Bellow: A Biography

James Atlas writes in 2000:

* A sickly child, afflicted with respiratory ailments, he was his mother’s favorite; she treated him like an invalid.

* It was in temperament that Bellow diverged from the family line. He was the designated “nostalgia-man,” as he described himself, the keeper of warm memories; the brothers were aggressive and practical. Idealized versions of them showed up in Bellow’s books: the wealthy, satisfied Amos in Dangling Man; the woman-hungry, larger-than-life Simon in The Adventures of Augie March; the Cadillac-driving, capable Will in Herzog; the rich, brutish entrepreneur Ulick in Humboldt’s Gift . Likewise, the heroes of these books were all versions of Bellow—variously depicted as a dreamer, a bookish, head-in-the-clouds intellectual, a confused soul in need of guidance from his fraternal “reality instructors.”

* In life, the two older brothers loomed over the youngest one. While even in middle age Bellow had trouble patching together the rent, their empire-building feats—and, on occasion, their criminal deeds—were reported regularly in the Chicago newspapers: Sam’s nursing homes, Maurice’s hotels and landfill ventures. Their worldly success was a persistent rebuke to the impecuniousness of their intermittently broke and never wealthy brother. Together with Abram, who at last became a prosperous businessman in his forties, they formed a triumvirate from whose judgmental gaze the novelist struggled to free himself—without much success—throughout his days.

* “We read British books and sang God Save the King and recited the Lord’s Prayer and all the rest of it.”

* Abram was a proud man who—in his own estimation—had lost status. In Russia, he had considered himself a gentleman; in America, he was a laborer. Like his wife, he felt he’d come down in the world.

* he romanticized their relationship, casting it as all sweetness and light. In reality, he was erratic in his constancy, greedy for attention, and fiercely jealous. On one memorable occasion, when he noticed that Fox was wearing the fraternity pin of a lanky basketball player who was popular with Tuley girls, Bellow grabbed it and tore it off, ripping her blouse. “I was afraid of the guy,” she recalled. (This scene, too, found its way into Humboldt’s Gift . “You were a violent kid,” Citrine’s high-school girlfriend Naomi Lutz recalls. “You almost choked me to death because I went to a dance with some basketball player.”)

* His mother’s death made him—in the words of Herzog—“mother-bound.” It was a bondage doomed to play itself out in five marriages and a string of failed relationships, as Bellow struggled to free himself from the intensity of his need by denying its primal hold over him.

* Bellow’s self-dramatizing impulse, so crucial to his development as a writer, grew out of a need to make himself heard. To his siblings, he would always be the baby of the family.

* Maurice lost patience with his brother’s habit of reading on the job, and they parted after a bitter confrontation.

* His parents spoke to each other in Russian and Yiddish; he and his three siblings spoke English and Yiddish at home; on the streets of Montreal they spoke French, and in public school they spoke English.

* The University of Chicago was a place where Jewish professors taught Roman Catholicism to Protestant students.

* Bellow was discouraged by his teachers’ failure to recognize his promise. “I suppose I wanted attention.”

* For many years after he graduated, Bellow was too insecure to let on that he had gone to Northwestern. It was a good school, but it could hardly compete with the University of Chicago. As his own fame grew, he began to look more favorably upon the place and seemed almost defiant about his affiliation. It was less prestigious, he conceded, but his teachers there had shown greater appreciation of his talents.
Yet Northwestern was in many ways more elitist than Chicago. In the 1930s, the teaching of literature in universities was a career for gentlemen. English departments were dominated by New Critics and Southern Agrarians for whom all literature was English. “University English departments were still under the vigilant protection of something called the Anglo-Saxon tradition,” wrote Diana Trilling in an account of the early career tribulations of her husband, Lionel.

* “Anthropology students were the farthest out in the 1930s,” Bellow recalled, looking back on his Northwestern days:
“They seemed to be preparing to criticize society from its roots. Radicalism was implicit in anthropology, especially sexual radicalism—the study of the sexual life of savages was gratifying to radicals. It indicated that human life was much broader than the present. And it gave young Jews a greater sense of freedom from the surrounding restrictions. They were seeking immunity from Anglo-Saxon custom: being accepted or rejected by a society of Christian gentlemen.”

