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When I met James Atlas in the 1970s, I asked what he was writing. "A biography of Delmore Schwartz," he said. I said that was "interesting." But I was just being polite; I thought Atlas was writing a minor book about a deservedly obscure writer. Then I read Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet -- and was stunned both by all I didn't know about Schwartz and by the expertise of his young biographer.
Since 1977, Atlas has delivered nothing but surprises. For every carefully reasoned literary piece he's published in The New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, there's one about finding himself trapped in New York's upper-middle-class poverty cycle. His novel, The Great Pretender, was about a bright young guy like the author, but it was hardly arcane -- it was, someone said, like Brideshead Revisited mixed with Portnoy's Complaint.
The sacred and the profane have converged again for Atlas in his just-published biography, Saul Bellow. It's a tale of worldly ambition, envy, and philandering -- and of high artistic aspiration and achievement. The combination is addictive, and in The Sunday New York Times Book Review, that's exactly how John Leonard described it: "I could no more stop reading this biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow."
The review in the daily New York Times found that the book, though riveting, left a question unanswered: "Do the many unsettling facts Mr. Atlas unearths about Mr. Bellow's personal life devalue the novels...or does Mr. Bellow's art somehow transcend the life?" As it happens, that's exactly the thrust of my conversation with James Atlas.
Kornbluth: Before you began work on this book, you had a contract to write the authorized biography of Edmund Wilson. You dropped it because you "felt no emotional connection" with your subject. What emotional connection did you feel with Bellow as you began your research?
Atlas: I felt a deep connection. After all, he was from the very same background my parents were from, had grown up in the same world. They're both northwest side of Chicago, Jews from immigrant homes; both attended Northwestern, where Bellow transferred from the University of Chicago. I felt like an anthropologist among the Nambikwara, only my tribe was Chicago Jews. We, too, constitute a particular subgroup, and I wanted to study and make known to a wider public our curious ways. Also, Bellow's work: I read Dangling Man, his first novel, when I was 14, and recognized in it the voice of literature. I thought: So one's own experience is worth writing about. What a revelation!
Kornbluth: Your work on Bellow took a decade. During that period, you were so involved with your subject that there were, you say, "moments when I wondered if I was living my own life at all." But those moments have a half-life. When you finish a book, the spell vanishes. How do you feel about Bellow today?
Atlas: Well, a lot of things: gratitude for existing, to begin with; if he hadn't lived, I wouldn't have gotten to tell his story. As for his work, I think more or less what I did a decade ago: The best of it -- Seize the Day, Herzog, the early "European" novels, maybe even the first half of his latest, Ravelstein -- will last; and that's saying a lot. Some of his work wearies me, but I feel a tolerance for weariness. We ask too much of our writers -- ask them to reinvent themselves over and over, to give us something new all the time. People do what they can with the talents allotted them -- and that goes for genius as well as for the rest of us. Some of his personal failings I could do without: But it was my purpose to record, not to judge.
Kornbluth: Twenty years ago, Philip Roth was the first to encourage you to write a biography of Saul Bellow. And now, just as your book is coming out, he's published a long appreciation of Bellow in The New Yorker. The timing doesn't seem accidental. Roth focuses solely on Bellow's style and literary themes. Your book connects the dots between Bellow's extraordinarily autobiographical novels and his chaotic, not entirely admirable life. Do you suspect that Roth's piece is an implicit criticism of the way you filled the 611 pages of your book?
Atlas: Roth is saying: "Let's take the high road. None of this idle literary gossip. Atlas dabbles in dirty laundry; we're the real lit guys." I don't buy it.
Kornbluth: There's ample evidence that Bellow's interest in philosophical questions is genuine. But one topic seems to be merely intellectual for him: What makes a good man? In your book, he comes across as anything but admirable: five marriages, incessant philandering, etc. Is this a standard-issue demonstration that great art is often made by "bad" men? Or are we wrong to look at Bellow's relations with women through the prism of our contemporary standards?
