New biography of Saul Bellow probes intersection of life and work

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In the introduction to “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964” — the massive first volume of his planned two-volume biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author Chicago likes to claim as its own — Zachary Leader recounts a deathbed story that some might find a touch apocryphal.

As Leader recounts it, Bellow opened his eyes, looked intently at a friend, and from just beyond the haze asked: “Was I a man, or was I a jerk?”

Book jacket of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography, “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964.” (Alfred A. Knopf, $40.) Photo: Courtesy of Saul Bellow Literary Estate.

Book jacket of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography, “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964.” (Alfred A. Knopf, $40.) Photo: Courtesy of Saul Bellow Literary Estate.

Leader then proceeds to explain that Bellow’s often disapproving, mercantile father would sometimes call him a jerk (meaning “a smart-ass”). But he hoped to be thought of as a “mensch,” that essential word of Yiddish (Bellow’s first language, which he spoke as a child growing up in a Russian Jewish immigrant family in Montreal), best translated as “a human being, someone to rely on, someone admirable, responsible, a person of character.”

“Bellow lived a long and full life and wrote so much,” said Leader, who admits his subject [who died in 2005, at the age of 89] was an extremely complex figure. “I wanted to show all of it, which is why this book is 800 pages, and why there’s still more of the story to tell.”

Leader, who began work on the Bellow project in August, 2007, spent more than three years doing research — much of it in Chicago, where he made his way through about 350 boxes of Bellow’s papers at the University of Chicago, of which 81 contained items marked “restricted” that he managed to gain access to. Another three years were spent writing the first volume, which has arrived just in time for the centenary of Bellow’s birth, and he is now about halfway through the second volume.

BOOK SIGNINGS FOR THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW: TO FAME AND FORTUNE, 1915-1964 — May 17 at 3 p.m. at The Book Stall, 811 Elm St., Winnetka — May 18 at 6 p.m. at the Chicago Public Library’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, 400 S. State

He decided to end the first book with the publication, in 1964, of “Herzog,” Bellow’s heavily autobiographical novel about a writer and academic in the throes of a midlife crisis — one exacerbated by a decidedly bitter second divorce, guilt over his absence in the lives of his two children, and a terror of a new relationship. The book became a surprise bestseller, received the second of his three National Book Awards, and gave Bellow a sense of financial security for the first time.

Leader, who grew up in Los Angeles, arrived in Chicago to attend Northwestern University, but he has spent more than 30 years in England, where he is professor of English Literature at Roehampton University. Before embarking on the Bellow books he wrote “The Life of Kingsley Amis,” about the English comic novelist, that was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

“There are only a handful of writers who can hold your interest for so many years,” said Leader. “Before I got started on Bellow I met with Philip Roth, who was friends with him, but also a competitor, and he told me: ‘Saul was not a monster, but he loved monsters, and you must interview them all.’ I did. And most were not literary people, but they were big personalities.

“What has always interested me about Bellow was his accounts of urban life, the verve and slanginess of his writing, his cultural concerns. He was an intellectual, but had a great knowledge of street life, of graft and gangs and local politics and business. I was intrigued by the range of his interests, and the many dimensions of his experience, and by his ability to incorporate all the different aspects of his background.”

“Bellow was ‘assimilated,’ yet he never discarded the cultural baggage of his background as a Canadian, an American, a Jew,” said Leader. “And he was able to write so vividly, and with such humor, about the pain of assimilation. One of Bellow’s professors warned him that he would never be accepted as a teacher of English literature at a university [which was the preserve of Wasps at the time], so he studied anthropology. He remained always suspicious of the tweedy set, yet became a vital member of the interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, because he thought of that as a sort of  ‘Salon des Refuses’ or salon of the rejects.”

“Bellow struggled to become a writer, and was determined to write the way he wanted to write,” said Leader. “And Chicago was fundamental to him — it was his America. He was fascinated by the material culture of the city, by the way it made and sold things. He adored knowing about every aspect of it, and he was appalled by it at the same time. It embodied the getting and spending culture pursued by his father and two brothers – a culture so opposed to the non-material realm of writing. But he saw the appeal of it, too; it was in his bones. And it was the source of great inner conflict.”

As Bellow so memorably wrote in “The Adventures of Augie March”: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Now there’s a paragraph that’s enough to make you understand how someone could spend a decade probing the life of the man who penned it.

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