Bellow, His Biographers, and the “Quivering Schmucks”

Saul Bellow’s books, admitted his admirer Barney Singer, attract “an awful lot of nuts, a lot of quivering schmucks. . . . But I think I took the cake.” Singer, a young historian at the University of British Columbia, said he read Herzog at least a thousand times during the 1970s. He wrote Bellow hundreds of letters, often containing freewheeling accounts of his own love life (“all of a sudden, broad-wise, it doesn’t rain but it pours”). About twice a year Bellow would send Singer a brief note or a few lines on a postcard. One of his letters read, “No wonder you like Herzog—you resemble him, being always after yourself, a kind of self-persecution. Objectively, that’s funny. Sub., not.”

Singer worshipped Bellow, but he was also a shrewd observer of the great novelist’s manner. When Bellow met Singer’s girlfriend, he gave her “a soft glowing courteous smile. Though he was always tamping it down, his excessive humanity could easily flare up, especially around females”—a perfectly Bellovian observation!

Singer is one of a small host of Bellow obsessives discussed by Zachary Leader in the just-published second volume of his masterful biography, The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965–2005, which begins the year Herzog won the National Book Award for Fiction and ends with Bellow’s death four decades later. Leader is an eminently judicious biographer. He sees Bellow’s flaws, takes him to task at times, but he knows how much Bellow means as a novelist, thinker, and personality. His book is a thrilling, abundantly detailed ensemble portrait of Bellow surrounded by wives, girlfriends, brothers, friends, enemies, and biographers. Leader met Bellow only once, briefly, at a university reception. Perhaps this is why he has escaped the Cult of Saul that seized so many.

Many authors have passionate readers, but few have drawn as many self-consciously nutty fans as Saul Bellow: men (for they were all male, it seems) who wanted to be Bellow, or at least Bellow-as-Herzog. Probably not since Byron has there been an author who inspired such imitative frenzy in his readers. Perhaps this is because Bellow’s narrators tend to have vulnerable, fractured psyches but also an uncanny sway over the lives of other people, stemming from Bellow’s astounding genius for describing characters. Real ex-wives became fictional maenads, and few could tell the difference: now that was novelistic power. The emotional-train-wreck sensibility of his narrators seemed to temper whatever lousing up Bellow committed in print. He was no James or Nabokov, coldly examining his characters and pinning them like butterflies, but a heimishe mensch stirred by life even at his most savage and pointed. All those excitable arias in Bellow’s books spilled over into the lives of his readers.

Herzog itself contains a dazzling case of Bellow mimicry. Valentine Gersbach, the one-legged lover of Herzog’s wife Madeleine, is really Jack Ludwig, Bellow’s best friend who had an affair with his wife Sasha and a club foot. Ludwig gestured and talked like Bellow and even tried to write like him, producing an abysmally bad novel, a kind of fanfic Herzog from the lover’s point of view. He also wrote a rapturous review of Herzog, declaring that Bellow and Ellison stood alone among the novelists of their time and complaining only that Bellow made a few unkind remarks about “cripples.”

“There are enough people with their thumbprint on my windpipe,” Bellow remarked to the novelist Mark Harris, another devoted fan, when asked how he felt about having a biographer. “I’ve had about all the public attention I can safely absorb. Anyone who held a Geiger counter on me now would hear a terrible rattling.” Yet Bellow palled around with Harris, inviting him to dinner parties and, once, to a car repair shop. Harris remained magnetically attached to Bellow. One time, when he called Bellow’s house, the novelist’s three-year-old son Daniel answered the phone and, mistaking Harris for his father, told him, “I love you.” “I could not but tell him that I loved him, in turn,” Harris wrote, “and I think I fooled him with my voice.” Harris went on to publish a memoir in 1980 of his dealings with Bellow, Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck (after the Frost poem: “With those in mind at my back / I can sit forth exposed to attack, / As one who shrewdly pretends / That he and the world are friends.”) “I thought I looked like a turd,” was Bellow’s verdict on Harris’s book, and that was that.

Louis Gallo, “a proofreader who lived in Queens with his mother,” as Leader describes him, was another Bellow follower. In 1961, Bellow published Gallo’s short story “Oedipus-Schmoedipus” in the journal he edited with Keith Botsford, The Noble Savage. Gallo responded with a flood of letters, arguing that he resembled Bellow but that “I’ve gone further, I think, than you.” “Our particular psychoses attract each other,” he wrote to Bellow, who was now and again impressed by Gallo: “You’re erratic but you have a true aim.” In 1966, Gallo published Like You’re Nobody; The Letters of Louis Gallo to Saul Bellow, 1961–1962, Plus Oedipus-Schmoedipus, the Story that Started It All.

