Greg Bellow, a retired child psychotherapist in his late sixties, is the eldest of the novelist Saul Bellow’s offspring. Bellow Sr (pictured above in 1984), as we already knew from his part-autobiographical fictions and a readable, well-sourced critical biography by James Atlas published in 2000, was a fairly dutiful, not unaffectionate father but didn’t see affection as an impediment to truthfulness and always put his writing before anything else. He claimed that he had never heard of ‘an honest working man’ on either side of his Lithuanian Jewish family: ‘My forefathers were Talmudists. My maternal grandfather had 12 children and never worked a day in his life.’ Bellow himself toiled at his writing but no one around him, at least in the early days, saw it as any kind of a job. Famously, when he stopped for the evening, Anita — Greg’s working mother — was known to say: ‘So it shouldn’t be a total loss, why don’t you take out the garbage?’
After Bellow’s death in 2005, the son set himself to reading all his father’s books in the hope of understanding him better. One can sympathise, but there are obvious problems. Greg Bellow isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, a more sophisticated reader, let alone writer, than any other of the (literally) thousands who have offered interpretations of the Nobel Prize winner and his work. And it’s hard not to think it’s time for the son to get over their sadly unequal relationship.
Saul Bellow’s intellectual and emotional career was both complex and, in outline, simple enough. ‘Young Saul’ broke away from his origins into passionate, convinced secularism and socialism and an absorption in psychoanalysis. (During much of Greg’s childhood, instead of a pram in the hall there was a Reichian orgone box, described in one of the book’s few really vivid passages. ‘About the size of a telephone box and lined with Brillo pads’, the cabinet was ‘designed to capture and intensify celestial energy. Because adults went into it nude, I grasped its purpose and sat in it for long, uninterrupted masturbatory sessions.’) Subsequently, the novelist underwent a no less passionately convinced conversion to patriarchal Judaism and social pessimism, repudiating most of the notions his son had learned from him to hold dear, including those on which he now based his livelihood. Along the way, Saul divorced Anita, fought Greg with imperious ruthlessness when the teenager dared support his mother’s claims for alimony, remarried and re-married and remarried and then remarried again, this time to someone 15 years Greg’s junior.
Many people have had similarly complicated lives without managing to be great novelists, or great anything else. Greg Bellow does his best to grasp what fiction-writing can involve, including a degree of selfishness which the practitioner may think vocationally necessary — even altruistic. He also describes his father’s later painful repentances. What he knows is that he loved him, feels ‘special’ as the first-born and believes, despite all the evidence, that Saul would have wanted him to know everything about him. And this is where the book has its origins.
When the writer died, Greg was amazed and wounded by some discoveries. First, Janis Bellow, the most recent of his stepmothers, also believed that she was special to Saul, as did other relatives and friends, including a few gifted writers to whom he had become a surrogate father, Martin Amis, in particular. Second, how-ever financially generous Bellow was to his heirs, the words in his archive were to be protected as closely in future as they had been while they were being written. An authorised biography by the well-equipped Zachary Leader, a friend of Amis’s, is on its way.
It’s understandable and pitiable that even, or especially, after his father’s death, Greg wanted to break through his father’s well-constructed defences, to get at what he repeatedly — as if he thinks Saul invented the phrase — quotes him as calling ‘the inner life’. But should the author’s agent, Andrew Wylie — presented here as co-villain with the Widow Janis in one of those melodramas of reputational over-protectiveness anatomised by Ian Hamilton in Keepers of the Flame — have allowed the biographical free-for-all Greg felt entitled to?
The question is best answered in a literary way. Here is Saul Bellow, in a story called ‘A Father-to-Be’, the central character of which, Rogin, has been looking at a rather ordinary man on the subway and realises that this may be how his son will turn out:
Such a man would carry forward what had been Rogin … ‘My son! My son!’ he said to himself, and the pity of it almost made him burst into tears. The holy and frightful work of the masters of life and death brought this about. We were their instruments.
And here is Greg in a characteristic moment of retrospective self-analysis:
The undergraduate education I so wished for was a rude awakening. Everyone in the College [Chicago] was bright, and many were brilliant. For the first time in my life, I was trying as hard as I could but getting poor results that made me feel stupid.
Or here is Greg on his parents’ breakup: ‘Saul’s departure split my life in two. My father, in many ways a kid who never grew up, and who understood my feelings, was no longer an everyday presence in my life.’ And Saul, talking about a different form of breakup to Martin Amis in a 1998 BBC TV programme with which James Atlas ends his biography. Amis asks Bellow if he believes in an afterlife:
Well, it’s impossible to believe in it because there’s no rational ground. But I have a persistent intuition, and it’s not so much a hope — call it love impulses. What I think is how agreeable it would be to see my mother and my father and my brothers again — to see again my dead. But then again I think, ‘How long would these moments last?’ You still have to think of eternity as a conscious soul. So the only thing I can think of is that in death we might become God’s apprentices.
It isn’t the son’s fault that his powers of insight and articulation are less than Saul Bellow’s: whose aren’t? And of course if writing this narrative has proved helpful to him, fine. But publishing it wasn’t necessary, and reading it is frankly a struggle.