Swiveling Man

Dominique Nabokov
Saul Bellow, Brattleboro, Vermont, June 1989

“Guys, I’m rich.”

So begins the second volume of Zachary Leader’s Life of Saul Bellow, and so begins the second half of Bellow’s life. The publication of Herzog in 1964 had elevated a respected if underselling midcareer novelist to the status of publishing darling, national celebrity, golden-fingertipped literary divinity. Bellow’s income that year was the equivalent in today’s dollars of approximately $1 million. It was higher each of the next three years. He began to turn down lucrative awards and lecture fees to avoid the tax liability. “The earlier Saul had disappeared,” said his friend Mitzi McClosky, referring to the Saul who was tyrannized by his father and the financial success of his businessmen brothers, the Saul who hustled to secure time for his work amid low advances, grants, and teaching gigs, the Saul aggrieved by being pigeonholed as a “Jewish writer.” The new Saul had made it, all right. But he was no less besieged. If the great enemy of the writer was, as he often put it in speeches and essays, the “frantic distraction” that intruded on “the quiet of the soul that art demands,” that enemy now came swarming over the barricades.

It came in the form of family members hawking investment schemes in Miami real estate and Oklahoma oilfields; grifting accountants; literary agents touting stock tips; divorce lawyers (his third divorce, out of an eventual four, may have set the record for the most expensive in Illinois history); academic and literary institutions offering positions and prizes and other compensated entanglements; writers hoisting protest letters; invitations to judge the Booker Prize, the MacArthur “genius” award, and the Miss USA Beauty Pageant; and a new class of professional admirers (“career parasites,” he called them) who sought his mentorship, founded the Saul Bellow Journal, and proposed writing his biography. There were also the girlfriends, mistresses, and wives—and with them, the three sons, though these were more easily evaded (Bellow’s parental strategy, in the words of Adam Bellow, was “benign neglect until their minds had matured enough to be somewhat interesting”). But the incursion that most acutely tested Bellow came from the “great public noise”: the convulsive debates over race, war, gender, and inner-city crime that dominated American life in the decades following Herzog’s publication. Bellow reigned as the nation’s preeminent novelist during much of this time, a station that forced him, again and again, to confront the paradox that lay at the heart of his identity as a writer.

“It excites me, it distresses me to be so immersed,” wrote Bellow during this period. He was referring to a reporting trip to Jerusalem, but he might have been describing his new position in American culture: insisting on the writer’s need for independence from worldly affairs while throwing himself into them. Bellow was much closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald…

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