* Anthropology, the study of foreign cultures, provided expression for Bellow’s own sense of exclusion from American society—a condition that haunted him long after he had become an exemplary (and deeply assimilated) spokesman for the opportunities it offered. Like many Jewish intellectuals of his generation, Bellow never rid himself of the suspicion that he wasn’t quite part of America.

* As graduation approached, the question of what he was going to do with his life acquired a certain urgency. In search of career advice, Bellow called upon the chairman of the English department, William Frank Bryan. “You’ve got a very good record,” Bryan told him, “but I wouldn’t recommend that you study English. You weren’t born to it.” No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature, the chairman explained. No Jew would ever have the right feeling for it.

* The history of modernist literature is in large measure a history of discipleship: Joyce saluting Ibsen; Beckett apprenticing himself to Joyce; Pound sitting at the feet of Yeats. But Chicago-area literary masters were in short supply in 1938. Apart from a few bookish friends, his Proustian “little band,” Bellow was on his own. When it came to the lonely work of mastering his craft, he turned to the works of the writers he loved best: Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Joyce, and his local hero, Theodore Dreiser.

* In 1938, American novels written by Jews—as opposed to more ethnic Jewish-American novels such as Ludwig Lewisohn’s The Island Within or Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky —didn’t exist.

* Referring to the best that has been thought and said was a literary tic. Yet he was suspicious of high culture for the same reason that he was suspicious of all efforts, real and imaginary, to impose on his freedom, whether in the form of brothers or wives or in the forms of institutions: They were all aspects of authority. One of the most striking features of Bellow’s work is its refusal to be bound by the conventional definitions of what constitutes literary seriousness. Unlike so many Jewish writers of his generation—Leon Edel, Lionel Trilling, Harvard professor and critic Harry Levin—he was drawn to the gritty side of life. “He has a nose for bad odors to the point where he seldom smells anything else,” as Edward Shils, Bellow’s longtime colleague at the University of Chicago, put it. He worshiped European literature as much as these eminent professors did and was just as eager to demonstrate that he knew his way around it; but he disdained their habit of using their familiarity with the Great Books to put distance between themselves and their immigrant roots, invoking their preoccupation with Jane Austen or Henry James as evidence of their newly elevated class status. For all his assiduous reading—and pretense of reading—Bellow was impatient with the civilizing imperatives he’d encountered in the Great Books, eager to renounce what he called the “high-culture gymnasium route of Thomas Mann” and explore a subterranean realm. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics , but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”

* His real education was formed by a different set of books. In the deserted second-floor library of the psychology building on Ellis Avenue, he was boning up on the works of Géza Róheim. A trained psychologist, Róheim was a pioneer of psychoanalytic anthropology. He was convinced that it was possible to discover within the rituals and customs of any human group the structure of its collective unconscious—a structure, Róheim hypothesized, that was invariably the same: The psyche of the most advanced European was identical to that of the most rudimentary tribesman. §
Róheim’s work was a revelation. It supplemented the lessons about supposedly primitive cultures that Bellow had learned from his undergraduate work in anthropology anthropology (and from Dostoyevsky), positing the existence of a more spontaneous and robust human nature—what Lawrence in his book on Mexico called “the great origin-power of life.” Bellow was a great believer in the quest for the essential self. In the fifties, he turned to the sexual-liberationist teachings of Wilhelm Reich, in the seventies to the mystical teachings of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who exhorted people to escape the prison of consciousness and experience the world the way it really is—to “burst the bonds that fetter the human spirit,” as Bellow once proclaimed in a moment of rhetorical overheatedness. Lawrence was only one literary guru among many.

* Like the self-regarding heroes of his books, proud of their flat stomachs and their stamina on the paddleball courts, Bellow delighted in his physical appeal. (“You know you’re a good-looking man,” Ramona, one of Herzog’s many women, chides him: “And you even take pride in being one. In Argentina they’d call you macho —masculine.”) The narcissistic traits that a succession of psychiatrists diagnosed in him were no doubt fed by this gift from nature—as was his prose, which suffered at times from an excess of self-delight.
It didn’t take Bellow long to embrace the progressive morals of New York bohemia circa 1943—to discover, as Alfred Kazin memorably put it, that “everything could fall apart at the sight of a young girl with very wide cheekbones standing at an overcrowded party in Greenwich Village.” For Jewish intellectuals of that generation, sex was a revelation as charged as their first encounters with Marx and Freud. It opened up a whole new world. Their parents’ marriages, constrained by provincialism and the pressures of adapting to the New World, seemed intolerably suffocating to their newly liberated children.
Bellow claimed not to feel guilty about his infidelities—indeed, he considered them his due. But the satisfactions of conquest outweighed the physical transaction; his sexual appetite was never voracious. (“It was his pride that must be satisfied,” as Herzog acknowledges. “His flesh got what was left over.”) “I miss Anita, but not carnally,” he wrote to Sam Freifeld during one of his sojourns in New York. “Strangely enough I haven’t had an erection in two weeks.”