Atlas: Your question reminds me of my ambition to write a book called "When Good Things Happen to Bad People." Bellow's attitudes toward women are not admirable, certainly, but why should that matter to the rest of us? Because of the way he represents them in his books: We read him to take a measure of what John Berryman called "the stock of available reality," and so we need to know where he's coming from, as it were. That said, I'm inclined to give him a pass on some of his more Neanderthal pronouncements about women; that's how men talked and thought in those days. (Have you ever noticed F. Scott Fitzgerald's or Hemingway's casual anti-Semitism? That's how people saw Jews then.)
Kornbluth: Bellow is famed for his formidable intellect and insight into personality. But in his own life, he could be amazingly dim-witted. I'm thinking of his marriage to Sondra and her affair with Bellow's close friend Jack Ludwig. At one point, Sondra insists that Bellow see a psychiatrist four times a week -- presumably so she and Jack can be together without any chance of detection. And yet Bellow never figured out they were having an affair until his marriage ended. How do you explain such blindness?
Atlas: Doesn't he say somewhere: "Knowing and not knowing: the human way." I paraphrase, having forgotten what I wrote, or quoted; but the notion is that we suffer from massive denial, some more than others. A glib way of looking at Bellow's blindness is to say that he was setting up the situation so that he could write about it. More likely, he was doing the heavy lifting of serious denial -- actually failing to notice. How could this be? The man was -- is -- focused on the writing of his books. The domestic details elude him. Most people try to avoid this kind of pain after a while: The pigeon gets enough shocks, it stops pecking at the ping-pong ball. Bellow shrugs off the pain. He's an artist -- and who knows? -- maybe a masochist into the bargain.
Kornbluth: Bellow told a reporter, "My life is a mess like everyone else's." But as I read your book, that's not quite the case -- Bellow often seems to have created domestic strife in order to generate material for his fiction. Was this conscious?
Atlas: His life was more of a mess than most people's. I'm amazed he had the stamina for it. It does seem a little -- how can I put this? -- literary to view his life as a lab for his work. It's probably more accurate to see his life as secondary to his work. Not the main thing: not to be worked on, labored over, made better, but simply endured while he got on with his work. Those of us who aren't burdened with true genius have a hard time understanding this arrangement of priorities.
Kornbluth: In a novel, Bellow described a thinly disguised character based on Susan Glassman, one of his ex-wives, as a nagging bitch. Later, Glassman wrote an essay about the use of real people in fiction. Her question: At what point is the novelist violating the privacy of the people he uses for inspiration? What do you think: Did Bellow go too far?
Atlas: Sometimes. He settled scores, no doubt about it. On the other hand, he revived, embellished, preserved souls who would have disappeared into the ether. He used his genius for portraiture as a weapon, but also as a paintbrush, making art.
Kornbluth: Bellow, Mailer, Roth -- these are the great living "Jewish novelists." Are they the end of this line?
Atlas: There are still Jews, still novelists, still Jews who write novels, but no more "Jewish novelists." That category is history.
Kornbluth: Has Bellow read the book? If so, what's his reaction?
Atlas: I don't know, and I don't know (and I'm not sure I want to know).
Kornbluth: Bellow is 85. You're 51. Odds favor that you'll outlive him. In an edition of your biography that's published after his death, is there material already in your possession that you'll add?
Atlas: No, the book stands. To me it feels complete.
Jesse Kornbluth, author of six books, is the editorial director of America Online.
Posted March 28, 2004
This is a wonderful literary biography. It tells more than the person wants to know about one of America's great twentieth century writers. As I have read a good share of Bellow , including what are in my opinion, his two great works, 'Seize the Day' and 'Herzog' ,I was a bit surprised by how far sometimes the real Bellow is from the main protagonists of two of his great creations. And in fact the real Bellow at times seems less sympathetic than those faltering,failing heroes. Atlas not simply understands the fiction well he is excellent at portraying the whole network of relationships that made up Bellow's social and intellectual life. The work is thus not simply a story of an individual but a story of the life of the Mind in America through mid- century . A very good book, but very long also and the reader must decide if the details after a while are worth the time and effort .Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.