Great author, terrible father: Memoir portrays Saul Bellow as an egotistical womaniser who drove his son into therapy

But whoever said you had to be nice to sell books? John Walsh reports

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The Independent Culture

What is it about the children of literary stars that makes them (often ill-advisedly) venture into print about their parent? Is it from anger that the world's acclaim eclipses the filial love they themselves feel? Is it the memory of the closed study door and the tapping keyboard that excluded the son or daughter from contact? Does it spring from a feeling that, since dad's life was centrally concerned with books, well here's another one, dad, and – guess what? – it's about you and me. Maybe now I'll have your undivided attention…

An early sighting of the phenomenon was Papa: a Personal Memoir by Gregory Hemingway, Ernest's youngest son, back in 1976. ''The man I remembered was kind, gentle, elemental in his vastness, tormented beyond endurance, and although we always called him papa, it was out of love, not fear," Gregory wrote, admitting that, "What I really wanted was to be a Hemingway hero." It was an ambition that went unfulfilled: he later had a sex change, dressed as a woman, was known to friends as Gloria, and was found dead in a cell at the Miami-Dade County Women's Detention Center in 2001.

A decade after Papa came Susan Cheever's startling Home Before Dark: a Biographical Memoir of John Cheever in 1985. The writer's only daughter, she revealed her papa to be an alcoholic philanderer tormented by bisexual impulses; and that his journals were full of fantasies that she would become a great beauty, and make an advantageous marriage. Several entries expressed his disappointment that his daughter, in her teens, was so plain and fat.

The year 2000 saw Margaret Salinger publish Dreamcatcher, a memoir of her reclusive father JD, in which she detailed the cruel manipulation he exerted over her mother Claire, his second wife. She revealed the author of The Catcher in the Rye to be an obsessive movie buff whose view of the world came mainly from films ("To my father, all Spanish speakers are Puerto Rican washerwomen") and debunked myths about his interest in Eastern mysticism. Interestingly, her brother Matt wrote to the New York Observer discrediting the book's "gothic tales of our supposed childhood" and insisting, "I grew up in a very different house, with two very different parents from those my sister describes."

A year later, in 2001, Ianthe Brautigan brought out You Can't Catch Death: a Daughter's Memoir, about her father Richard, author of Trout Fishing in America and the American media's favourite literary hippie in the late 1960s; and Jo Hammett published Dashiell Hammett: a Daughter Remembers, in which she presents the creator of Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon (sound familiar?) as a hard-drinking womaniser but stressed, as so many of these authors do, how very alike father and daughter were.

Bernard Malamud, the American-Jewish writer, was remembered in the wryly titled My Father Is a Book by Janna Malamud Smith. She discovered, from his private unpublished letters and journals, that he'd fled New York to escape his father's failing grocery store and his mother's mental ilness, and start a new life as a teacher in Oregon.

In the last two years, we've had Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, by Erica Heller, who reveals how much tougher family life was "AC" (After Catch) than "BC" and recalls how her father became, guess what, a priapic, devouring egomaniac; and Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron, daughter of William, the author of Sophie's Choice. Critics raved about how unflinchingly it dealt with her easily enraged, lonely and depressed father's descent into mental illness – but also her pride in being his daughter and sharing his dark sense of humour.

The most recent sighting of the genre is Saul Bellow's Heart, published this month by the Nobel laureate's son Greg Bellow. Greg was Saul Bellow's first child by the first of his five wives; he worked for 40 years as a psychotherapist. He had the kind of fractured childhood that could land anyone in therapy. His father always put writing above family ties, and left Greg's mother, Anita, when Greg was eight. Saul wasn't unaffectionate, but he was seldom around. His constant womanising led to more rows, and Greg was in psychotherapy himself by the time he was 18.

The spur for the book seems to have been his father's funeral in 2005. In an early section, "Awakened by a Grave Robbery", Greg writes about his irritation with the tributes that flooded in about Saul, from literary folk (including Martin Amis) who regarded him as a spiritual father. No family members were invited to speak at the funeral. But "I heard and read many anecdotes and accounts that claimed a special closeness with Saul Bellow the literary patriarch. I… soon came to feel that dozens of self- appointed sons and daughters were jostling in public for a position at the head of a parade that celebrated my father's life... I asked myself: "What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?"

Greg sets out to read all his dad's work, looking for fresh insights into what drove him, and to summon the spirit of "Young Saul," the father with whom he had philosophical chats and towards whom he felt a bond of softness and shared egalitarian values; the father who broke from his Lithuanian-Jewish, Talmud-reading forebears to embrace left-wing politics, secularism and cutting-edge psychoanalysis. And having brought up his first-born to abide by certain values and beliefs, the "Old Saul" abandons them for, among other things, patriarchal Judaism.

There are some nice descriptions of growing up in Bellow-land: of Saul's ferocious in-car rows with his father in Yiddish; Saul's ability, aged four, to quote from Genesis in Hebrew; the Wilhelm Reich "orgone box" (for capturing "celestial energy") that sat for years in the Bellow family hallway, "about the size of a telephone box and lined with Brillo pads". The pubescent Greg noticed that grown-ups went to sit inside it naked: "I grasped its purpose and sat in it for long, uninterrupted masturbation sessions"; and of how his father stopped wearing a decoration given him by the French government after he discovered that the same decoration had been given to a pig breeder.

But mainly this is a work of frustration by a son who's neither a talented writer nor an especially alert reader, smarting from the realisation that the rights to his father's estate are in the hands of his agent, Andrew Wylie and forever beyond his grasp.

Just as so many children of great writers have felt their famous parent was always beyond their grasp even while being loved by millions of readers, and took to print to try and make sense of that tantalising conundrum.

'Saul Bellow's Heart: a Son's Memoir' by Greg Bellow is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

Unhappy families: The dark-side-of-dad books

Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever

The writer's only daughter, she revealed her papa to be an alcoholic philanderer tormented by bisexual impulses and slightly creepy dreams of the woman she would turn into.

Dreamcatcher by Margaret Salinger

A memoir of her reclusive father JD (right with Margaret), in which she detailed the cruel manipulation he exerted over her mother Claire, his second wife. He used to keep her a virtual prisoner in their holiday shack.

My Father Is a Book by Janna Malamud Smith

Gossipy, name-droppy, strikingly un-literary account of the Malamud family, Bernard's mentally ill mother and her gifted son, who wrote 'The Fixer'.

Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller

She reveals how much tougher family life was "AC" (After 'Catch-22') than "BC" and recalls how her father became a priapic, devouring egomaniac, who dumped his wife after 38 years of marriage.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron

"Did my father's depression steal his creative gift?" asks Styron's youngest child. "Or was it the other way around, an estrangement from his muse driving him downwards in increments till he hit rock-bottom?"