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

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?"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform