In outline form, Greg Bellow’s memoir of his father Saul tells a familiar twentieth-century story: a young Jewish left-wing idealist becomes an overbearing middle-aged reactionary, driven in part by sexual anxieties obvious to everyone but himself. In detail, the story is nuanced, moving, and idiosyncratic, with an unpredictable ending.
As Greg Bellow describes him, “young Saul,” known only to his family and close friends, was the vulnerable, soft-hearted, independent-minded son of a brutal, observant-Jewish, immigrant father. Saul Bellow’s Heart opens with Greg’s memory of himself at eight, watching young Saul, at thirty-seven, burst into tears after “a terrible argument, in Yiddish, between my father and grandfather.” Twenty years later, “old Saul,” in violent contrast, was as rigid a patriarch as his own father had been, humiliating his children and grandchildren in private while denouncing in public the breakdown of traditional hierarchy and obedience.
In Greg Bellow’s account, as in his father’s recently published Letters, old Saul seems to have been, at least in part, a protective carapace that Bellow built around himself when he began to feel exposed by fame. Old Saul concealed his vulnerability and mixed feelings, not only from the public but also, to his cost, from his wives and children. Unlike the ambivalent and self-doubting young father who laughed at his own contradictions, old Saul was abrupt, arbitrary, and uncomplicated. He said what he meant, whether you liked it or not, and became silent when told he was contradicting himself.
At eight, alone in a hospital in Montreal (he was born there in 1915), Bellow listened to a volunteer read aloud from the New Testament, an episode recorded in two of his novels and summarized by Greg Bellow:
Saul secretly fell in love with Jesus as a man who loved mankind and suffered without complaint. Surrounded by other boys who taunted him for being Jewish, he quickly realized that loving Jesus was a complicated matter best kept to himself on the ward and from his parents.
As a young man, Bellow took sharp pleasure in Jewishness as an intellectual and moral style, a source of irony and independence, but pulled away from its offer of a collective, ritualized identity. “During those years,” Greg reports, “he resisted the label of ‘Jewish writer,’ once pointedly declaring that he liked hockey, but no critic labeled him a Blackhawk fan.” Bellow outraged his father by leaving a ham in the icebox and driving on Yom Kippur to visit friends while his family, obedient to Jewish law, walked to synagogue. When Greg was twelve, Bellow asked him if he wanted a bar mitzvah, and was content when Greg, whose friends resented being sent to Hebrew lessons to prepare for the ceremony, said no.
Old Saul swept aside the younger one’s respect for his son’s feelings, demanding (unsuccessfully) that his grandson Andrew should have a bar mitzvah and learn the religious traditions that …