Bellow’s earlier biographer James Atlas was too obsessed with him to achieve Leader’s balanced approach. Atlas’s book, unlike his superb biography of Delmore Schwartz, suffers from a grudge-bearing impulse to hack away at its subject and show him to be an irresponsible, selfish fellow. Recently, Atlas revisited his relationship with Bellow in his memoir The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, which includes some captivating reflections on biographers (Plutarch, Boswell, Strachey), the New York intellectuals—and Bellow.

In 1974, the 25-year-old Atlas, deep in research for his Delmore biography, discovered that Bellow was writing a book about a poet clearly based on Schwartz. He resolved to go see him in Chicago: “Miraculously, I was put through by the switchboard of the University of Chicago just by uttering the man’s name. His secretary urged me not to come out to Chicago as Bellow was very busy, but it was too late; my bags were packed.” When he arrived at Bellow’s office, the novelist sat before him warily, “waiting for the next question as if it were a dentist’s drill.” When Humboldt’s Gift appeared the next year, Atlas devoured it hungrily. He was already a fervent Bellovian: “I read Herzog the way a Victorian family in its Cornwall cottage might have read the worn Psalter that had been handed down from generation to generation.”

A decade later, Atlas felt “a tremor of joy” when Bellow offered to give him a tour of his old stomping grounds in Chicago. Later, in his apartment, he summed up the break-up with his fourth wife, Alexandra: “‘Emanations from my convulsed self were hard to take,’ Bellow said.” The next year, Atlas asked to be Bellow’s biographer, but Bellow put him off.

Bellow ended up giving Atlas permission to quote his letters and manuscripts in his biography, and the two met many times. Adulation and fear blended together in Atlas’s heart. On one visit to Bellow, he recalls, “I had an alarming fantasy that he was going to rise up out of his chair and order me from his door, like the father in Kafka’s story ‘The Judgment,’ who commands his son to jump from a bridge.”

Like Singer and Gallo, Atlas was (is?) a Bellowolator. “Writing your life is like writing the rise and fall of civilization,” he told Bellow at one point. “I was his worshipful subject—except when I was an apostate.” He adds, parenthetically, “There must have been some middle ground, but I never managed to find it.”

Atlas remarks in his memoir that Boswell “set up situations to ‘incite’—his word—Johnson to speech.” Boswell-like, Atlas incited Bellow. In 1994, he picked out a section of a forthcoming memoir by Brent Staples, a member of the New York Times editorial board, for publication in the New York Times Sunday magazine, where he was an editor. When Staples was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he had loved Bellow’s work, even knew passages of it by heart, but thought that the novelist had a stereotypical view of African Americans as violent criminals, epitomized by the famous mugger in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Staples was understandably agitated by the constant fearful reactions of whites to a black man as he walked through Hyde Park. Stalking Bellow, he wondered whether the novelist would see him as a mugger. Staples fantasized about what would happen: “Perhaps I’d lift him bodily and pin him against a wall . . . I wanted to trophy his fear.” He patrolled the streets of Hyde Park for weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of Bellow. Finally, the Nobel laureate appeared, and sure enough he glanced back nervously and quickened his step when Staples got closer to him.

The Times excerpt from Staples’s book spurred a furor about Bellow’s alleged racism. The charge stung him, since Staples seemed to be ignoring some significant evidence. The Dean’s December showed a profound concern with the hellish situation of Chicago’s black underclass and, Bellow pointed out, the book’s most admirable characters were African American.

Atlas recounted Bellow’s perplexed reaction to the episode: “Why didn’t Brent just come see him, instead of tailing him?” “I felt for Bellow what the young Charlie Citrine had felt for Von Humboldt Fleisher,” Staples said. “I wanted to be near him—but not too near.” When Bellow died, Staples wrote a laudatory obituary of him for the Times, omitting the stalking episode and saying that he’d learned from Bellow “how books were put together.” “It was strange to think that he would soon be dead for all eternity,” an “inconceivable event,” Atlas mused while visiting the 80-something Bellow in Vermont. Atlas was right. It is strange that this most responsive of writers, so turned on by and so tuned in to the world’s details, won’t ever respond again to anything or anyone, including the readers who followed him around, literally and figuratively, hoping to see, or be, Saul Bellow themselves. Bellow lives on, superbly, in Leader’s biography, but even more in his best books, with their hotheads, ravenous talkers, and agitated, high-minded seekers: Humboldt, Herzog, Ravelstein.

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