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Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir

By Greg Bellow

Bloomsbury

232 pages, $26

By Stefan Fleischer

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

The great age of Jewish-American fiction with its critical successes, best-seller popularity and the cachet of celebrity has passed. Of three major figures – Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) and Saul Bellow (1915-2005) – only Roth is still alive. Despite his protestation that he’s now retired, Roth still remains very much in the public eye.

Within this context, Greg Bellow’s memoir of his father, Saul, may be understood as the attempt to do justice to his father’s reputation as a person, rather than as a literary figure. Son Greg resigns himself to the idea that Saul has become a “literary lion,” a symbol resting on a reputation for importance that’s not likely to change. He sees himself as illuminating the “real” Saul Bellow, a tender-hearted figure whose vulnerability is always masked by his callous and insensitive behavior. An unkind review of the memoir would characterize it as being merely a species of the higher gossip about the life of a figure who is hardly read anymore. But that would be a mistake.

Bellow turns up in odd corners. In a recent New Yorker profile, Noah Baumbach talks about Bellow’s influence on his recent filmmaking efforts. Baumbach cites “Herzog” specifically for its “relentless portraiture.” One can see the Herzogovian traces in Baumbach’s character “Greenberg” (in the film of 2010) with his obsessive cranky letter writing as well as the obsessive self-pity.

In an interview on NPR in 2009, author Jeffrey Eugenides has this to say about Bellow’s influence: “There’s a little thing I do when I can’t write: When I’m feeling sleepy, when my head is in a fog, I reach across my desk, digging under the piles of unanswered mail, to unearth my copy of ‘Herzog’ by Saul Bellow. And then I open the book – anywhere – and read a paragraph.”

These two recent examples run counter to the generalization that as he got older Saul Bellow simply fell out of favor, becoming less widely read and becoming more notorious for provocative sexist and racist remarks on matters both literary and cultural. My hunch is that you’d have a hard time finding “Herzog” or “Augie March” on the undergraduate American lit survey syllabus in any of the nation’s better colleges. Nevertheless, among some younger literary and film types, Bellow is still read thoughtfully and deeply.

Younger writers and filmmakers would make use of Bellow for their own creative purposes. It would be interesting to find out if Lena Dunham might have read some Bellow, browsing in one of her parents’ well-stocked bookshelves. It’s the mixture of her love of disorder (the fine 2010 movie “Tiny Furniture”) and the boundary bending in her HBO series “Girls” that suggests this speculation to me.

Bellow’s peculiar writerly genius left a widespread although problematic patrimony. In “A Son’s Memoir,” Greg Bellow attempts to rehabilitate the reputation at least of the “young Saul” as a tender-hearted, if irresponsible father. “Saul Bellow’s Heart” covers a long stretch of time, since Saul lived to be 90 and Greg must have been in his 70s when he began work on the book. Greg goes through family history all the way back to Saul’s grandfathers.

There’s interesting stuff here, a classic turn on the Jewish 20th century immigrant saga, with more than a couple of twists: Saul’s father was a patriarchal bully, having among other careers one as a failed bootlegger. Greg Bellow is on solid ground when he’s telling us about myriad aunts, uncles, brothers and cousins, with everybody trying to obey the immigrant’s dream imperative: Make money.

As soon as he moves away from family background and early childhood memories, things get shaky. Greg is clear and perceptive about Saul’s public life in the earlier years, describing a far left-leaning, dedicated warrior for causes of social justice. He’s less persuasive about his father’s later public life. Sometime in the ’60s Saul became the figure noted on television for racist remarks about literature (“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”), sexist remarks about women’s liberationists (“sagging breasts” 10 years after going braless), and homosexuals (“Ivy League catamites”), as well as generally espousing the most retrograde conservative opinions on culture and education. Here Bellow came under the baleful influence of Allan Bloom, whose book (“Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students”) codified the conservative side of the “culture wars” debate that started in the ’60s and can still be felt today. Bloom’s book carries a forward by Saul Bellow.

Janis Bellow, the fifth wife, 40 years Saul’s junior, deprived Greg of access to Saul Bellow’s letters and much of the archival material because she is intent on absolute control of Bellow’s legacy. Greg therefore settled on his task as revealing the “real” Saul as a person by applying a psychoanalytic lens based on his own training and lifelong practice as a psychotherapist. It is surprising that Greg Bellow shields himself from his own self-knowledge even as he writes perceptively about Saul’s blind spots. Greg stresses how close he was to his father as a child, but what comes across is a book about a son who is so love-hungry that he’s grateful for any crumb of affection or attention his philandering and often absent or preoccupied father happened to toss his way.

It pains me to say this, but “Saul Bellow’s Heart” is unfailingly interesting to read despite being mostly awkwardly written. Greg Bellow too often reaches for the trite, ready made adjective: Silences are typically “stony,” crises are always “sudden.” Modifiers dangle off the end of sentences, far removed from their subject.

Greg has a tendency toward the melodramatic, something of a family trait shared by son and father and grandfather. For example, Greg’s introductory chapter has the title “Awakened by a Grave Robbery.” We’re not sure whether the melodramatic “grave robbery” refers to Greg Bellow’s resentment that his place of honor at his father’s funeral was given over to Saul’s “literary sons” or to Janis Bellow’s decision to bury Saul in Vermont rather than with other family members in Montreal.

The motif of the eldest son’s fury at feeling cheated or tricked out of his rightful portion goes all the way back to the Old Testament, with the story of Esau and Jacob. One reason for all this trouble is the old patriarchal habit of having too many wives for good order.

Saul Bellow probably did have too many wives for good order, although he had them serially rather than simultaneously, but often with mistresses alongside. Greg Bellow offers some mostly unconvincing psychoanalytically tinged explanations for this reckless behavior (five wives, three sons each with a different mother). Much better is Saul Bellow’s own succinct explanation that comes in a brilliant passage in “Herzog:”

“In the depths of a man’s being there was something that responded with a quack to such perfume. Quack! A sexual reflex that had nothing to do with age or subtlety, wisdom, experience, history, Wissenschaft, Bildung, Wahrheit. In sickness or health there came the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin.” Nor was Bellow immune to other seductions of “quack, quack.” To name just two: the nutty quackery of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box and the high falutin’ nutty metaphysics of Rudolph Steiner.

The son’s task of rehabilitating the father’s reputation is hardly an easy trick if your father is Saul Bellow, an extraordinarily complicated man and very clearly not a nice one in almost all of his dealings. Nevertheless, although the largest questions remain teasingly unanswerable, one can always forward an opinion. Greg Bellow quotes his father shortly before his death asking his friend Eugene Goodheart, “Was I a man or a jerk?” a question that could be rendered back to the saltier Yiddish of Bellow’s childhood in Lachine, the poor mostly Jewish suburb of Montreal.

One might ask, “Was he a mensch or a schmuck?” Greg Bellow tries hard to advocate the former. This reader tends to the latter judgment. And in all this Saul Bellow gets the last and lasting word, a single one above his name to mark his gravestone: “Writer.”

Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston.