Saul Bellow was a complicated father to his three sons. In a new book, the eldest tries to parse his inheritance.
If one did not wish to be fixated, in the 1960s, on the implications of urban decay—the cause that birthed neo-conservatism, at the time an almost exclusively ex-Trotskyite phenomenon—it would still be difficult to describe the politics inherent in that passage, if only in embryonic form, as other than “honestly come by.” Everything there is to know about Bellow—both the man and the writer—is in it and in the fact that Herzog is sent on this mental detour while in bed, waiting for his mistress to return from her pre-coital preparations, “quivering” with “wild internal disorder.” Writers should engage in politics, Chekhov said, only enough to protect themselves from politics. The line between public and private is indeed quite blurry, Greg reluctantly concludes, neglecting to note that a main theme of Herzog, and much of Bellow’s work, is precisely that this is not such a good thing.
It’s thorny work, a critic putting a therapist on the couch. But so is a therapist writing a memoir about his famous father. Saul used literature to access what Augie March calls “the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy.” Greg preferred psychoanalysis, for which his father had only disdain, judging by his satirical play The Last Analysis (1964) and his comment, here quoted, that Greg had made a career out of his own childhood misery—a nasty dig given that Saul was as much the author of that misery as he was of his novels. Each one’s regard for the other’s method of introspection was marked by mutual misunderstanding and fear: Greg writes that his father possibly disliked his expertise in psychology because he “anticipated that I’d use my understanding of him in a public account,” just a few pages after criticizing his father’s use of people he knew in life as thinly veiled characters in fiction, calling himself a “minor victim” of this “crime.” Unfortunately for the success of his memoir, Greg’s pain from being left outside his father’s study door seems to have created an alienation from Saul’s work that is most excruciatingly—indeed, one might add, subconsciously—apparent when he calls his father a “literary lion,” without any hint of how clichéd and inorganic that sounds, especially when coming from a son.
In his closing words of the 92Y Tribeca talk, Greg noted, with shrugging disapproval, that his father “felt a duty of truth to his readers that was stronger than to his family,” but indicated he still didn’t understand or accept this about his father. Perhaps he can’t be expected to. “All significant human business is transacted inside,” was Saul’s lesson to Greg, who doesn’t seem to have forgiven his father for it being true.
Interestingly, Greg, Adam, and Daniel all seem to believe that much of the psychological drama in the Bellow family—among Saul’s siblings and his sons—can be attributed to birth order. So, it may be helpful to note here that Bellow’s fame, already growing after The Adventures of Augie March, exploded after the publication of Herzog in 1964—the same year Daniel, his youngest son, was born. By the time the newly rich writer, urged by his third wife, moved into a fancy co-op on Lake Michigan, Greg already possessed enough of what he thought were his own opinions to dislike the white plush carpets, the 11 rooms “filled with fancy furniture and modern art.” Reminding the reader he was “raised by a frugal mother and a father who had no steady income,” Greg says that he “found the trappings of wealth in their new apartment so repellent that I complained bitterly to Saul,” who replied that he didn’t care about the new shiny things so long as he could still write—which he could. “As I always had, I accepted what he said about art at face value,” Greg admits, but he stopped visiting the new place. After the marriage deteriorated and Saul moved out, 3-year-old Daniel, in the words of ex-child-therapist Greg, “took to expressing his distress” by peeing on the carpets. “I have to admit that the yellow stains on them greatly pleased me,” Greg writes—for once showing off the Bellovian touch.
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