* He was deeply suspicious of people, intent upon fending off any entanglement that might interfere with the ambitious work he was preparing himself to undertake. Friends noted that Bellow was “touchy,” unnervingly quick to take offense; on more than one occasion, Kazin watched him “nail with quiet ferocity someone who had astonished him by offering the mildest criticism.”

* Keeping himself free from encumbrance was a strategy that was to govern Bellow’s life. Whether it was wives, children, publishers, lawyers, friends, or even ideas, he maintained his distance as a way of preserving his fragile sense of self.

* He also got a call from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—but not, as expected, for an option on the novel’s movie rights. A studio executive had seen his photograph in a newspaper and offered to make him a star. Bellow wasn’t an Errol Flynn type or a George Raft type, the man from Hollywood explained—that is to say, he wasn’t handsome or tough in the conventional sense. But he could have a great screen career in the sensitive role, the guy “who loses the girl to the George Raft type or the Errol Flynn type.”

* Like many powerful figures, Bellow preferred the company of lesser lights who made few demands on him, didn’t compete for attention, and enjoyed—or at least were satisfied with—reflected glory.

* Like the talmid khokhem of his distant shtetl past, wise men revered for their learning, he spent his days hunched over books.

* Soul mates had to be men, but they didn’t have to be Jewish; they just had to possess what he considered Jewish qualities: emotional intensity, a reverence for Russian literature, a love of high-minded gossip.

* Anita was too practical, too controlling; she didn’t give him room to breathe. Someday he would be “claimed” by a woman who appreciated him, Bellow vowed to Mitzi McCloskey, “and I will go.”
The passive construction was significant. For Bellow, choosing a lover meant allowing himself to be chosen. It was the same way that he “chose” jobs and domiciles and wives: He waited for someone else to make the first move. In his work, Bellow asserted himself with courage and tenacity, but when it came to domestic arrangements, others dictated the terms—until he chafed at them. Saul does what he wants: The phrase recurs among his friends and associates. Pretending to be at the mercy of others was a way of disguising his fiercely independent will. By denying responsibility for the choices he made in life, he could circumvent the powerful forces—father, brothers, society—ranged against his ambition. Passivity in Bellow’s hands was an instrument of freedom.

* The Victim , Martin Greenberg declared in a prescient review in Commentary , was “the first attempt in American literature to consider Jewishness not in its singularity, not as constitutive of a special world of experience, but as a quality that informs all of modern life, as the quality of modernity itself.” It was through Bellow’s efforts that Jewish literature was to become American.

* As a teacher, Bellow was “a clock-watcher,” according to Herb McCloskey. He wasn’t one to nurture talent.

* He, too, delivered high-minded lectures on the modern world and dabbled in improbable investments. He borrowed money from his brothers. He made advances to other men’s girlfriends and on occasion to their wives; and he proposed marriage with unnatural frequency. He craved affection from those he antagonized.

* Philosophy, then and later, was one of the unfortunate legacies of Bellow’s immersion in the University of Chicago Great Books culture. His heroes shared a penchant for belaboring ideas. They were the products of a provincial Chicago boy’s effort to show that he wasn’t provincial, that he was at home with the whole of Western thought; unconsciously, perhaps, they expressed an impulse to distance himself from his true and more painful material—a flight into abstraction.

* Domestic life was thought to stifle the artist; it was middle-class. “To be modern,” as Bellow glossed this encounter, “meant to be detached from tradition, traditional sentiments, from national politics and the family.”

* The main problem with Paris was the Parisians: They didn’t seem to know who Saul Bellow was. At parties, Bellow talked about his book in a “heavy-handed” way, recalled a fellow expatriate, and vacillated between grandiosity and self-doubt. He was unaware that in Parisian literary circles to discuss one’s work was considered gauche.

