Bellow: The ‘Defiant, Irascible Mind’

Jill Krementz
Saul Bellow, Brattleboro, Vermont, May 1995

Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—included in the Library of America’s final volume of Saul Bellow’s complete novels—is a eulogy in novel form for his friend Allan Bloom. But it also contains a kind of eulogy for Bellow himself. A shift in emphasis occurs about halfway through when Ravelstein, close to death, predicts that Chick (more or less Bellow’s alter ego) will soon follow him to the grave. Before long Ravelstein is dead and Chick is hospitalized for a potentially fatal case of food poisoning. Chick spends much of the latter part of the novel contemplating death and summing up his life. “I…lived to see the phenomena,” he concludes. Life may pass by in a continuous series of “pictures,” yet “in the surface of things you saw the heart of things.”*

Chick, the author of a biography, has made a career of examining the surface of things to understand the inner lives of his subjects. “Ordinary daily particulars,” he writes, “were my specialty.” The same was true of Bellow in his fiction. He was, in his own term, a world-class noticer. One of the distinctive thrills of reading Bellow is the exuberant richness of his descriptive prose—in the case of Ravelstein, for instance, we glimpse his “honeydew-melon head,” “legs paler than milk” that emerge from an ill-fitting kimono, and a laugh “like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back.” But Bellow does not summon these details as many novelists do, merely for the sake of clarity or amusement. They are central to his method. They are the way into the hearts of his characters, and also into his own heart.

Zachary Leader, Bellow’s newest biographer, has taken Bellow’s fictional biographer at his word. No detail of Bellow’s life has escaped Leader’s dragnet, no matter how superficial, and all have turned up in the pages of The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964. Until now, the most authoritative account has been James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography (2000), a thorough, engaging account that struck many of Bellow’s acolytes, and the man himself, as excessively critical about his personal life and insufficiently admiring of his genius. John Leonard, in his New York Times review, wrote that “a biographer more scrupulous than Atlas is hard to imagine.” But Leader is that biographer. His book is more than eight hundred closely printed pages, at least a third longer than Atlas’s. And it is just the first of two volumes.

Leader is an American who has spent most of his academic career in England, where he is a professor of English literature at the University of Roehampton. Though his previous books, most notably The Life of Kingsley Amis, have focused on British literature, he is not as unlikely a choice as it might initially seem to write an authorized biography of America’s preeminent twentieth-century novelist. Leader…

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