There is love within this memoir by the son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, but there is even greater distance.
A Freudian psychotherapist and academic, the author generally resists the temptation to analyze his famous father in the manner of a psychobiography. But neither does he add much revelation to what readers already knew or suspected, mainly that the writer who was arguably the greatest novelist of his generation could be difficult and selfish as a family man. He also used his failed marriages as grist for the mill of many of his greatest novels, with the son (who read those novels in succession before writing this memoir) showing where he thinks the voice and experience of the fictional narrators were very much the novelist’s. As the only child of Bellow’s first marriage, the author admits that “Saul’s departure split my life in two,” and that the divide deepened as the battles intensified between his parents (largely over money during the course and aftermath of the divorce). As someone who remained true to the leftist politics that his father famously repudiated (and from which his mother never wavered), he makes a distinction between the “young Saul” with whom he identified and the increasingly conservative, repressive, death-obsessed man his father became. The culture wars from the 1960s onward found father and son on opposite sides, while personal affronts (an ailing Saul’s failure to attend his granddaughter’s wedding, the antipathy between his final wife and widow and his sons) deepened the gulf. The author writes from what he says is a need “for a portrait that reveals Saul’s complex nature, one written by a loving son who also knew his shortcomings.”
Ultimately, the memoir reveals more about how it felt to be the son of such a father than it does about the novelist.