How do you write about one of history's greatest prose stylists?

Book review: A sterling new biography of Saul Bellow

The Life of Saul Bellow by Zachary Leader.  No Credit


Zachary Leader

Leader has found a novel solution to the problem of writing about one of the 20th century’s greatest prose stylists: Let him do the talking. There isn’t a page in his biography of Saul Bellow that doesn’t feature a chunk of the Nobel prize-winner’s marvellous writing.

Bellow deeply mined his personal life for the characters that populate his novels. We meet his brother Maury (the first Bellow to fully “Americanize himself”), in the many fictional guises that Bellow created for him. Through these multiple depictions, we get a portrait of a powerful older brother, and an interior portrait of Bellow. We also get a lush helping of those singular sentences and pulsing postwar paragraphs of revolutionary prose.

There’s plenty here for those interested in the alchemy of creation. How did Bellow —whose first two novels brimmed with nihilism and a markedly European self-awareness —break from the dominant literary voices of the day? During a sojourn in Paris, Bellow found himself derided for being American. In an incredibly recalled moment (watching French sanitation workers blast water on a street), he finds liberation; the freedom to be an American; the freedom to inhabit his singular voice. The work that resulted from this breakthrough, The Adventures of Augie March, and the works that followed, are some of the most exuberant in American literature.

The author’s life, however, was more than just books. In the period covered here, Bellow goes through as many masterpieces (Augie, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog) as he does wives. The next volume of this biography will deal with Bellow after he had reached the summit of American letters. He became a lightning rod, a reactive and conservative voice, an outmoded figure of the alpha male novelist. A recent essay in New York magazine traced the complex history of Bellow with the public, and concluded that this book will reignite the fight over his legacy. It even suggests that Bellow’s betrayal by his second wife and their subsequent divorce is written to pre-emptively explain away Bellow’s later philandering and the unsympathetic depictions of women in his work.

The merely curious, and those who haven’t picked a side in the thorny question of Saul Bellow, get a portrait of a tumultuous man who relentlessly pursued the limits of his voice at any cost.