* For Bellow, the hunger for approval was outweighed by an even deeper hunger to express himself on his own unique and unnegotiable terms.

* While Bellow had been in Europe discovering the voice of Augie March, Rosenfeld had been in the Village discovering Wilhelm Reich. “Village thought in the late Forties had a strong psychoanalytic tendency,” Bellow noted in his “Zetland” manuscript. Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm was as widely read in progressive circles as Trotsky’s Art and Revolution had been a decade before. Paul Goodman, a reliable indicator of intellectual trends, was a Reichian, as were a number of former Barrow Street regulars, for whom Reich’s emphasis on sexual gratification merely validated long-standing practice. Reich was an intellectual fashion of the day, and Bellow wasn’t above embracing such fashions; a decade earlier, he had been just as enthusiastic about Trotsky. But the attraction of Reich went deeper; his method represented the psychoanalytic equivalent of what Bellow aspired to in his own work (and in his life): the freedom of unfettered self-expression.
Reichianism wasn’t a philosophy, its founder insisted, but a science. Reich considered himself an heir of Freud and had developed an elaborate physiological explanation for his theories. It was his belief that cathartic total orgasm was the key to health, or what he called full genitality; but most human beings were prevented from achieving these convulsive orgasms by the presence of what Reich termed character armor: rigid defenses that stifle development and block the free flow of sexuality. Damming up the libido not only causes neurosis, he postulated, but represses psychic energy. For Reich, there was nothing hypothetical about the existence of this energy; it was organic, biological. He had even found a name for it: orgone energy, which was said to be a primordial cosmic power latent in all things. Thus was born the science of orgonomy.

* Bellow was a master of self-exculpation; he was never to blame for the breakups of his marriages or friendships, the books that found disfavor with the critics, the plans that went awry. He could always find an explanation—one that revolved around the notion of himself as victim. It was important for Bellow to see his life this way: He lacked the reserves of self-esteem needed to engage in rigorous self-criticism. “I never gave psychoanalysis so much as a two-year lease,” he testified, depicting himself as a reluctant participant in Rosenfeld’s Reichian experiments: “I enjoyed it as a game then being played.”

* Even by the standards of artistic touchiness, Bellow’s fragile grandiosity stood out. He was capable of bearing a grudge for decades, but he was capable of forgiveness, too.

* Bellow had trouble engaging his students; they simply weren’t real to him. He preferred—a remarkable act of chutzpah—to read from “The Life of Augie March.” “It was obvious that he had work of more importance than writing lectures,” as one of his auditors remarked magnanimously. One afternoon, Bellow read a passage about Augie’s adventures in Mexico, laughing delightedly at what he considered the funny parts. “He was having a wonderful time,” said John McCormick, “better than the rest of us.” His self-delight was typical: Bellow always laughed at his own jokes and derived huge enjoyment from the recital of his work. He wasn’t looking for criticism; he was looking for praise. By setting the tone himself, he had a better chance of getting the response he wanted—at least in the short run.

* An increase in his already frenetic pace of travel came to be a reliable portent of the dissolution of a marriage.

* That he refused to give up on the idea of marriage long after it should have been apparent to him that he was unsuited to the institution shows only how powerful its hold over him was. Bellow longed for a home and family, but he longed for them much as a child might: The need for constant attention and devotion alternated in him with a powerful need to go off and explore the world on his own at will. The contradiction seems never to have occurred to him. He was to pursue his fantasy of the perfect marriage and wife again and again, yet the marital bond was strongest with Anita. More than any of his subsequent wives, she belonged to Bellow’s world—which helps to explain why his first marriage lasted as long as it did. Anita was part of him.

* “Saul had always had trouble with women; maybe he thought he wouldn’t have all these troubles with a girl.” (There was also a practical motive: As Bellow crudely put it to R. W. B. Lewis, he “needed to get his ashes hauled.”)

* As Thea Fenchel, one of Augie’s lovers, says: “You want people to pour love on you, and you soak it up and swallow it. You can’t get enough. And when another woman runs after you, you’ll go with her. You’re so happy when somebody begs you to oblige. You can’t stand up under flattery.” The autobiographical note is hard to ignore; Thea’s critique of Augie was Bellow’s pointed recognition of his own passivity, his suspension of judgment in the face of praise.

