- - Friday, May 24, 2013

SAUL BELLOW‘S HEART: A SON’S MEMOIR
By Greg Bellow
Bloomsbury, $26, 228 pages, illustrated

This probing but fond memoir is perfectly titled (and subtitled), for it gives us a unique look at one of the 20th century’s most distinguished American novelists. There is certainly a lot of heart in Saul Bellow’s fiction, but it functions mostly as the organ that makes it possible for him to bleed so profusely when painfully cut. Who can forget the agonies of betrayal in “Herzog” or the disillusion, despair and cosmic weltschmerz of “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” perhaps the pinnacles of his fictional achievement? But when you think of Bellow in his life and art, bile, spite and fury are more likely to come to mind than heartfelt love.

Not for Greg, the eldest of the sons he had by each of his first three wives: From his earliest memories to the travails of middle age, his father was not the great writer but the most-loving of parents. Indeed, Bellow fils says that he cannot really appreciate all those great novels as fiction, acutely aware as he is of the real life and flesh-and-blood person they draw on. We don’t really think of Saul Bellow crooning the hoary old Al Jolson chestnut “Sonny Boy.” But apparently his emotive rendition was a leitmotif to connect with his firstborn down through the decades. From this book’s very first words, it is evident that they shared a very special bond:

“On a visit to Chicago when I was eight, I witnessed a terrible argument, in Yiddish, between my father and grandfather. Driving away from his father’s house, Saul started to cry so bitterly he had to pull off the road. After a few minutes, he excused his lapse of self-control by saying: ‘It’s okay for grownups to cry.’ I knew his heart was breaking. I knew because of the bond between my father’s tender heart and mine.”


Over and over again, Greg Bellow, who has practiced as a psychotherapist for most of his adult life, provides anecdotes that validate his claim. Readers who might fear that all those decades by the couch will render this book reductively psychoanalytic need have no worries in this regard. Although psychological acuity and insight are evident throughout the text, he wears his professional garments very lightly. But this is someone who kept his eyes wide open and so can provide all sorts of privileged moments about the turbulence and collateral damages of five marriages, four of which ended in bitter acrimony. Fondness doesn’t lead to blindness in these pages: Thoughtful analysis and understanding are hallmarks throughout.

But it’s also a passionate book by a man with his own strong opinions. It is apparent from the outset that he is motivated by a mission — not just to stake that unique filial claim but to protest usurpers. These do not include his younger brothers, although he recognizes that the divorce much earlier in their lives (not to mention more corrosive blight of spousal bitterness) denied them the opportunity for the paternal bonding he enjoyed. Rather, it is the widow and the coterie of literary sons, from Philip Roth to Martin Amis, who he feels had already hijacked his father to the exclusion of the rest of his family even before his death. There is a lot of detail to substantiate all this, and so his indignation seems justified as well as obviously sincere.

Occasionally, Greg Bellow’s strong convictions, some might say prejudices, get in the way of his understanding his father, particularly the way his views evolved over a long life from youthful Trotskyite to defender of mainstream American values in the heated culture wars of the 20th century’s later decades. Mother Anita held to her leftist values until her death in the 1980s, and her son seems to have clung similarly and apparently rigidly to those he absorbed as a child. Thus, he deplores his father’s effusions against identity politics, although he is careful to distinguish with admirable fairness between hostility to group rights and Saul Bellow’s lack of prejudice toward individuals.

But in one of those fascinating judgments only he is qualified to give, he tells us that when he read Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” “I found the book so closely paralleled views I was hearing from my father that I considered it a joint intellectual venture by two friends who had grown ideologically close.” So it strikes me that Saul Bellow might have not merely been encouraging his friend as a lightning rod for those shared attitudes, but actually engaging in a kind of ventriloquism — all the while cagily preserving for himself the centrist bona fides necessary to maintaining his position in American letters.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.