Reviews — From the May 2015 issue

Dissolution by Details

Bellow and the problems of literary biography

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Discussed in this essay:

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964, by Zachary Leader. Knopf. 832 pages. $40.
There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Viking. 608 pages. $35.

Definitive” is the highest praise for a biographer, the only adjective worth aspiring to. Yet nothing is harder to define, more essentially unknowable, than the life of another human being, with all its ambiguities and knowledge gaps — the “epistemological insecurity” about which Janet Malcolm, one of the most trenchant critics of the art of biography (and an occasional biographer herself), has often written. Any honest biographer will admit that no biography can properly be definitive, because of the shaping required to form a coherent narrative out of the ragtag bits and pieces of a life. What to include, what to omit, where to begin, where to pause — these are deliberate choices, and each biographer will make them differently. But biographers continue to reach for the brass ring, even if they risk falling off their horse.

Saul Bellow © Giovanni Giovannetti/Effigie/Writer Pictures

Saul Bellow © Giovanni Giovannetti/Effigie/Writer Pictures

Zachary Leader’s Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964 is the second full-length biography of Bellow, following James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography (2000).There are several options for a biographer who comes to his or her subject second. (I myself am the second biographer of Shirley Jackson.) One is to pretend that the first biography does not exist, and to say as little about it as possible. This will not work, however, if the first biographer had access to information or interviewees, as Atlas did, who are not available to the second. Another is to write a short book that makes no pretense to comprehensiveness but instead advances an original argument. A third possibility is to attempt to overwhelm the first biographer, stunning him or her into submission with a bewildering spray of evidence, quotation, and assertion. This last is the path chosen by Leader, who previously wrote a thousand-page biography of Kingsley Amis. The sheer size of his book suffices to announce his intentions: this first volume, which picks up two generations before Bellow’s birth, in 1915, and ends in 1964 with Herzog, his career-defining masterpiece, comes in at more than 800 pages.

Atlas’s book was by no means universally admired: it was the subject of scathing reviews by James Wood and Lee Siegel, the latter in these pages. And Leader, an American who teaches at Roehampton University in London, brings to his biography a rich store of literary knowledge that allows him to make surprising and often insightful connections. He has dug deeply into Bellow’s archive at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, and his book makes the most of these unpublished materials.

Still, Atlas shadows him like a ghost. Even as Leader mines Atlas’s book for information, he points repeatedly to perceived errors of fact, often regarding the smallest details. One example: in 1935, Bellow had to withdraw from the University of Chicago, after completing only one year, because of an accident at his family’s coal works. Someone was killed, and the company was not insured. The victim may have been a truck driver (Atlas) or a child (Leader); the policy may have lapsed by accident (Atlas) or because of a decision by Bellow’s father (Leader). It is impossible to be certain which version is correct — no one remembers the event clearly, and the documentation is insufficient. In any event, the results were the same: a catastrophe that put the family in debt and led to Bellow’s abrupt departure from the university. (He enrolled the following fall at Northwestern, where he would finish his degree.)

Such details — both the stories themselves and the lengths to which Leader goes to prove his version or discredit Atlas — bloat this leviathan far beyond reasonable size. Incidental characters who appear only briefly are given multiple pages of backstory. (By the time Bellow’s childhood finally ends, around page 150, I knew far more about his family than about my own.) Leader devotes exhaustive analysis to determining whether the apartment building in which Bellow grew up — a building that no longer exists — stood at 3245, 3246, 3340, or 3342 Le Moyne Street. We are told which courses Bellow took in college, all of them, and the grades he received. In an account of the brief period when Ralph Ellison shared Bellow’s house in upstate New York, Leader reports that he personally tested Ellison’s “elaborate procedure” for brewing coffee and deemed it not worth the effort.

Leader defends the length of his book by quoting Richard Ellmann, the author of an exceptional biography of James Joyce (which, at only one volume, looks positively restrained by comparison): “If an individual life is described too leanly, we grow anxious, we suspect distortion, we wonder if the essences are really there.” But if a life is described too exhaustively, the sheer quantity of facts threatens to bury the subject as an individual. Praising Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bellow once wrote that the writer’s job is to synthesize “the vast mass of phenomena, the seething, swarming body of appearances, facts and details. From this harassment and threatened dissolution by details, a writer tries to rescue what is important.” In Leader’s biography, Bellow the man — and especially Bellow the Jewish man — can be seen only occasionally and indistinctly through the haze of information.

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is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford). Her most recent review for Harper's Magazine, "Mostpeople's Poet," appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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