Author Interview | Biographer Zachary Leader on Saul Bellow

By | Jan 16, 2019

With publication of the second and final volume of his monumental biography of Saul Bellow, Zachary Leader, a professor of English literature at the University of Roehampton in London, has completed a decade-long immersion in Bellow’s life and letters. The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005 begins with Bellow enjoying the success of his 1964 novel, Herzog—success that included a National Book Award, critical acclaim, celebrity and money. Much of Bellow’s best fiction was still to come, and Leader, who was given complete access to Bellow’s papers by the author’s literary estate, tracks the real-life people and events that informed his writing. It is a complex portrait of the great fictional portraitist himself: a hugely creative artist whose private life sprawled through five marriages, untold affairs, difficult relations with his children (four of them, each by a different wife, their ages spanning more than 50 years) and intense friendships that sometimes soured into bitter feuds. The reader is left wondering whether literary brilliance requires such intense self-centeredness.

When Bellow was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature, the award citation noted “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Ironically, by the end of his life, Bellow—the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to Canada and then to Chicago—had run afoul of contemporary cultural norms, with remarks defending the primacy of Western literature that set him against the era’s widespread understanding of diversity.

Robert Siegel: In a speech to the Jewish Publication Society, Bellow said, “My first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew.” The thought of turning away from his Jewishness, he said, “always seemed to me an utter impossibility.” On the other hand, in his foreword to his friend Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, he wrote, “I recognized at an early age that I was called upon to decide for myself to what extent my Jewish origins, my surroundings (the accidental circumstances of Chicago), my schooling, were to be allowed to determine the course of my life.” How do you think he actually viewed his Jewishness—as an indelible fact of life or as something that he could choose to pursue in various degrees?

Zachary Leader: I think he viewed it as an indelible fact of his life. Certainly for the first half of his life, a major part of his struggle was to gain the position of a writer who was not a hyphenate, who wasn’t limited by his background. He said, “I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American.” But early on, being designated a Jewish-American writer was seen as a sort of ghettoizing. He didn’t want to be in the suburbs of literature.

Robert Siegel

So reflecting on his hyphenated status was a luxury of his later life?

Yes. He had gained the freedom and power that he had struggled for the first half of his life to obtain. And that allowed him to be less nervous about a designation that might limit him.

He wrote, by the way, in that introduction to Bloom’s book, “I might easily have gone on to the rabbinate if the great world, the world of the streets, had not been so seductive.” Do you believe that?

No. He would have had to live in a different world.

How influenced was he by the Holocaust and by anti-Semitism in the U.S.?

Very much. In the early part of his life, he felt that the literary and academic establishment he wished to enter was dominated by WASPs and that he was at a disadvantage because of his Jewish background. There’s a famous story about when he finished as an undergraduate at Northwestern University: He asked whether he should do graduate work in English, and

the head of the department said, “I don’t think it is a good idea. It isn’t your language, and people would find it hard to give you the authority that you would need as a professor of English. Why don’t you do anthropology?” He did go on to study anthropology in Wisconsin. So the anti-Semitism part was there from the start. And in the literary establishment, though it’s true that New York Jewish intellectuals were a power in the literary world, there were also the gentlemanly Southern agrarians and the notion of New England WASP-dom. He felt he had to struggle to gain his position against anti-Semitic feeling.

And in fact, in New York, Lionel Trilling, a star in this firmament, had a hell of a time getting tenure at Columbia University.

Bellow was always suspicious of those who managed to get themselves into these Ivy League places. Harry Levin was the first Jew to be a professor at Harvard University in the English department, and Bellow called him “that Harvard kike.”

Early on, being designated a Jewish-American writer was seen as a sort of ghettoizing. He didn’t want to be in the suburbs of literature.

Reading about Bellow’s life sent me back to Bellow’s second novel, The Victim (1947). Its narrator, the Jewish Asa Leventhal, is stalked and haunted by a Christian man named Allbee, who holds Leventhal accountable for his loss of a job and his current dissolute state. Allbee tells Leventhal, “I don’t have to be next year what I was last year. I’ve been at one end and I can get to the other. There’s no limit to what I can be…You’ll be the same, I know. You people…” It’s a glimpse of how Bellow perceived anti-Semitism.

I think The Victim is a terrific novel, partly because its concern is not just with the way anti-Semitism can get Jews in trouble, but also the danger that it can pose to their characters, making them so alert to anti-Semitism that they become paranoid.

