The author of The Life of Kingsley Amis (2007) returns with the first installment of a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow (1915-2005), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Leader (English/Univ. of Roehampton) is a believer in the hefty biography (Amis’ nears 1,000 pages), and his new volume—which takes us to the publication of Bellow’s Herzog—will bend a hardwood shelf, as well. The research underlying the text is formidable. Leader certainly read everything, talked to everyone relevant who would talk with him (not everyone would), and visited numerous significant sites. Throughout, the author expresses his gratitude to the (few) Bellow biographers who have gone before, occasionally pausing to disagree—especially with James Atlas, although Leader later provides some praise in source notes. In structure, this volume is traditional. After an introduction that praises Bellow, he takes us to Russia (Bellow’s ancestral home) and then marches steadily forward chronologically. In many places, the author stops his narrative to explore fictional analogs among Bellow’s actual experiences, friends, and lovers. This occurs in every section and sometimes goes on for quite a while, occasionally trying even an indulgent reader’s patience. But what a busy life Bellow had. He taught at the University of Minnesota, Bard College, the University of Chicago, and at other venues, including Puerto Rico, where he found the heat oppressive. Among his students were William Kennedy and Donald Barthelme. Bellow also traveled around Europe, and he hung out with Ralph Ellison, partied with Gore Vidal, dined with Marilyn Monroe, attended a Kennedy White House tribute to André Malraux, had sex with myriad women—but was stunned to discover that his second wife had been having a long affair with one of his friends, writer Jack Ludwig. Some violence ensued. The volume ends with some pages about Herzog, the novel that propelled Bellow into celebrity.
Will now stand as the definitive Bellow biography.