In Bellow: A Biography James Atlas provides a sweeping and detailed portrait of the brilliant author whose novels constitute a history of the individual struggling for success and acceptance in American society. Atlas brings a practiced journalistic insight to this project, having previously written for The New Yorker and The New York Times. He earned a National Book Award nomination for his biography of Delmore Schwartz.
Bellow resisted many attempts to chronicle his life, so his acquiescence to Atlas’s project is quite significant. The result of 10 years of work by Atlas is an engaging biography that never seems overlong, even at more than 600 pages. It takes this much space to document the literary growth and achievements of Bellow, as well as to point out a number of Bellow’s more troubling featureshis misogyny, racism and, above all, his tendency throughout life to see himself as a victim of others’ ill will. In Henderson the Rain King, the protagonist seems to speak for Bellow when he says, I am to suffering what Gary [Ind.] is to smoke, one of the world’s biggest operations.
Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, a small town near Montreal. His Russian Jewish family had moved there two years earlier. A sickly child, he was doted on by his mother and inherited a gift of storytelling from his narrative-rich family. By the age of four he could recite from memory long biblical passages, and of his father (named Abraham), Bellow remarked, I couldn’t readily distinguish between a parent and the heroic ancestors.
The last letter Saul Bellow’s 75-year-old father wrote to him ended with the line, Be god. James Atlas notes the haunting ambiguitythe likely misspelling of be good contains the ultimate in a Jewish father’s unrealistic expectations. Bellow labored under these expectations throughout his life.
In 1924 a Chicago cousin of Bellow’s father arranged for the family to come from Canada to the United States, and this began Bellow’s lifelong love of the city. Chicago served as a muse for Bellow and a great backdrop for many of his characters. Much of his later fiction charted the rise and fall of individuals within a city that had itself been through several deaths and resurrections.
Throughout the biography, Atlas portrays Bellow aloof and unconfident, but at the same time narcissistic. He describes Bellow’s interest in women as confined to the cursory satisfaction of his own sexual and emotional needs, with little thought given to his partners. According to Atlas, Bellow’s life was painful because of his failure to empathize with others, be they wives or lovers, children or brothers, rivals or friends.
Bellow’s literary treatment of women mirrored his utilitarian treatment of them: There is a sameness to the wives and girlfriends who populate his books, harassing his women-baffled heroes. Bellow bluntly referred to his quota of adultery, and Atlas notes the consequences of Bellow’s lifestyle: The cheerless, itinerant squalor of the divorced was a condition he was to become well acquainted with over the years.
While not claiming to be a full psychobiography, Atlas’s book convincingly shows how Bellow’s fiction vividly displayed the polar opposites contained in Bellow’s own character: the cynical, depressive’ side, mired in abstraction, and the peppy’ side, as exemplified by the succession of garrulous, high-spirited, life-hungry protagonists who came to populate his books.... The portrait that emerges is one of an immensely talented but anguishingly insecure person. He was caught up in loneliness for much of his life, hypersensitive to criticism from anyone.
Some of this may have been due to the devastating loss of his mother from breast cancer when he was 17. He remarked, My life was never the same after my mother died. Atlas sees this bereavement as the key for understanding Bellow’s turbulent love life, which included five marriages and numerous affairs.
Bellow celebrated his Jewish heritage but disliked being labeled a Jewish writer. In his trips to Israel Bellow cherished the experience of falling into a gale of conversation he described as exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat, and prophecy. He described the light of Jerusalem as cleansing him: I don’t forbid myself the reflection that light may be the outer garment of God.
Throughout his life Bellow sought to locate himself spiritually, and he was open to many sources of influence. Like St. Ignatius Loyola, but at the much younger age of eight, he read the Gospels during a long hospitalization, commenting that Jesus overwhelmed me. Bellow later attributed his vocation as a writer to this difficult time: Anyone who’s faced death at that age is likely to feel something of what I feltthat it was a triumph, that I had gotten away with it. Within this vocation, he noted, One’s language is a spiritual locationit houses your soul.
In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, Bellow described the writer’s task as a prophetic call to use language to awaken modern civilization from its lethargy and its immersion in a mass of distractions. In 1992 he argued that without the foil of Communism, America provided people with unexampled prosperity, comfort, and consumerism, together with the terrible threat of instability, disharmony, and spiritual misery.
Throughout his life Bellow disliked the intimations of mortality implicit in having a biography written about himhe called biographers the shadow of the tombstone falling across the garden. In this thorough and insightful book James Atlas has cast not a shadow but a comprehensive and caring light upon the abundant garden of Bellow’s fiction.