How much of an artist’s life can we glean from his or her work? In some cases a lot, in some cases virtually nothing. And of course there are those who will tell us the work has nothing to do with the person and as regards the person maybe we should just mind our own business.
But for a person as larger than life as Saul Bellow surely it’s OK to barge in. In a review of Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow in the Guardian (May 16th) Benjamin Markovits writes:
The novels and stories played a big part, not just because they helped to shape their author’s career, but because they offer evidence, of a very intimate but unreliable kind, about what was happening in his private life. Leader’s idea seems to be that if you lay the various fictions on top of each other, palimpsest-style, the repetitions and approximations will produce a reasonably good image of the truth – there will be a kind of darkening towards fact. Which strikes me as very reasonable. Of course you need to be a good reader, to align the fictions in the right way and make the right adjustments. Not just subtle, but sensible, too – and Leader is both.
Markovits situates Bellow in a line of Jewish novelists that extends from Isaac Bashevis Singer, through to Philip Roth, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. The realistic and often comic American Jewish novel was the big thing for many readers in Ireland and probably Britain too in the 1970s, before magic realism caught fire. The list I was familiar with excluded Singer but included, as well as Roth and Bellow, Joseph Heller, and the Canadian Mordechai Richler, as well as Bernard Malamud, the latter not so much funny as sad, but in a compelling way. I doubt if Malamud is much read these days, on this side of the pond anyway. His The Assistant is a small masterpiece.
Bellow’s father moved from St Petersburg first to Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, and then to Chicago, where the family hustled a living of sorts, Saul’s brothers selling newspapers on the streets and candy bars on commuter trains, their father struggling in the moonshine liquor business. Markovits recalls an interview in which Bellow reflected on the experience of Jews in twentieth century America and their (general) social ascension: “The distortions they suffered in Americanising themselves also charged them with a certain energy.”
It was that energy which made American Jewish writing so popular among my friends in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s an energy that is not confined to literature of course – Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks were the big names then in a tradition that stretched back to Yiddish theatre and which continues today with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. It was often said back then that the Irish and the Jews had both had a sad history, (though not perhaps an equally sad one). But apart from one or two names we seemed, late mid-century, to be going through a relatively fallow literary period, and certainly as far as humour was concerned, though in the 1980s we caught on again. In the 1970s I couldn’t bring myself to read another short story about a young man who was returning after five years away to Longford for his father’s funeral. Enough already. I want the Jewish wise guy, the guy with the line, the guy with a scheme.
But back to Zachary Leader’s biography. Markovits concludes by saying:
It’s a terrific biography. It’s also a first-rate piece of literary criticism. The book doesn’t really privilege the life or the fiction, or belittle the complexity of reading between them.
The Life of Saul Bellow is published by Jonathan Cape at £35.