As for the Holocaust, Bellow was clear about it, especially in letters to Cynthia Ozick. He said he should have been more attentive to what happened. He should have taken steps to broadcast the horrors. He said quite openly that he was too intent on gaining a foothold in the literary establishment and becoming a writer. But he made up for it later, I believe. His widow, Janis, remarked that Bellow’s night table was always stacked with books about the Holocaust. She thought that it worked against joy in the bedroom.

Bellow was deeply interested in Israel. He wrote the nonfiction book To Jerusalem and Back. In 1978, he signed “The Letter of 37,” which was published in Moment, in fact. He was originally with Peace Now in supporting the Israeli peace movement, which was identified with people such as Amos Oz. How would you describe his view of Israel, then and in later years?

He was a staunch supporter of the existence of the State of Israel. He felt that the Palestinians had been improperly treated or not properly compensated for their dispossession. He supported a two-state solution. He was especially sensitive to the unfairness of holding Israel to a standard other countries were not held to. And he was suspicious of opponents of the State of Israel, as he thought they very well could have been anti-Semitic. In a way, he felt that the shame of the Holocaust, the shame of having suffered such losses, played a part in the militancy and the adamancy of some elements in the Israeli state. There was a sort of attempt to gain back a lost manhood. Bellow shared this feeling and felt it was a key constituent in the Israeli mentality.

I assume that in the course of writing this biography, you’ve reread just about everything that Bellow wrote. What are your reactions?

I think he was a terrific writer. The writing is what sustained me through a decade of thinking about him every day. He has fantastic mimetic powers, imaginative powers, and he created a range of reference in his language that was new and more fairly American than the style of his predecessors.

Bellow was famously quoted when he criticized opposition to Western civilization courses on the grounds that they were racist. He asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’ll be glad to read them.” Between that and his depiction of a black pickpocket in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), did Bellow write and talk his way out of the canon for the 21st century? Is he off the reading lists because of his insensitivity to 21st-century themes of diversity?

Bellow in New York, 1964.

I would have to say yes. If anybody is responsible for the fact that he’s off limits now on university campuses, it’s Bellow himself. He was a man proud to put his foot in his mouth, like the character at the center of his story with that title (Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, 1984). He had a provoking side. I believe that reference to the Papuans and the Tolstoy of the Zulus is different from the depiction of the black pickpocket in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. I’m convinced that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is not a racist novel—that in fact, by the end of the novel, a bond is created between Jewish suffering and black suffering. What Bellow opposed was an attitude associated with the modernist adjective “negritude”—seeing black people as the inhabitants of the world of instinct only. He objected to the idealization of primitivism and outlawry. The “white Negro” of Norman Mailer is much more culpable than anything we get in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. On the other hand, he took terrible risks. He created a novel in which the single black character is given no line of dialogue. But he sort of knew what he was doing. In Ravelstein, there’s a wonderful moment when Abe Ravelstein discovers that Michael Jackson has taken the whole floor above him in the fanciest hotel in Paris. He’s delighted by this. He thinks it’s terrific. He likes all this celebrity, to have this, he calls him, this “glamour monkey” above him. Now, it’s not as though he doesn’t know what glamour monkey sounds like, but by God, he’s not going to let anyone stop him.

He has fantastic mimetic powers, imaginative powers, and he created a range of reference in his language that was new and more fairly American
than the style of his predecessors.

In Bellow’s mind, there is integrity to that character, who is in fact based on his friend Allan Bloom, and to start editing him would be to limit the story.

Exactly. Just as in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, he explores what a man with Sammler’s background would have thought of the sexual revolution, or of a world in which students shout down anyone who brings information about European culture to them.

I was struck in reading your book by how much of a 20th-century figure Bellow was. His family came from Russia, first to Quebec, then to Chicago. He’s one of these smart new American Jewish kids who ditched Torah and Talmud for Trotsky and Tolstoy. He loved the Israel of Teddy Kollek and Shimon Peres. Like most of his readers, I read him in the 20th century, and I wonder, now that we’re two decades into the 21st century, is he a figure of a different age? Has he become like a Charles Dickens, whom we read to learn about a time that’s not today?

Well, I don’t think we read Dickens just to read about a time that’s not ours. I think Bellow had lots of things to tell us about human character, the way societies organize themselves. It is true that he talks about an older generation, but he has much to tell us about immigrant experience in the 19th century, Jewish-American experience in the early 20th century. And he would argue, and I think fairly, that that’s just talking about what it is to be an American. He used to tell the story of his friend, the Jewish critic in Italy, Paolo Milano, whose family had lived in Rome for many, many generations. When he died, he was described as “the Hebrew writer, Paolo Milano.” This would not happen in America, and it’s one of the things Bellow admired about America. He tells us lots about the 20th century. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have things to say to the 21st.

Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment. He was the host of NPR’s All Things Considered.

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