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Old Saul and Young Saul

1.

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.

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Greg Bellow
Greg Bellow with his father, Saul Bellow, Ludingtonville, New York, 1946

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 he had ignored when raising Greg. He renounced his youthful internationalism for racial stereotypes and right-wing tub-thumping. Young Saul, forced underground, remained as rebellious as ever, but was reduced to secret revolts against his older self. In public, Bellow gave a lecture titled “A Jewish Writer in America” (posthumously published in these pages1); in private, in a letter a few months earlier, he put the phrase “Jewish Writers in America” between distancing quotation marks and exclaimed, “a repulsive category!”

Greg recalls incidents when the two Sauls seem to have contended for the right to speak. After Greg reminded his father that he had let him refuse a bar mitzvah, Bellow said nothing more about it, young Saul having silenced the old one. Soon afterward, however, old Saul, without speaking a word, renewed his demands by sending a messenger, a woman who, on first meeting Greg, “began to badger me about Andrew’s bar mitzvah”—one of many occasions when Bellow used messengers and surrogates to impose old Saul’s will on friends and family whose memory of his younger self shamed him into silence when face to face.

As he aged, Bellow grew exaggeratedly patriarchal. While a young father, he had been, in Greg’s eyes, more maternal than Greg’s mother. When he and the teenage Greg spoke privately, he always asked about the state of what he called Greg’s “inner life.” Greg once gave him a printed Father’s Day card saying, “You’ve been like a mudder to me, fodder.” Greg confirms his father’s self-portrait in the Letters as a man puzzled by his vulnerability, his impulse to trust and revere, his recurring search for strong-minded “Reality-Instructors” (his name for them in Herzog [1964]; “I bring them out,” Herzog says), and his defensive fury after he exposes these qualities to others. Greg says of the older Bellow’s denunciations of ex-wives and once-dominant friends: “These complaints were largely for public consumption and to disguise how dependent Saul had felt.”

Bellow’s softer qualities are present in his books—most vividly in his finest and saddest novel, Seize the Day (1956)—but the old man’s genius at self-presentation ensured that the public would imagine him as a colossus like Rodin’s Balzac. In his late novella The Actual (1997), the narrator seems to share Bellow’s private sense of himself: “I myself was both larger and heavier than my parents, though internally more fragile, perhaps.”

Bellow seems to have regretted having revealed himself through the partial self-portraits in his first two novels: the passive narrator in Dangling Man (1944) who rushes to accept military discipline, and the bewildered, submissive Asa Leventhal in The Victim (1947), in thrall to the WASP Kirby Allbee. The crisis that finally releases Leventhal occurs when he returns home to find Allbee having sex with a prostitute. A betrayal by a man served the same function that a wife’s betrayal would serve in novels written by the older Bellow two decades later. “You don’t care about the woman,” Allbee tells Leventhal. “You’re just using her to make an issue and break your promise to me.”

Old Saul came into being after a crisis in the late 1950s that paralleled the crisis in The Victim. Bellow, having “kept his head in the sand for an astronomically long time,” admitted to himself that his second wife, Sondra (Greg calls her Sasha), was having an affair with his friend Jack Ludwig. Ludwig had played a fawning flunky to a seigneurial Bellow, and Bellow had taken a teaching job on condition that his vassal Ludwig be hired with him. As in many unequal-seeming relations, the ostensibly dominant figure may not have been the psychologically dominant one. Sondra “maintained that the true passion of the affair was between Saul and Jack.”

In Bellow’s fantasy in The Victim, Leventhal takes revenge against Allbee by pushing him through a door that hits him in the face. Bellow took revenge against Jack Ludwig by writing him into Herzog as the domineering hypocrite Valentine Gersbach, “Saul’s valentine,” Sondra said. Gersbach’s faults include displays of Jewish solidarity—he gives lectures to the Hadassah—of the kind that young Saul despised and old Saul practiced. Bellow defended himself against his oppressors by imitating them.

Greg Bellow was born to Bellow’s first wife, Anita, in 1944. He became a psychotherapist specializing in unhappy children. “Saul commented that I had turned the misery of my childhood into a career.” Greg felt as if he lost his father twice while he was still alive. The first loss occurred when Bellow left Anita in 1952. (Later he had four more wives, three more divorces, two more sons, and a daughter.) The second loss occurred in the 1960s when the newly conservative Bellow repudiated the left-wing ideals and “complete lack of religious observance” that he had taught Greg in childhood.

After the first loss, Greg still found comfort in his father’s visits and care, and when Anita, having remarried, spent Greg’s college fund furnishing a new house, Saul took over her share of the expenses. After the second loss, the relations of father and son took two conflicting forms. At times they shared intense emotional intimacies and wept together at deaths among family and friends. Bellow said after one death, “Come to Chicago. Your loving father will be waiting.” At other times, they withdrew into tense silences. One lasted eighteen months, after Saul, having said he was “moving heaven and earth” to attend Greg’s daughter’s wedding, curtly announced that he would not be there. Greg and his daughter “had a heart-wrenching conversation about how Saul could inflict so much pain by making commitments and failing to fulfill them.”

2.

Saul Bellow’s Heart is persuasive but artless, making it an easy target for reviewers who didn’t want to hear what it has to say. Greg Bellow writes as if he were speaking aloud, shifting unguardedly between nostalgia and rage. He forgets whether someone was selfish or generous, slips now and then into a fog of pop-psych clichés, but emerges with telling anecdotes that make their point without commentary. The reviews that pounced on the son’s contradictions also promoted a simple, heroic image of the father.

The subtitle “A Son’s Memoir” understates the book’s wider interest. What prompted Greg Bellow to write it was his discovery, after his father’s death, that Saul had accumulated a vast family of literary heirs in addition to his biological ones, and that his literary heirs remembered an ideal father entirely unlike Greg’s real one. This discovery felt like yet another loss of his father.

In death, Saul had been taken over, it seemed, by an efficient and impersonal public relations machine. Bellow’s lawyer reported his death to the media, not to his children. Greg first heard of it from his car radio. No one from Bellow’s real families was asked to speak at his funeral. He was memorialized instead by a writer, “the literary ‘son,’” and an academic, “the dutiful Jewish ‘daughter.’” Afterward, Greg read published tributes—in which “I could barely recognize Saul”—by younger writers declaring their spiritual intimacy with his father:

In the following weeks I heard and read many anecdotes and accounts that claimed a similar special closeness with Saul Bellow the literary patriarch. I took them to be distinctly filial and soon came to feel that dozens of self-appointed sons and daughters were jostling in public for a position at the head of a parade that celebrated my father’s life. By now irked by the shoving match at the front of the line, I asked myself, “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg names three writers for whom Bellow was a literary father, all of whom wrote books prompted by their vexed relations with their real fathers.

The relation between a literary father and a literary heir is always one of mutual idealization. Similar cross-idealizations of éminence terrible and enfant gris occur in other fields and in both sexes. The most common variety seems to be prompted by a young person’s wish to find a mentor, a word that points directly to the fantasy behind the wish. In the Odyssey, the Ithacan elder Mentor is not a mentor at all; the protective guide who takes Telemakhos in hand is Athena disguised as Mentor, a divinity filling a role that no ordinary mortal could manage.

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    The New York Review, October 27 and November 10, 2011

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