King Saul and the philistines

<i>Saul Bellow: a biography </i>by James Atlas (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;20, 674pp)
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The Independent Culture

Writing in The New York Times in 1971, Joseph Epstein confidently assessed Saul Bellow's standing: "Saul Bellow is the premier American novelist: the best writer we have in the literary form that has been dominant in the literature of the past hundred years." Five years later, Bellow would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Writing in The New York Times in 1971, Joseph Epstein confidently assessed Saul Bellow's standing: "Saul Bellow is the premier American novelist: the best writer we have in the literary form that has been dominant in the literature of the past hundred years." Five years later, Bellow would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But today, 24 years later still, when Bellow has turned 85 and recently released his latest novel, Ravelstein, his standing is far more troubled. Reading-lists for university courses in American literature rarely include him, even though he is (with Toni Morrison) one of only two living US Nobel laureates in literature. What precipitated such a steep decline in Bellow's critical fortunes?

Such questions are inevitably raised by James Atlas's new biography, the first to receive the author's wary co-operation, if not full collaboration. Atlas, who has written a well-received biography of the American poet Delmore Schwartz, provides a scrupulously researched and probing account of a deeply contradictory human being, one whose life has skirted all the darker edges of American culture.

Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, a working-class town just outside Montreal, Canada. His parents, Russian Jews, had immigrated there two years earlier. Shloime or Shloimke, later Soloman and Sol and finally Saul, was their fourth child, the first and only born in the New World. Nine years later, the family moved to Chicago, Bellow's literary home for the rest of his life.

The Bellows moved into Humboldt Park, a neighbourhood teeming with immigrants from Eastern Europe: Poles, Russians, Lithuanians and Latvians, amid them a sizeable Jewish community. Bellow would revisit this neighbourhood again and again in fiction, endowing it with almost mythological dimensions, viewing it both with the wide-eyed wonder of the child and the cynical wisdom of the streets.

After high school, Bellow went to first the University of Chicago, then Northwestern University, where he graduated in English. When he asked the chairman of the English department if he should pursue further study, he was told: "I wouldn't recommend that you study English. You weren't born to it." A Jew, he went on to explain, could not really grasp the tradition of English literature.

Bellow tried anthropology but dropped out in 1937. He married Anita Goshkin, the first of five wives, and embarked on a writing career. Taking up odd jobs, living rent-free at the house of Anita's mother, or patching together an income from reviews and minor academic positions, Bellow pursued his ambition.

His first books received approving reviews but modest sales. But it was with his third, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), that he found his distinctive voice and form. A picaresque romp that ranges from Humboldt Park to France and Mexico, the novel is sustained by the raw verve of its comic voice and manic conflation of Yiddish pungency and learned wit. Others before Bellow had described the experience of Jewish-American immigrants; Bellow was the first to forge a recognisably Jewish-American voice. Reviewers promptly acclaimed his achievement, and Bellow was set on his path.

By now, Bellow had divorced Anita. He blamed the break-up on her and claimed, as he would in three later divorces, that she had left him. But the real impetus for the divorce was Bellow's chronic infidelity.

Atlas dutifully chronicles the staggering record of Bellow's philandering, limply explaining it as an obsessive attempt to resolve the grief and guilt Bellow had felt for the early death of his mother. Wisely, perhaps, he decides not to explore the moral questions raised by Bellow's predilection for girls not much more than half his age. Ironically, his philandering was less than satisfactory, at least from his partners' viewpoint. He was "the put-it-in-and-take-it-out type," notes one ex-lover. "He didn't know a clitoris from a kneecap."

Despite his divorce and increasingly nomadic lifestyle, shuffling from one part-time teaching job to another, Bellow persevered. Seize the Day was published in 1956 and won the National Book Award, though it still sold only 5,000 copies. Henderson the Rain King (1959), another picaresque tale, finally made the bestseller lists, followed by Herzog (1964), the book that sealed his reputation as perhaps the most important writer of his time. Meanwhile, Bellow was appointed as a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Two more novels followed, Mr Sammler's Planet (1970) and Humboldt's Gift (1975), and a moving account of his journey to Israel, To Jerusalem and Back (1976). The same year, he received the Nobel.

In retrospect, the arc of Bellow's career changed with Mr Sammler's Planet. Its plot-line is minimal. Arthur Sammler is a survivor of the Holocaust, a Polish Jew who lives in New York, lectures intermittently at Columbia University and struggles with the city's apparently relentless descent into anarchy.

Already in chapter one, after Sammler has noticed a black pickpocket working a bus route that he takes, the young thief follows him to his apartment building, traps him in the lobby and exposes his penis: "a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing - a tube, a snake." Here was "the great black beast", the embodiment of a new barbarism sweeping American culture, "sexual niggerhood for everyone". It would be difficult, Atlas comments dryly, to imagine "a more overtly racist cluster of images".

Bellow seems to have been traumatised by the tumult of the 1960s. Previously his characters embodied a tenacious defence of freedom against orthodoxies, whatever their source. Now his novel was marred by outbursts of racism, misogyny and a puritanical intolerance that, in the light of his own infidelities, seems especially hypocritical.

Nor was Bellow much better at dealing with people in the real world. When a female graduate student swept into class during a student strike with a list of "non-negotiable" demands, he shouted, "You women's liberationists! All you're going to have to show for your movement 10 years from now are sagging breasts!"

Perhaps Bellow's most notorious deed was to write a foreword to Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a polemical work that raged that American higher education was in radical decline, the result of a "cultural relativism" entrenched since the 1960s. The book became a bestseller, hailed by William Bennett, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education. Bellow may have thought that he was resisting academic conformity. For those whose names were sullied by Bloom's diatribes, that was small consolation.

After Bellow won the Nobel, his fiction fell sharply in quality. The Dean's December (1982) was greeted with derision; only with the publication of Ravelstein this April has Bellow once more returned to critical favour among journalists. Among academics, memories are less forgiving. Bellow currently stands in a state of limbo; though his works established one of the most distinctive voices in post-war American fiction, they are largely unread and untaught.

Perhaps Atlas's lively and sympathetic biography will prompt a reconsideration of Bellow's achievement. That will be long overdue. It will not, however, be able to avoid those thorny subjects that have vexed recent cultural debates and done so much to shape American identity - race, gender, ethnicity. Nor should it.

* Lawrence Rainey is professor of English at York University