Book review: Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow

GREG Bellow, psychotherapist son of Saul, wondered whether his father disliked his career because it would help Greg see through him, and he might use what he saw publicly.

Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir

by Greg Bellow

Bloomsbury, 240pp, £20

Dad was right about the publicity, though how far his son has understood what he saw is another matter.

Greg was the first child by the first of his father’s five wives, and was desolate when Saul left him at eight years old for his second wife. Before that he had enjoyed his young son. “Point to your ass, now your elbow,” he would say when the boy was a year old. “Now you know more than a Harvard graduate.”

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He kept in touch as his son grew, but, with his peripatetic, womanising father at loggerheads with his mother, it is hardly surprisingly that Greg was in therapy by 18.

His picture of Saul’s background in a striving Jewish family in Chicago (immigrants from Russia, via Canada) complements what we already know ,but with new touches, notably about Saul’s tough patriarch of a father. “Let him die already,” Abraham groaned when Saul’s sick brother kept the family awake with his coughing. Seventy-nine when he died, Abraham was keen to have sex the night before. Saul himself had a daughter when he was 84.

Hard graft and ambition were in the family genes, and while Abraham set up his coal business Saul was quoting from Genesis in Hebrew at four years old. Family feuds were legion, not least over Saul’s refusal to practise his religion. Greg shows how Herzog, Augie March and the rest were often romans à clef.

His father’s infidelities he puts down to his competitive spirit – a smart, good-looking charmer showing how he could play the field – as well as to a “lifelong pattern of selfish conduct”. In the same spirit of vanity, he stopped wearing the decoration the French government had bestowed on him when he heard the same honour had gone to a breeder of pigs.

For Greg there were two Saul Bellows. The first was the one with whom he enjoyed long philosophical discussions, whose bond with his son was “grounded in that softness, in humour, and in the set of egalitarian social values I adopted”. The second was the later “old Saul”, who had abandoned his leftish politics for an emotional hardness, and reactionary views. The result was flaming rows between father and son. It seems not to have occurred to Greg that his father’s abandonment of his Trotskyite illusions might have been sensible, or that his anger at the anti-Semitism of Chicago’s black militants, his objections to the spread of a stultifying political correctness on the campuses, or his defence of “elitist” culture, could have been the natural reactions of a mature, reflective man of letters.

Rancour about the “old Saul” and his friends, notably Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, dominates the last part of the book, together with resentment against Janis Freedman, the last of Saul’s wives. I knew Bellow, and recall his pleasure at an 85th birthday party in New York, surrounded by his family, including his one-year-old daughter. I can’t say this book has enhanced my memory of that occasion, but its family history can illuminate the novels.