Saul Bellow, often regarded as a literary genius, led a less than reputable life but one that can arguably be considered fitting for a literary genius. Married four times and considered an absentee father, Bellow’s life is as colourful as his works. His son Greg Bellow, who became a psychotherapist (a somewhat ironic profession), has penned a memoir/biography of his and his father’s life, Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir (2013). Owen Richardson describes the book as distinguishing between two different Bellows: the young and the old Bellow. “Young Saul was a bohemian and a Trotskyite fellow-traveller, a Jew up against the anti-Semitism of American literary and college life; old Saul was Establishment, a Nobel-prizewinner and associate of the neo-cons, someone who saw no parallel between his struggles and those of black people, women and gays. ”
The celebrity memoir, autobiography, biography or even pseudo-autobiography is a popular genre circulating through bookstores today, though most as a result are trite and superficial. Though Bellow offers something a bit more substantial, and the book contains bouts of peculiar insights on Bellow’s behalf:
Saul occasionally quipped, “It was safer to be addicted to sex.” He meant that sex was a more favourable vice for a writer than the alcohol that plagued John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, and Delmore Schwartz, and the high price his friends paid for their devotion to writing. My deep respect for Saul and his writer friends fueled the fierce way I tried to protect his privacy and my acceptance of the line he drew between art and life. As a result, I was predisposed to react negatively to Saul’s fame and it got worse when it spilled over onto me.
Those familiar with the work of Philip Roth and Art Spiegelman will know that the father/son dynamic of autobiography is of particular interest to Jewish writers. Philip Roth’s Patrimony: A True Story (1991) contains controversial excerpts in which Roth reveals the extent of his father’s illness, despite his father requesting him not to disclose it to anyone. Art Speigelman’s graphic novel Maus (1991), too, contains this intriguing dynamic of the confessions of the father, in which the son seems hopelessly unable to capture his father’s account of being in a Nazi concentration camp.
Greg Bellow’s work is sure to be an invaluable addition to the memoir genre in the same vein as Susan Cheever’s Home Before Dark (1999) about her father John Cheever. For those unfamiliar with Bellow’s work, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) along with Herzog (1964) maintain their status as Bellow’s finest works. For those looking for an academic introduction to his works, see Matthew Asprey’s latest article: Chicago and the Contemplative Process in Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and “Looking For Mr. Green”, which appeared in the Saul Bellow Journal in the Fall 2012 issue.