Saul Bellow was a complicated father to his three sons. In a new book, the eldest tries to parse his inheritance.
“The good thing about children having straight teeth,” Saul Bellow once noted, about the pleasures of paying for orthodontia, “is that they leave a clean mark when they bite the hand that feeds them.”
Saul Bellow’s Heart, Greg Bellow’s new book about his Nobel Prize-winning father, is in many ways one of these marks. Born the same year that Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, was published, Greg knew his father longer than any of his brothers (or his father’s five wives) did, and had to adjust the most to Bellow’s late-blooming fame. After his father’s death in 2005 produced “distinctly filial” reminiscences from “self-appointed sons and daughters,” Greg—a recently retired psychotherapist who describes himself as “skilled in unraveling murky narratives”—set out to unravel his own.
At an event at 92Y Tribeca on May 3 promoting the book, Greg was joined by his brothers-from-other-mothers, Adam (b. 1957) and Daniel (b. 1964), for a conversation about the book and their father. Greg writes in the introduction that the post-mortem tributes “awakened me to the powerful effect of my father’s novels,” but that night it was Daniel—an artist living in the Berkshires—who was most able to understand why those few members of the audience not Bellow intimates cared enough to show up. “Do not think that I am unaware of how lucky I am to have been wizened up by Saul Bellow,” Daniel intoned, sounding like one of his father’s street-smart characters.
While not exactly filling what Greg calls “the scholarly need for a portrait of Saul’s complex nature”—The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Herzog (1964) take care of that—his memoir inadvertently presents a case study into many of the very questions Bellow himself explored in fiction, to a rather different effect. Tellingly, Greg once told his father he simply couldn’t approach his books as literature. He reiterated this at the event with his brothers—who, in turn, both said they were so overwhelmed by the books they couldn’t read more than a page at a time. It’s too bad, then, that the only son who seems uniquely incapable of appreciating his father’s public legacy had to be the one to publish a book about him first.
The difficulty Greg Bellow has in grasping his father’s work is almost immediately apparent. His literary interpretations range from calling Humboldt’s Gift (1975) “a novel permeated by death consciousness” to writing that the protagonist of Henderson the Rain King (1959) “chooses a life path that brings him into contact with suffering and death.” (The very phrase “life path” would undoubtedly have made his father cringe.) Oddly, Greg expresses frustration with a father “whose deepest desire was to keep his thoughts and his feelings strictly to himself,” as if Bellow did not spend nearly 70 years sharing those thoughts and feelings with millions of readers.
Somehow, Greg missed it. “In Dangling Man the narrator, Joseph, describes a heart surrounded by a thicket ‘seldom disturbed’ as his least penetrable part,” Greg writes. “I was raised by a man who surrounded his heart with a thicket that I was able to penetrate from time to time, though it remained difficult for both of us to fathom.” This reading is, at best, incomplete. Joseph has escaped an oppressive Christmas party at a friend’s house and is sitting alone in a dark room upstairs, listening to a Haydn divertimento for cello, brooding on his sufferings and seeking an answer in the music. “In what quarter should I look for help, where was the power?” Joseph asks.
The music named only one source, the universal one, God. But what a miserable surrender that would be, born out of disheartenment and chaos; and out of fear, bodily and imperious, that like a disease asked for a remedy and did not care how it was supplied. … Granted that the answer I was hearing, that went so easily to the least penetrable part of me, the seldom-disturbed thickets around the heart, was made by a religious man. But was there no way to attain that answer except to sacrifice the mind that sought to be satisfied?
Art pierces those thickets; religion at least gets close. But that’s small consolation for the family and friends gathered downstairs. The passage, quoted out of context by a still-mystified Greg, actually goes a long way toward explaining the roots of his discontent: Saul reserved for art what his eldest son sought from him in life.
Ultimately, much of the book revolves around a perceived opposition between “young Saul,” the politically radical, amorously multitasking free spirit who raised him, and “old Saul,” the reactionary, race-baiting friend of authority and Allan Bloom who occupied his father’s body for its final 40 years. Greg had a front-row seat for Bellow’s supposed conversion, after the rise of black power and the Six Day War, to the unfashionable conservatism that remains the unspoken reason his books aren’t read much in America today. He is thus well-placed to describe how that change—dramatically evident in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), the neo-con novel par excellence, but also in Herzog—manifested itself in private.
“My father’s assertion of authority he hadn’t previously wielded ushered in friction and acrimony between the two of us that played out for the rest of his life,” Greg writes. “I rebelled against Saul after his support for the younger generation, whose questioning of established forms of knowledge my father had advocated in life and in his novels, was replaced with demands for respect and compliance with elders who now knew what was best for everyone—elders who had drawn the United States into an immoral war.”
