Craig Raine

The raw material of fiction

According to Zachary Leader’s latest biography, Saul Bellow was a great looter of life, rifling his most painful relationships for material for his novels

Saul Bellow died in 2005. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. The first installment of Zachary Leader’s exemplary, scrupulous, dispassionate, detailed, well-read, enthralling biography runs to over 800 pages and takes us only as far as 1964. The length is important. It allows Leader to adjudicate calmly, weigh the evidence — sometimes remaining undecided — and quote Bellow freely, so that the biographical narrative is enlivened by Bellow’s prodigally gifted prose, little injections of bliss.

In his introduction, Leader quotes the appearance of the turtle from Herzog — ‘it trailed a fuzz of parasitic green’ — and makes it clear that Bellow’s fluent, unstoppable descriptive kleptomania, as much as the lurid personal life, littered with lovers and disfigured by painful divorces, is why he undertook to write the life. Bellow was a great looter of life, a pillager of the functionally invisible present. He makes the reader his receiver, his fence: his work is a warehouse of stolen property. He gives us the goods. ‘In the east Nineties an open hydrant gushed and kids in clinging drawers leaped screaming.’ Clinging.

Some biographies have a timeline across the running heads. Leader’s doesn’t because his innovative technique — perfect for such a crowded lifespan — is to pause his narrative and write definitive essays about individuals and topics as they crop up. The milieu of Partisan Review — bullying, sexist, competitive, poisonous with intrigue — is conjured in a couple of vivid pages. He is unafraid to look ahead.

The novelist’s family could have been an inept nightmare of loose ends and ramification, but Leader encompasses first the father, Abraham, and then the brothers, methodically, one by one, from childhood to death, with the economy of entries in the DNB. He makes the record in his own way — as the characters occur, they are fully dealt with.

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