Saul Bellow (born 1915 and not dead yet) is a gift to the biographer, but a narcissistically resistant one. "Biography," he says, "is a spectre viewed by a spectre."
Profligate in life and letters - countless wives (five at the time of writing); numberless children (the last, or merely the latest, born in 1999: "Practice, practice, practice," says Bellow); the Nobel prize for literature (in 1976); sacks of baubles, big and small, including the Pulitzer prize ("the pullet surprise," his surrogate winner calls it, with characteristic chutzpah, in the winning book); not forgetting the Saul Bellow Municipal Library in Lachine, Quebec, his birthplace or way-station on the road from St Petersburg to Chicago ("animal-flavoured" in the stew of his intoxicating imagination) - it sometimes seems that Bellow has said it all, gloriously, in the vatic demotic that is his legacy to the language of the late 20th century.
When he erupted as a writer in the middle of that century, "hungry for union and largeness, convinced by the bowels, the heart, the sexual organs and, on certain occasions, by clear thought that I had something of importance to declare, express, transmit", Bellow's tongue was truly a revelation. Here, in restless ecstasy, was a Jewish Columbus, the son of immigrants, a Dostoevskian Chicagoan who refused all hyphenation or limitation, pitching the prophesied "Great American Novel", complete with world view and wizard wit, in an idiolect bridging Gogol, Joyce and Damon Runyon, a parole with its own distinctive patter: "Sex is hanging like salamis in the deli windows."; "It was said of him, occasionally, that he did not love anyone. This was not true. He did not love anyone steadily. But unsteadily he loved, he guessed, at an average rate."; "He stripped and crawled naked under the covers. As he did this, he sometimes felt how long he had lived and how many, many times the naked creature had crept into its bedding."
The treasures of the Bellovian mind seemed inexhaustible. The very names of his characters crave attention. The three divorce lawyers in Humbolt's Gift (1975) are Tomchek, Pinsker and Srole. There is an ageing athlete in The Dean's December (1976) called Silky Limpopo, and a famous journalist, once a contender, called Dewey Spangler. If this last appears to cut close to other "Great Books", then surely Bellow pleads guilty - rapturously, omnivorously, guilty. In Herzog (1964), mad or not-mad Moses Herzog writes letters: to his dead mother; to his living mistress; to his first wife; to President Eisenhower; to Nietzsche ("My dear sir, May I ask a question from the floor?"); to Teilhard de Chardin ("Dear Father, ... Is the carbon molecule lined with thought?"); to Heidegger ("Dear Doktor Professor, ... I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall into the quotidian'. When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?"); even, in the end, to God ("How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too good at it. But I have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols. Everything of intensest significance. Especially if divested of me.").
It is no secret that much of this teeming witness is displaced autobiography, cured as it may be, but hung in the deli window for all to see. Richer or poorer, Bellow has shamelessly followed his star, loving and leaving, finagling and finessing, for the sake of higher things. "To long for the best that ever was," reflects Ijah Brodsky in the story Cousins (1985), "this was not an abstract project. I did not learn it over a seminar table. It was a constitutional necessity, physiological, temperamental, based on sympathies which could not be acquired. Human absorption in faces, deeds, bodies, drew me toward metaphysical grounds. I had these peculiar metaphysics as flying creatures have their radar." Bellovian metaphysics were no guide to morals. "He had a biblical Old World morality," recalled one paramour, "but his fly was entirely unzipped at all times." Picasso-like, his women populate his work, used and abused in art as in life. "You've been a real Klondike," he informed wife number three on his way out of the relationship.
Thus, the biographical bounty. James Atlas has had access, and is nothing if not persevering. Bellow , however, is no match for Bellow. The aptly named Atlas is a modern Baedeker. He documents the life and the work, though his notes are inadequate for the task. He is not above criticism of both. His best observations ("an excess of self-delight") suffer from repetition. As a stylist he is unmusical. His telling of this epic tale is functional and efficient: it is the closing of the American blind. But he lets the big questions go a-begging. We learn, for example, that by 1970 the general consensus was that Bellow was a writer destined to last; there is an appraisal from the New York Times book review of the oeuvre to date. Thirty years on, we are none the wiser about the consensus, its shifts or its perspicacity, how the oeuvre looks now, or the state of things on Mr Bellow's planet.
Yet this is a long book - too long - and too undifferentiated. Bellow's work accumulates like silt; his women orbit like satellites; his children come; his friends go. Bellow is essentially a concordance of that life, provisional and premature, a tombstone whose subject remains exuberantly extant. The self-delighted Bellow is at last a jot restrained, but the private clamour in his writing, the sound of a thrashing soul - Cynthia Ozick's brilliant exposition - all of that lingers, defiantly, in Ravelstein (2000), where Bellow comes to a rhapsodic end. "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death." Nor to his biographer accomplice.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
Bellow: A Biography
Author - James Atlas
ISBN - 0 571 14356 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 686