* The heroes of his novels aren’t renderings of Bellow the man; they’re idealized versions of himself. They are very often tall, like Artur Sammler in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Dean Corde in The Dean’s December (Bellow is five foot seven); of distinguished lineage, like Eugene Henderson in Henderson the Rain King; or of indeterminate ethnic origin—even the characters who are obviously Jewish make little of the fact. And why should it be otherwise? Bellow was writing fiction, he impatiently reminded those who probed his work for clues about his life. What’s remarkable about his inventions is the balancing act they negotiate between proximity to the truth and deviation from it: It was as if, by altering the details to suit him, Bellow could become, in his books, the person he wanted to be.

* He was ardently loyal to anyone who passed the rigorous test of friendship—for as long as they served his needs.

* Bellow wasn’t a nurturing person—to students, children, wives, or parents. He wanted the nurturing.

* For Bellow, like Rogin in his story “A Father-to-Be,” children represented another encroachment on his “freedom,” the life force “trampling on our individual humanity, using us for its own ends like mere dinosaurs or bees.” Less grandly put, children—like wives and friends and lovers—were always in danger of making emotional demands, requiring attention, expecting to be loved.

* Covici belonged to the long line of powerful and disapproving businessmen on whom Bellow focused his need for approval and the anger that insatiable need engendered.

* No amount of praise was enough. The void could never be filled. In the words of Bellow’s Bard colleague Theodore Weiss, “He was a hungry man.”

* His excitement at finding acceptance among the New York intellectuals had given way to contempt, his sense of inadequacy vanquished by grandiosity. He no longer needed their approbation, and the more his reputation grew in the literary world, the more distasteful he found that world.

* Bellow got to a point in every book, he confided to one of his girlfriends, at which he had to “ tear up his life.” The opposite of Flaubert, he cultivated chaos at home. “I have everything I need here, but it’s getting to be too safe,” he said of his Tivoli haven, acknowledging that he “thrived on adversity.”

* At a literary dinner party in New York, one of the guests came up to Ludwig and said, “I understand you know Saul Bellow.”
“Know him?” [Jack] Ludwig replied. “Hell, I’m fucking his wife.”

* Theodore Weiss summed up Ludwig’s motive best: “If he couldn’t go to bed with Saul, he’d go to bed with his wife.”

* Nor was Bellow’s friendship with Ludwig the only one with sexual overtones. Sam Freifeld and Bellow shared “a boyhood closeness that was almost like a teenager’s homosexuality,” said Freifeld’s second wife, Marilyn Mann. “There was something funny about it.” Aaron Asher, his editor for many years, also remarked on the unnatural intensity of Bellow’s friendships with men: “People noticed.”

* Writers who posed a threat to Bellow’s hegemony got the cold shoulder; writers who occupied a place safely below his own on the literary ladder were seen as comrades in the “travail business,” as Bellow liked to refer to his profession. Toward these needy souls he gladly extended a helping hand.

* There was something indiscriminate about Bellow’s letter writing; it denoted a kind of literary profligacy. That he wrote so openly to so many correspondents reflected his egalitarian spirit, his willingness—as he put it to Hyman Slate—to “accept the wider range of other people’s facts.” But it also reflected his loneliness, his eagerness for company, any company. There was a certain impersonality in his boisterous epistolary style; no matter whom Bellow was writing to, his letters have a single tone. It was as if he was writing to just one person: himself.

