Benjamin Markovits

Conflicted genius

His children suffered the misery of several divorces and he fought one wife for a decade in court. But he’s incapable of writing a dull paragraph

Boxing writers sometimes try to make comparisons across weight groups. They used to say, for example, that Floyd Mayweather was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Saul Bellow for many years has had the reputation of the best page-for-page writer. Every paragraph has something that arrests you: an image, an insight, a line of dialogue, or a moral dilemma.

This is the kind of thing: ‘My brother picked me up by the trustful affections as one would lift up a rabbit by the ears.’ The sentences flow, both natural and vivid. Bellow can capture the moment’s peace of a commercial traveller, sitting in the garden of his lover’s rented apartment:

He breathed in the sugar of the pure morning.
He heard the long phrases of the birds.
No enemy wanted his life.

Or tell you how to eat an English muffin in a Chicago diner: ‘Torn not cut,’ a woman tells the waitress, so the edges burn a little and grow crunchy. I’m quoting from memory. If it’s the job of a writer to offer a usable shorthand for complex feelings and impressions — ‘the best that has been thought and said’ — then Bellow looks like the natural successor, only a few hundred years late, to Shakespeare.

But there’s also a kind of sting in such praise, and the stock of Bellow’s reputation has probably fallen since his death in 2005. The second volume of Zachary Leader’s brilliant biography begins where the last one ended, with the publication of Herzog in 1964, and Bellow at the height of his fame. His success was astonishing. ‘Within a month of publication, Herzog was number one on the bestseller list, supplanting John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

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