This second and final volume picks up with Bellow now 49 years old and seemingly at the height of his powers, having just published Herzog. It’s downhill from here, surely? Yet as this immaculately researched biography shows, there was a lot more to come: more novels, more literary prizes, more marriages and more life.
As monumental as Leader’s investigation is, with its copious documentation and minute reconstruction of such a long, labyrinthine lifespan...his manner and approach are modest and self-effacing... He endeavours to be judiciously fair... Comfortable reading clearly isn’t Leader’s concern – each volume is a bulky handful – and his measure of Bellow’s importance is more pharaonic than Shils’s, whose increasing disdain for Bellow’s inflated stature acquired a mean squint... Like Atlas, Leader lacks gorgeous finesse... Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow is that rarest of things, a towering biography that closes with a satisfying click.
A flawed individual? Certainly. But Bellow’s art was as monumental and epic as the action-packed life he led. And Leader documents all of it with striking balance. The biographer’s tone is fair and even-handed, and he narrates this exuberant and decadent life at a distance, yet somehow giving the impression that he is a close family member. The Life of Saul Bellow is the biography form at its very greatest, and the best non-fiction book I’ve read in 2018.
However, all those self-willed disturbances, erotic and artistic, helped seed the work: “the fullness of the fiction mirrors the fullness of the life”. Leader chronicles the art-life relationship with a high-definition precision and amplitude. His sedimentary method lends both volumes a richly satisfying density of texture, like impacted strata of multicoloured rock. He maps the whole fractured geology of Bellow’s mind and, at the bedrock layer, finds a curious hankering not for fuss but peace.
Leader's approach means that relevant information isn't immediately connected: paragraphs float like islands, repeating material. But he has done a nobler thing, with his doggedly unhobbyhorsical approach, than a biographer who might claim to have solved Bellow like a riddle, winning a victory over him, as Atlas sometimes seems to... Leader gives us the life in lucid, pithy prose whose fact-accumulating velocity can, at times, suggest Bellow's own expressiveness. His book is meticulous, clear-headed, and now the best possible source for anyone who wishes to understand better Bellow's grumpy genius.
Things do not get nobler in the second volume, which is as minutely researched and clear-eyed as Leader’s first... Leader deals intelligently with what he calls “Bellow’s willingness to offend”... Leader does not attempt much critical analysis, but he does include plenty of apt quotation – just as great a skill. You keep stumbling from some ignoble episode on to some of Bellow’s sentences, with their fearless phrase-making and hilarious metaphors. And then, maybe, you forget your dismay.
And part of the pleasure of the biography is the light it shines on some of the work. Leader writes well about the books themselves — not just on their biographical sources but on their virtues and literary faults... But the biography also gives glimpses of Bellow’s extraordinary literary intelligence, shaping and seeing him through the mess of his own life... Leader’s two-volume biography is an astonishingly detailed and thoughtful record of an important life... Leader goes long and deep here, using Bellow as a kind of supersensitive canary to guide us down the mines of 20th-century culture wars.
There have been other attempts to capture Bellow’s overflowing lust for life, notably James Atlas’s (mostly) unauthorised volume published while Bellow was alive, but this will stand as the definitive account. Leader talked to the surviving three wives and drew on the memories of Bellow’s three sons, as well as more than 100 friends (and one or two enemies) and devout literary progeny including Martin Amis and the critic James Wood
Talk of his poor behaviour was hard to remember in his company. One admirer spoke of “a sort of electric halo of intelligence some people have, as though you’re near a live wire”. Touch it carelessly and you could get singed, but as on the page, his wit and perceptiveness illuminated everything he spoke of.
Leader captures this iridescence perfectly, showing how far his life was stitched into the fabric of his work in heightened colours, and providing a running commentary of elucidation and criticism. A complex man, Bellow calls for a sensitive balance between censure and understanding, to avoid overshadowing his genius, and it is hard to imagine anyone doing it better.
Leader’s biography is a monumental piece of scholarship, not least because he untangles the details of all those love affairs. It is also thrilling to read. Leader has spoken to everyone still alive who knew Bellow. Dozens of them spring energetically from his pages. This second volume is longer than the first, which went up to 1964, the year of Herzog, the book that made Bellow famous...Leader is superb on Bellow’s three sons, Greg, Adam and Daniel. Greg, the eldest, became a psychotherapist, Adam a book editor and Daniel a journalist and, eventually, a potter. All three are pungent commentators on Bellow’s style of fatherhood, which was by turns bracing, tender and pedagogical, with Conrad, Dickens and Tolstoy required reading...Bellow said to an earlier biographer, ‘I don’t want my last tatters exposed … my poor porous fig leaf.’ With this enthralling, massively detailed book, Leader has not laid Bellow bare so much as enriched him. He honours Bellow for his artistic genius as well as his expressive, tough personality, giving us what Abe Ravelstein asked for, a full picture, warts and all – since the only way to see how marvellous someone was is to see how much trouble they were too.
Zachary Leader, in his magnificently researched book, chronicles hundreds of instances of Bellow’s “frigid superiority”. On the lecture circuit he had a “pompous oily look”, and his public persona was not attractive. “The man looks as if he was born sneering,” we are told, and on one occasion, standing before the audience at an arts centre, he refused to begin “until a bust of Hemingway was carried from the room”...Much of this biography is taken up by accounts of Bellow’s womanising, divorce battles with former wives, and his succession of marriages, of which there were five. It is obvious that he “didn’t really like being married . . . He liked being taken care of.” He was quickly bored and never accepted the responsibilities and chores of fatherhood. Bellow had three sons, who do not remember him fondly. “He’d become very angry” when his children visited. “I’d usually wet the bed after I saw him,” confesses one of the boys, who all found Bellow “remote and intimidating”.