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Him With His Foot in His Mouth

BELLOW; A Biography; By James Atlas; Random House: 688 pp., $35

October 15, 2000|FREDERIC RAPHAEL | Frederic Raphael is the author of 20 novels as well as many story collections, biographies, screenplays (including "Eyes Wide Shut") and translations from ancient Greek and Latin. His most recent novel is "A Double Life."

"Why don't you write a biography of Saul Bellow? The question was posed to me by Philip Roth." The first words of his introduction reveal the youngish James Atlas in search of a burden to shoulder. The formal word "posed" warns that this is to be a serious undertaking. A more important question, not posed, is why do you write about Bellow? Can it be simply that the most reliable way of making an impression is to enter the literary arena riding a white elephant? Or is some vigorous attack to be mounted on a sacred cow?

The ambitious modern biographer concerns himself less with the innate quality of his subject's work than with his marriages and infidelities (no shortage with S.B.), his briefer sexual activities (ditto), his success (scads of awards, doctorates, et cetera) and his financial consecration (the Nobel Prize is worth $160,000, tax free, need we say more?).

This diligent tracking of the man, his work and his workings, proves that Bellow's skeletons are not kept in cupboards; clothed in swatches of often ruthlessly revealing descriptive prose, they are paraded, and humbled, in the author's fiction. Bellow himself leads the band, laureled like a triumphant Roman general, followed by a train of captives. His biographer is the attendant slave, who whispered in the general's ear, "Remember you too are a man." Here he merely informs the public of the details of the laureate's mortality and only incidentally brings him down, bumplessly, to earth.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
In the review of "Bellow: A Biography" (Book Review, Oct. 15), it was incorrectly stated that James Atlas had written no fiction. Atlas is, in fact, the author of "The Great Pretender: A Novel" (Atheneum, 1986, out of print). We regret the error.

Atlas tells us that he once embarked on a book about Edmund Wilson, but was put off by his "bullying proclamations . . . tedious self-revelations, the drinking and the philandering." Bellow drinks only in moderation, but his charming proclamations, the quality of his self-portraits and his eternally boyish amorous pursuits must be what make him so much more attractive than Wilson. Nevertheless, if Bunny was a pig, he was a very well-read and informative example of the breed. A biographer might have learned some lessons in terms of attention to texts and contexts.

Atlas tells us that Bellow was, for him, "experience-near" (his own complacent emphasis on an ugly phrase). "To write a biography of Saul Bellow would be, in a sense, to write my own autobiography, a generation removed." Think so? Bellow is half a century older and Atlas, to my knowledge, has published no fiction. Presumably he is relying on Augie March's famous remark, "I am American, Chicago-born--Chicago that sombre city." Well, so am I American, Chicago-born, and now what are we going to do? In any case, didn't Bellow make his character say this because it was not true of his author? The project was to avoid the fate which Mordecai Richler wittily encapsulated when he declared himself "world-famous in Canada." Bellow proposed to be world-famous, period.

Born in 1915 and working out assiduously, Bellow has not only dominated his (often self-destructive) generation; he has largely outlived it. Now he is the unopposed obituarist of his times, his own virility advertised by his polyphiloprogenitive abilities and by the frequency of his publications. Chateaubriand once said, "I know that I am nothing but a machine for making books." The same might be said of Bellow, though he is also a machine for making love (so, to a degree, was Chateaubriand, but he was more discreet about it).

Edward Shils, one of the many friends with whom Bellow contrived to have terminal quarrels, is cited saying, "For Bellow, an artist was the same as being a saint, an 'unacknowledged legislator of mankind,' one who was consecrated to the highest function of which any human being was capable, namely, to be an artist." This high-minded circular argument in favor of benefit of clergy, with its romantic mixture of tosh and unattributed Shelley (who was talking about poets not saints), has been very handy for any number of writers, some good, some not, who find it convenient to exempt themselves from decencies and obligations which can be left to unsainted businessmen, judges, plumbers, wives and mothers. It's one thing to behave like a bastard; it's another to announce that it puts you in line for a halo.

Bellow's career is, in many ways, both exemplary (for its industry, energy, duration, achievement and self-deprecation) and distasteful (for its egotism, calculation, ruthlessness and self-advancement). One of the master's earliest published works was a translation, from the Yiddish, of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool." Just as Russian fiction was said to have emerged from "underneath Gogol's 'Overcoat,' " so American Jewish writers have, more or less openly, assumed Gimpel's mantle. Atlas fails even to hint at the degree to which Bellow habitually apes his wise folly; yet Herzog is manifestly Gimpel's offspring.

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