistently envisioned in Bellow’s work as a virtue in and of itself. More to the point, it is a prerequisite for being a protagonist in a Saul Bellow story. Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift questions whether he has compromised his artistic vision to achieve commercial success, but he never regrets the social capital that his achievements have granted him. He returns obsessively throughout the book to memories of dining at the White House and riding in a helicopter with Bobby Kennedy. Albert Corde in The Dean’s December is the head of a university journalism program; his career got a running start when, as a young man, he secured a spot covering the Yalta conference. Abe Ravelstein in Ravelstein, Eugene Henderson in Henderson the Rain King, Uncle Benn in More Die of Heartbreak (introduced to the reader as “B. Crader, the well-known botanist”); the list goes on. And nowhere in Bellow—anywhere, ever—does one encounter a character who abandons a social or economic position for the sake of a higher ideal (or for any other reason). George Eliot he wasn’t.

However much Saul Bellow’s death and public memorials (there were several of them, in New York and Chicago) may have upset Greg Bellow, it was probably no less than his father expected, anticipated, hoped for. Indeed, the son learning of the father’s death on the radio is a perfectly Bellovian detail, with the difference being that a proper Bellow narrator would have had his grief allayed by the thrill of being personally connected to a boldface name.