* Nevertheless, in the spring of 1960, he was once again on the couch, this time under the care of the sexologist Dr. Albert Ellis. (“That wasn’t psychology,” Bellow said of the Reichian Dr. Raphael, “that was zoology.”) A famous figure in his day, Ellis shared with Bellow a Jewish-immigrant background and a reputation as a ladies’ man. He’d already been through several wives and bragged openly about his conquests; Bellow diagnosed him as a “phallic-narcissistic type” (the same diagnosis diagnosis Ellis applied to Bellow). Flamboyantly eccentric, Ellis, a tall, hawk-nosed figure with a long, sallow face, munched on sandwiches during sessions, explaining that he was a diabetic and required a special diet. Apparently, it didn’t agree with him: Bellow later remembered Ellis’s “ high-smelling farts.”
Ellis’s libertine views found a sympathetic ear in Bellow. Speaking to packed halls around the country, Ellis anticipated the “free love” movement of the late sixties, espousing the credo that puritanical views about sex “create untold havoc in our love, marriage, and family relations,” as he put it in one of his popular manuals. The goal of therapy, Ellis proclaimed, was sexual pleasure, pure and simple. Freud “didn’t know a fucking thing about sex.” Part of Ellis’s persona included talking like a drill sergeant: Reich was “full of horse-shit”; the human race was “out of its fucking mind.” For Ellis, therapy was a matter of common sense: “ I talk people out of their bullshit.” His method was to get his patients to act on their wishes and not feel bad. No one was perfect: Even Hitler, he said, was just “a fallible, fucked-up human being.” (There Bellow drew the line: He and Ellis had a heated argument over Hitler.)
Bellow entered treatment to cope with his rage at Sondra. “My goal was to get him unangry,” Ellis recalled, “which wasn’t easy with a person like that because he was a novelist, and novelists think that all emotions are good.” Bellow minimized the therapy, as he always did. He went into therapy when he was desperate and left as soon as he could tolerate the level of pain. “It was poolroom grad work: what to do, how to lay a girl, getting rid of character problems that are an obstacle to pleasure.” He broke off treatment after a few months.
Ellis, like Meehl, never reached a formal diagnosis—not that Bellow would have accepted one. In the end, he was convinced that psychoanalysis could no more “explain” him than any other dogma could. “What a man thinks he is doing counts for nothing,” he wrote in a draft of Herzog . “All his work in the world is done by impulses he will never understand.” As with marriage, Bellow went through the therapeutic process but never engaged with it—instead he found material for satire.

* As a lover, Bellow received indifferent marks. He was “the put-it-in-and-take-it-out type,” noted the poet Sandra Hochman, a self-proclaimed “art tart” who took up with Bellow not long after Henderson the Rain King came out: “He didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.” Another lover, who found him “passionate and virile,” remarked on his lack of interest in “experimentation.” Like Herzog, he was “a Quaker in his lovemaking” who “couldn’t abandon himself sexually.” “The compulsive seducer invariably turns out to be the most insecure man,” observed Helen Garrie, an actress who had a brief affair with Bellow in the sixties. She also remarked on Bellow’s “sexual dos and don’ts.”
Sex was never the driving impulse behind his conquests. “He doesn’t seem to have chosen women merely out of lustful desire, and I had no reports which described him as a stud,” said Ted Hoffman, who knew a number of Bellow’s women. “I think he sought some kind of uncommitted temporary intimacy, perhaps even affection, rather than sexual possession.” The truth was, he found women “overly demanding sexually.” Their sexual aggressiveness was just another effort to impose upon his freedom—another demand.
Bellow, however, persisted in viewing himself as an old-fashioned romantic spurned by unfeeling women.

* “He met these women and he made them up,” a friend said of Bellow’s wives.

* “So many of these ladies who hungered after Saul wanted to be touched by the magic of his artistry and they would willingly give themselves to Saul—to be touched by his magic wand, so to speak,” said Dave Peltz.

* Literary fame could still leave an empty bank account, as Bellow (like generations of writers before and after him) was beginning to discover. Not only had Henderson not made him rich, it hadn’t even made him solvent.

* For someone as cynical as he was about the virtues of marriage, Bellow was notably casual about proposing it. Sandra Hochman, who had met Bellow on the pretext of interviewing him for a magazine, claimed that he talked about marriage on their second date—a story that would seem unlikely had other women not reported similar discussions at premature phases of an affair. Bellow made much of the fact that Hochman was his “physical type,” the woman he’d been looking for all his life. But after he took up with Glassman, Hochman realized she “was just someone he wanted to fuck.”

