- Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow
New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. $26. 228PP.
Greg Bellow’s memoir of his famous father is a tender, insightful, and scrupulously honest portrait of an artist whose works were read by many but whose private life was known only to a few. Negotiating the terrain that lay between Saul Bellow the Nobel laureate in literature and Saul Bellow “my father, the man,” the son has painted a verbal portrait of the complex, and very human, author and the intricacies of his familial relations. The result is a bifurcated image of his father. On the one hand, there is what Greg terms the “young Saul”: a Trotskyite enthralled with and loyal to the Partisan Review crowd, a politically liberal Jew, seemingly indifferent to his Jewish identity, and completely devoted to his writing career. Yet, the father was emotionally available to his firstborn and had a keen sense of humor. This was the father Greg had as a child. On the other hand, there is the “Old Saul,” increasingly conservative in the political sphere, increasingly patriarchal, and willingly embracing his Jewish identity. This is the father Greg’s two brothers Adam and Daniel experienced, and the one with whom his own relationship dramatically changed over the course of time.
Greg Bellow, the memoirist, holds a doctorate in psychology, and worked as a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist in California for forty years. Retired now, Greg reflects in his opening chapter on a primary reason for his memoir. He notes “the dozens of self-appointed sons and daughters (of the literary patriarch who) were jostling in public for a position at the head of the parade that celebrated my father’s life.” Alone among this crowd of pretenders, the novelist’s firstborn was uniquely positioned to write of the private man as opposed [End Page 264] to the public figure. Following Saul’s death, Greg “honored his life by rereading all the novels in temporal sequence as my way to sit shivah” (7). He provides a significant clue to understanding his father’s novels when he observes, “My father looked most directly into the mirror when he wrote, providing, through his novels, a window into his frame of mind and a reflective self he took pains to protect in life.”
Greg’s memoir raises the perennial question of the role of autobiographical elements in a fictional work. When I first met Greg at the University of Chicago in the late sixties, Herzog had recently appeared, and Saul Bellow was the ubiquitous guest on talk shows where the inevitable question was, is this novel autobiographical? Saul would ritually reply, “The novel speaks for itself.” While for Greg the question was nonsense—“all the people in the novel are my relatives,” he once told me—the matter is more complex. Today Greg writes, “I remain convinced that his novels were not simply or even primarily written to get even with those who hurt him because, were that the case, Saul Bellow would never have become the great writer that he was (emphasis added). Saul Bellow’s literary works touched a deep and universal human nerve. Greg shared with me that following the publication of Herzog his father received letters from around the world whose writers asked the author how he knew their story.
The son, however, questions his father’s position that there is a firm line of demarcation between life and art. Saul himself frequently crossed the line “while attacking anyone who asserted that he had done so.” Greg continues by noting that “stealing someone’s personhood is not a victimless crime.” It is, he writes, “a crime whose victims simply have no voice.” Anita Goshkin, Greg’s mother, found a detail in Seize the Day and was convinced “Saul put it there out of spite.” Consequently, Greg implicitly invites his readers to ponder the complexity underlying the notion of literary license. What, for example, is a novelist’s obligation to his craft as opposed to her obligation to those about whom he/ she writes? How important is fidelity to...