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Saul Bellow in 1976 at a press conference to discuss the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he had just won (©BETTMANN/GETTY)

Saul Bellow, born in Canada, mainlined the European intellectual tradition into the American novel and became the greatest postwar author. He was also a story writer, playwright, translator, editor, journalist, war correspondent and combative public intellectual. This volume covers the last four decades of his life when he published a series of brilliant novels: Herzog, Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, More Die of Heartbreak and Ravelstein. He won the Nobel Prize in 1976 — insouciantly commenting “I’m glad to get it. I could live without it” — and received more medals than a Russian general.

On March 19, 1990, in response to my inquiry, Bellow sardonically replied, “I feel about biography much as I do about buying a burial plot. It will come to that, of course, but I’m not quite ready for it.” James Atlas’s biography, published in 2000, was unremittingly negative, even condescending. Zachary Leader’s work, though superior to Atlas’s and better than his first volume, still has some serious flaws. He swallows Keith Botsford’s absurd claim that his subject “is a direct descendant of Machiavelli”; and misses Bellow’s allusions to the anthropological discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, to Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea”, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, Auden’s elegy on Yeats and Evelyn Waugh’s cruel comment on Randolph Churchill.

Leader constantly tries to connect every person and event in Bellow’s life to their fictional counterparts instead of emphasising his imaginative transformation of experience. In a typically sinking and superfluous sentence he writes of a minor novella  The Actual: “Bellow identified Herb Passin, a friend since high school . . . as the model for Harry Trellman; Marilyn Mann, the second wife of Sam Freifeld . . . as the model for Amy Wustrin . . . and Freifeld himself as the model for Amy’s second husband, Jay Wustrin.” As Bellow wrote of a friend’s mediocre work, “It has too much extraneous data . . . too many lists of names . . . So much lavish documentation makes the reader impatient.” As in the first volume, Leader goes in for long, boring lists, including 50 people, many of them obscure, who did and did not attend Bellow’s 75th surprise birthday party. But he is especially acute on how the literary agent Andrew Wylie, well named “The Jackal,” poached Bellow from his longtime agent Harriet Wasserman. He’s also good on Bellow’s summers in Aspen, Colorado, using an excellent source, the novelist James Salter, who admired Bellow’s work but “did not envy him as a man” with a chaotic personal life.

Bellow’s portrait of the Romantic author was self-reflective: “The artist is a spurned and misunderstood genius whose sensitivity separates him from and elevates him above the rest of philistine humanity.” But his good looks, exciting mind, sharp wit and exalted reputation were catnip to the ladies, whom he easily captured but could not control. Though not cut out for marriage, he had five wives and divorced the first four. One of his three sons explained, “He liked being taken care of. He liked beautiful, intelligent, spirited women. He didn’t like being bored.” 

Oppressed and heavy-hearted, Bellow resorted to subtle concealment of competing mistresses, moved around like a man on the run and needed bursts of frenetic activity, “even if it means constant trips to Japan, London, Yugoslavia or Israel to keep one jump ahead” of his emotional entanglements.
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