Even if this is precisely the kind of vulgar and riskless political statement that his father began in the late ’60s to justifiably abhor, it is a useful addition to the ongoing conversation about Bellow and politics. On this count as well, though, it is neither leftish Greg nor the self-described “right-wing controversialist and hell-raiser” Adam—a top editor at Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins—but Daniel who most understands what their father was doing behind his closed door all those years. For Daniel, reports of the death of Bellow’s humanism in the late ’60s have been greatly exaggerated. Sprinkling his comments with quotes from his father’s work—a practice Greg disparaged minutes later—Daniel said that Saul’s politics, whether as a Trotskyite in the 1930s or a neo-con in the 1980s, were grounded in what Augie March calls “the universal eligibility to be noble.” After “the late failure of radical hopes,” he argued, quoting Moses Herzog, Saul’s change of opinion or at least attitude was, Daniel said, “honestly come by.”
Reading that Herzog passage in full, there is no question which son has the more solid case. The titular narrator is stuck in his own head, per usual:
… he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do.
If one did not wish to be fixated, in the 1960s, on the implications of urban decay—the cause that birthed neo-conservatism, at the time an almost exclusively ex-Trotskyite phenomenon—it would still be difficult to describe the politics inherent in that passage, if only in embryonic form, as other than “honestly come by.” Everything there is to know about Bellow—both the man and the writer—is in it and in the fact that Herzog is sent on this mental detour while in bed, waiting for his mistress to return from her pre-coital preparations, “quivering” with “wild internal disorder.” Writers should engage in politics, Chekhov said, only enough to protect themselves from politics. The line between public and private is indeed quite blurry, Greg reluctantly concludes, neglecting to note that a main theme of Herzog, and much of Bellow’s work, is precisely that this is not such a good thing.
It’s thorny work, a critic putting a therapist on the couch. But so is a therapist writing a memoir about his famous father. Saul used literature to access what Augie March calls “the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy.” Greg preferred psychoanalysis, for which his father had only disdain, judging by his satirical play The Last Analysis (1964) and his comment, here quoted, that Greg had made a career out of his own childhood misery—a nasty dig given that Saul was as much the author of that misery as he was of his novels. Each one’s regard for the other’s method of introspection was marked by mutual misunderstanding and fear: Greg writes that his father possibly disliked his expertise in psychology because he “anticipated that I’d use my understanding of him in a public account,” just a few pages after criticizing his father’s use of people he knew in life as thinly veiled characters in fiction, calling himself a “minor victim” of this “crime.” Unfortunately for the success of his memoir, Greg’s pain from being left outside his father’s study door seems to have created an alienation from Saul’s work that is most excruciatingly—indeed, one might add, subconsciously—apparent when he calls his father a “literary lion,” without any hint of how clichéd and inorganic that sounds, especially when coming from a son.
In his closing words of the 92Y Tribeca talk, Greg noted, with shrugging disapproval, that his father “felt a duty of truth to his readers that was stronger than to his family,” but indicated he still didn’t understand or accept this about his father. Perhaps he can’t be expected to. “All significant human business is transacted inside,” was Saul’s lesson to Greg, who doesn’t seem to have forgiven his father for it being true.
Interestingly, Greg, Adam, and Daniel all seem to believe that much of the psychological drama in the Bellow family—among Saul’s siblings and his sons—can be attributed to birth order. So, it may be helpful to note here that Bellow’s fame, already growing after The Adventures of Augie March, exploded after the publication of Herzog in 1964—the same year Daniel, his youngest son, was born. By the time the newly rich writer, urged by his third wife, moved into a fancy co-op on Lake Michigan, Greg already possessed enough of what he thought were his own opinions to dislike the white plush carpets, the 11 rooms “filled with fancy furniture and modern art.” Reminding the reader he was “raised by a frugal mother and a father who had no steady income,” Greg says that he “found the trappings of wealth in their new apartment so repellent that I complained bitterly to Saul,” who replied that he didn’t care about the new shiny things so long as he could still write—which he could. “As I always had, I accepted what he said about art at face value,” Greg admits, but he stopped visiting the new place. After the marriage deteriorated and Saul moved out, 3-year-old Daniel, in the words of ex-child-therapist Greg, “took to expressing his distress” by peeing on the carpets. “I have to admit that the yellow stains on them greatly pleased me,” Greg writes—for once showing off the Bellovian touch.
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