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Interview

How Saul Bellow broke the WASPs’ hold on literature

In the first of a two-part biography, Zachary Leader asks whether the son of Russian immigrants, born 100 years ago, was more driven to be an artist or a mentsch

Saul Bellow laughs during a 1997 interview in his office at Boston University, where he taught literature. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Saul Bellow laughs during a 1997 interview in his office at Boston University, where he taught literature. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

LONDON — If there was a shortlist for “Greatest American novelist of the twentieth century” Saul Bellow is certainly a worthy candidate. For starters, the silverware the author has to his name — the Nobel Prize for Literature, three National Book Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize — makes him a strong contender.

But Bellow ticks the other numerous boxes required of a writer who perfectly embodies the mythology twentieth century American values were supposed to represent: ambition, aspiration, assimilation, and class mobility. And in his work, Bellow also wrote of a racially mixed culture that seemed to oscillate between the persecutory-old-world-discriminatory politics of Europe, and the utopian positivity that the United States — in theory — was intent on promoting.

Born into a family of Yiddish speaking Russian emigres in June, 1915, Bellow spent the first nine years of his childhood in Montreal before finally moving to Chicago, where he fully embraced the concept of becoming an American citizen.

In a newly published biography entitled, “The Life of Saul Bellow,” literary historian Zachary Leader has compiled a mesmerizing study of the critically acclaimed literary star who produced many classic works of literature, including “The Victim,” “The Adventures of Augie March,” and “Herzog.”

At 650 pages, this hefty tome is set to become the most comprehensive biography ever written on Bellow’s life. The book, published in May, is the first instalment of a two-part volume, with this section covering the years 1915 to 1964. The second half — when it comes out — will document the other half of Bellow’s life, until he died in 2005.

Bellow’s Jewish roots play a prominent role in much of Leader’s narrative and help explain what made the author stand tall in a literary culture that was, at the time, deeply conservative, and predominantly ruled by an elitist White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant establishment.

Saul Bellow biographer Zachary Leader is a professor of English Literature at University of Roehampton. (Alice Leader)
Saul Bellow biographer Zachary Leader is a professor of English Literature at University of Roehampton. (Alice Leader)

Leader quotes numerous interviews throughout the book where Bellow speaks about the deep connections he felt throughout his life — especially during his childhood — to Judaism.

This awareness though, Bellow claimed, rarely had anything to do with studying the Talmud, or belonging to an Orthodox congregation that focused on theology.

“Saul Bellow once said when he felt his powers of perception were at their height, or when the world he lived in seemed the richest it could possibly become — in terms of customs and observance— he felt wholly Jewish,” says Leader, a 69-year-old American academic, who has lived in the UK for the past 40 years now.

As a child, Bellow did attend a synagogue and Hebrew school, Leader explains.

‘What influenced him more as a writer was the fact that everything around him when he was a child was saturated in Jewish culture’

“But that religious element wasn’t so important,” he stresses. “What influenced him more as a writer was the fact that everything around him when he was a child was saturated in Jewish culture.”

One of the main arguments that Leader spends considerable time dissecting in this book is the enormity of emotion and richness of language that Bellow’s prose brought to high literary culture, in the United States particularly.

This paved the way for other Jewish writers who would follow in Bellow’s footsteps, such as Philip Roth.

Bellow was always measuring himself up against great masters of the American novel like Faulkner, Hemingway or Fitzgerald. But Leader claims Bellow understood he had something different to offer to the American literary canon.

The biographer explores how Bellow — by using various inflections of Yiddish speech that entered into American English from Russian and Polish Jews who emigrated to the new world — single-handedly invented an original literary form that was decorative, unashamedly expressive, and that celebrated the language of the street.

“Bellow thought the literary establishment and academics of that time were ruled by WASPS, who looked down their noses at cultured immigrants,” says Leader.
“He also felt that the culture he came from — Russian Jews— were much more expressive and emotional about their feelings than American writers were.”

“Bellow was also one of the first figures who brought to high literary culture a new language that hadn’t found expression before. So he always felt like an outsider in this way.”

Author Saul Bellow, the 1976 Nobel Prize winner for literature is shown in this 1977 portrait. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Author Saul Bellow, the 1976 Nobel Prize winner for literature is shown in this 1977 portrait. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

Bellow resisted the short, stern, understated sentence, which can be found in the simplicity of language very typical to a certain kind of modernism — with writers like Hemingway for example. But he also shied away from the bleak nihilism and despair that became very fashionable in Paris with French existential writers following the barbarity, displacement and impending sense of doom arising out of the catastrophe that was World War II.

Bellow would deal with the subject of the Holocaust in his own way, most famously in his 1970 novel, “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” But Leader argues that Bellow was never keen on using modernism as a template to try and explore, or deeply question, man’s propensity for evil.

Leader quotes an essay in his book, written in 1975 by John Bayley. It argued that the American-Jewish novel can be seen to be working more closely out the liberal, humanist, and Victorian tradition: emulating writers like Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot.

“Bayley in that essay is talking about Bellow’s resistance to a certain kind of modernism,” Leader explains.

“Particularly the void and existential despair from French writers like Céline and Sartre: the sort of pessimistic modernism which says that because there is no God, there is no authority, and moral values are therefore called into question. But Bellow wrote in a mode that leaned more towards 19th century realism than to certain kinds of modernist writing,” says Leader.

Having a shiny number of prestigious literary prizes on his mantelpiece towards the end of his life, Bellow didn’t need any more reassurance — either from literary critics, or from readers — that he was an icon who had firmly cemented his place among the pantheon of literary Gods.

In 2005, on his deathbed, as he began to slip in and out of consciousness, about to breath his last, Bellow famously asked his friend, Eugene Goodheart: ‘Was I a man or was I a jerk?’

However, the opinion his friends and family had of him as a man — or a mensch, as he would have put it himself — was something Bellow was not so confident or certain of. In 2005, on his deathbed, as he began to slip in and out of consciousness, about to breath his last, Bellow famously asked his friend, Eugene Goodheart: “Was I a man or was I a jerk?”

Given that Leader is now halfway through writing the second part of a two volume biography on Bellow, does he feel qualified to answer a question that his subject once asked about himself?

“Well the conclusion that I have come to after all my research is that Bellow is a great writer,” says Leader.

“He didn’t always behave well in his life. He recognized the human costs and consequences of his devotion to his writing. But Bellow really did want to be a good man as well as an artist.”

However, adds Leader, Bellow was absolutely determined to do justice to his talents, even if it meant putting others’ needs behind his work.

Critics say Philip Roth's work was influenced by Saul Bellow. (photo credit: courtesy of Film Forum/File)
Critics say Philip Roth’s work was influenced by Saul Bellow. (photo credit: courtesy of Film Forum/File)

“Not just because he was unavailable to those who loved him while he was writing. But also the way in which he would portray real people in his fiction,” says Leader.

Does Leader, then, believe that Bellow’s novels are, in many instances, simply a replication of real events? And what’s his opinion of a writer like Bellow who draws the line a little too finely between art and reality?

“Well it seems to be a pious fiction to say that Bellow was not attempting to capture real life, and the people he knew in it, through the characters he presented on the page,” says Leader.

“He believed writing was very important to the culture. If that meant, in certain circumstances, that would induce pain onto other individuals, but that overall it would enhance the culture, well, that was a price he was willing to pay.”

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