9780375759581 / 0375759581

Bellow: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks)


Publisher:Modern Library



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About the book:

James Atlas is a little self-conscious about having spent 10 years writing Bellow: A Biography, but it's hard to imagine how the job could have been done any more quickly. Clearly Bellow, in addition to being one of the 20th century's most acclaimed and prolific novelists, was also one of the most peripatetic. Not the least of his maneuvers were his efforts to dodge biographers, though Atlas's determination eventually wore him down ("He realized that you weren't going away," Bellow's son tells Atlas). The result is a full-scale biography in the tradition of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce--in other words, the biography that a writer and cultural figure as important as Saul Bellow deserves.

Bellow fans won't be surprised by the details of Bellow's life, many of which are familiar from his novels and essays: youthful Trotsky clubs; waiting to be called up into WWII; lifelong enthusiasm for anthropology, philosophy, European literature, and other Great Books; sarcastic wit that verges on the malicious; friendships and rivalries with Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Edward Shils, Allan Bloom, Ralph Ellison, and other literati; innumerable wives, lovers, divorce lawyers, child-custody battles, and alimony struggles; big-shot brothers who disparage intellectuals; and of course, his beloved city of Chicago. Atlas, himself a Chicago native from the generation behind Bellow, covers all of this with patience and considerable authority, balancing Bellow's lively, fictionalized accounts with a helpful amount of historical background.

Atlas is also very good at establishing parallels between the tone of Bellow's novels and his mood at the time of writing them. Often the two are so closely intertwined it's not clear which came first: the freewheeling style of The Adventures of Augie March, for example, or the exhilarating period in Bellow's life that accompanied it. ("The book just came to me," Bellow wrote. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.") Similar parallels include the Flaubertian perfectionism of the early novels, the cuckold's outrage that inspired Herzog, the fame and loss that pervade Humboldt's Gift, the despair of The Dean's December, and the senescent recollection of The Actual and Ravelstein.

In a preface, Atlas, who is also the editor of the Penguin Lives biography series, describes the most discerning biographies as those "imbued with a profound sympathy for their subject's foibles and failings--imbued, to put it plainly, with love." One suspects that Atlas began this biographer-subject marriage with more love than remained when he finished; his disappointment with Bellow's character flaws (such as Bellow's tendency to portray himself as a blameless victim and his stubbornly anachronistic attitude toward women) is palpable. But his criticism of Bellow the man is always measured, and it has the nice effect of placing some of the more unsavory elements of Bellow's fiction in a kind of context. Bellow might not inspire a complete rethinking of Bellow's work, but it's a compelling reminder of its many pleasures. --John Ponyicsanyi

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