Helen Garrie, whom Bellow invited to join him in Puerto Rico, also sensed that a proposal was in the works. She recalled resisting: “If I got involved in his grinder, it would be bad news.” Bellow made light of these refusals. “Don’t you think the Bennington alumnae association owes us both wound-stripes?” he joked to John Berryman, whose second marriage, to Ann Levine, a roommate of Sondra at Bennington, had rapidly fallen apart. Bellow called himself “the Nathan Hale of sex”: He would sacrifice his life to it. The only time he liked being married, he quipped, was at dinnertime.
Bellow’s insouciance about his irregular marital history masked his deep confusion about it. On the one hand, he missed his boys. “Twelve years in one marriage, seven in another, two sons whose lives are withdrawn from me,” he summed up his situation to Keith Botsford, sounding a rare note of regret (while getting the dates wrong; his marriage to Anita lasted fifteen years, to Sondra four). “I measure my complaints. I try to come to clarity with grief.” But he never made a concerted effort to grapple with the issues that underlay his propensity for serial marriage, preferring to attribute it to women’s supposedly predatory natures. (“What do women want?” Herzog says plaintively, supplying a histrionic answer to Freud’s question: “They eat green salad and drink human blood.”)

* What animates Bummidge is what animates all of Bellow’s heroes: pure rage.

* Unlike so many of his tragic predecessors, for whom success itself became a hazard—F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrecked by hackwork and drink; Faulkner, squandering his genius in Hollywood; Hemingway, destroyed by his own myth—Bellow adapted easily to fame. “ Herzog hasn’t changed my life so much,” he told Gloria Steinem. Apart from the new suits in his closet and his new co-op and a new car—“a modest, American-made sedan”—he showed few signs of outward alteration. Successful writers, he noted in a lecture called “ The Arts and the Public,” which he delivered around this time, are transformed into major literary figures and for the rest of their lives do little more than give solemn interviews to prestigious journals or serve on White House committees or fly to the Bermudas to participate in international panel discussions on the crisis in the arts. The writer is eclipsed by the celebrity.
Bellow was adept at managing both. If he was comfortable in his new role, it was because, on some level, it fit his self-image, ratifying his conviction that he had been destined for greatness: Fame was only the world’s belated confirmation of S. Bellow’s genius. As far as he was concerned, nothing had changed.

* The arrival of a child meant that Bellow himself was no longer the child; he had been displaced by his own son. This was always the moment he chose to leave.

* Bellow’s sexual conduct was a paradox: He regarded with increasing dismay the so-called sexual revolution, inveighing against the unregulated sex of the permissive sixties while passing up no opportunity to indulge in it himself.

* “He had a biblical Old World morality, but his fly was entirely unzipped at all times,” said Arlette Landes, a young painter who met Bellow in the elevator of the Windermere that year. Landes was twenty-six and had recently come to Chicago from Stanford with her first husband, an assistant professor in the economics department. Their marriage had just broken up, and it was her apartment that Bellow had sublet. “ ‘You’re living in my apartment,’ I said to him, and he said, ‘Would you like to see what it looks like now?’ ” The apartment tour marked the beginning of their affair. “It was the sixties,” explained Landes.
Bellow’s “quota of adultery”—as he had described his needs to Anthony Hecht—wasn’t satisfied by extramarital affairs; he cheated on his girlfriends, too. “I don’t know when he was first unfaithful, but he certainly was,” said Maggie Staats. “Once the chase was over and he had me, he began to wander.” On one occasion, when Staats was staying with Bellow at the Windermere, Landes stormed in and confronted them in a jealous rage. “Don’t you want to marry me?” she demanded. Bellow hesitated, then answered firmly, “No.”

* Updike’s stealthily cruel reviews of Bellow’s novels, which he dismembered one by one in The New Yorker , were collectivized by Bellow into “the fastidious goy critics on guard for the Protestant establishment and the genteel tradition.” Bellow discerned a subtext in Updike’s harsh review of Humboldt’s Gift: “Isn’t it wonderful that he can use English so well considering that it’s not his native language?”

* Age was also a factor. While Bellow grew older, his successive wives remained the same age; as each one approached her forties, she was replaced by one a decade younger—an innovative way of arresting the aging process. Alexandra was now well beyond that disconcerting marker.

* John Updike, who had an unnerving capacity for getting at a book’s deficiencies, remarked on the novel’s “aggressive breathlessness” and “gossipy tone, as if fictional characters were a subdivision of the rich and famous.” With magisterial condescension masquerading as generosity, Updike acknowledged Bellow as “our most exuberant and melodious postwar novelist.” Even this thin performance at times “flared into an arresting vividness,” but not often enough to save it.

* The praise and attention he received somehow never felt like the right amount to him: It was either too little or too much.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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