Leader (English Literature/Roehampton Univ.) concludes his exemplary life of the famed Canadian-American writer whose literary successes were matched by familial psychodramas, feuds, and other such mishegoss.
As the author picks up from The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 (2015), the subject of his biography has attained great fame and fortune. Henderson the Rain King (1959) has had five years to make waves, building on earlier books such as The Adventures of Augie March and Dangling Man, and now Herzog (1964) is out, nearly universally hailed and climbing the charts, “supplanting John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” on the bestseller lists. At the time, however, Bellow was not satisfied. Having established himself as a top-flight novelist, he tried his hand at a play that ran for only a month and received some of the toughest reviews of his career, along with a note from Lillian Hellman that Bellow summarized as “I’ve written a lot of interesting soliloquies, but there’s not a play in sight.” Undaunted, Bellow returned to prose with a vengeance, putting into practice his pronounced habit of taking every element from real life and conversation and working it into his fictional narratives. Leader ably charts Bellow’s continuing evolution as a writer, which will cheer his fans: Bellow matched talent, after all, with an impressive work ethic. Less cheering are his relationships with children, lovers, and spouses, all of which involved considerable drama and, even on his deathbed, shouting and recriminations. His cantankerousness punctuates almost every page, as when he explodes in anger over a companion’s going off to see a popular movie while he attended his son’s wedding: “By eroding the standards of a wide literate audience,” Leader glosses, “M*A*S*H was debasing as well as debased." Always hard at work and always in battle mode, Bellow emerges as a brilliant writer who never minded being disliked—and offered many reasons to do so.
Though sometimes overly detailed, this is a top-notch exploration of one of the most important midcentury writers.