Peer Review: Front Row Seats
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964
By Zachary Leader
Some books get reviewed everywhere. They are set apart as cultural landmarks in advance. Typically, they suggest a number of angles so irresistible to critics that by the end of the season half a dozen new clichés have been born by the sheer force of concentrated repetition. Zachary Leader’s authorized biography of Saul Bellow is such a book. The first thing about it that seemingly no critic can avoid mentioning is—surprisingly—its length.
In the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus complains that “the nearly 650 pages of [the] text feel longer.” In The New York Review of Books Nathaniel Rich was so impressed by the enormity of the book that he included the bibliography and index in his count, which is “more than eight hundred closely printed pages.” And, he noted somewhat plaintively, “it is just the first of two volumes.”
Actually, Leader’s book is not unreasonably long for the biography of a famous, long-lived, and copiously documented man. But you wouldn’t know it from the tone of most of its reviews. The most curious thing about the critical obsession with size this time around is that it’s treated as a flaw. Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker that, “not the best thing about the book is the length.”
He thinks it’s too long because Leader tries to do too much:
He has to keep three balls in the air at once: the biographical story, an interpretation of the fiction as autobiography, and a consideration of the fiction as fiction. That’s why his book is so long.
Another critic, Ruth Franklin, also pathologizes the book’s size, but for a different reason. “There are several options,” she writes in Harper’s, “for a biographer who comes to his or her subject second.” Leader is the second authorized biographer of Saul Bellow after James Atlas. So:
One [option] is to pretend that the first biography does not exist, and to say as little about it as possible. This will not work, however, if the first biographer has access to information or interviewees, as Atlas did, who are not available to the second. Another is to write a short book that makes no pretense to comprehensiveness but instead advances an original argument. A third possibility is to attempt to overwhelm the first biographer, stunning him or her into submission with a bewildering spray of evidence, quotations, and assertion. This last is the path chosen by Leader.
In these two diagnoses of Leader’s ostensible excess, we meet two of the more serious topics — or at least more serious than, “this book is long!” – on which reviewers have been converging: the problem posed by the roman à clef and the comparison of two radically different styles of biography.
If anything good comes from a cultural happening like the publication of an unignorable book, it is this: widespread discussion of aesthetic and moral issues, at length, in high-profile venues. Let’s take stock of this rare moment of public discourse. Let’s review the reviewers.
American critics seem tirelessly interested in the “problem” of the autobiographical novel. In a country where the mainstream tradition is one of autobiographical realism, this makes sense. In different ways and for different reasons, writers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth force us to consider how far we are supposed to treat their novels as autobiographies. To provoke such questions is part of their technique. Even writers somewhat less obviously autobiographical, like John Updike, prove to have been transcribers of life. (This was one of the surprises of Louis Begley’s recent biography of Updike.)
Bellow was, if not the fount, at least one of the foremost practitioners of this strain of autobiographical fiction. Most of his protagonists are obvious shades of himself, and he infamously wrote his friends into his books.
So what is the “problem” posed by such fiction? Abraham Socher, in The Jewish Review of Books expresses it well:
On the one hand it is hard to wring new insight from situations and events that Bellow described and thought through so deeply, repeatedly, and vividly in his fiction. On the other, it is easier to correlate the life and the art when the novelist in question approaches fiction as “the higher autobiography.”
Leader seems to find the autobiographical content of Bellow’s stories more of an opportunity than a problem. He adopts the simple expedient of quoting Bellow’s fiction wherever it seems likely to have been based on someone he knew or something he experienced.
The critics mostly disapprove. But they disapprove for opposite reasons. In The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz argues that Leader has done something too obvious:
The urge to poach such vivid portraiture must have been hard to resist, and Leader’s borrowings provide an excellent introduction to Bellow’s world. But they also pose an epistemological problem. Biography by way of emphatic identification works when we don’t know how the subject experienced his life, but Bellow shared that information in abundance. What we don’t know are the things he wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal, and what we crave is a wider view than his one-point perspective allows us.
Why, Shulevitz wonders, do we even need a biography when it’s just reprising the content of Bellow’s own books? Surely the point is to tell us more about an author than their own books already do. This is unfair to Leader, since it implies that his research involved little beyond annotating a timeline of Bellow’s life with excerpts from the novels. But the larger point remains telling: what can the patchwork citations of a biographical quilt really add to the original work of an autobiographical novelist?
But perhaps Shulevitz misses the point of literary biography. Ruth Franklin would probably say so, because
The essential difficulty of writing the life of any fiction writer is to understand the ways in which the substance of a life is transmuted into art.
Or, in other words, the connections between life and fiction that Shulevitz wishes Leader had dispensed with, Franklin takes to be the very subject of literary biography.
Still, Franklin doesn’t like how Leader handled things either: “a true biography must be an almost alchemical fusing of the imagination and the life, in all its category-shattering complexity.” Simply identifying story characters with real people, as Leader does, short-sells the complexity of literature. It’s about as useful as knowing the alchemist started with lead and ended with gold. How did he do it?
But one has to wonder whether the process Franklin calls the biographer to explain is really explicable at all. Writers themselves often claim to despise the question “where do you get your ideas?” They can’t explain the process, and they have front row seats. So how can a biographer hope to do better?
The complaint that Leader, with all his details, all his length, somehow fails to get at the essence of Bellow hinges upon another point, a point at once more contentious and more interesting that the problem of autobiographical fiction.
Biography’s double nature is written in its name: the graphe of a bios, the writing of a life. Each biographer must choose to be more faithful to writing or life, to narrative form or chaotic abundance. We have a dramatic representation of that choice in the comparison between Zachary Leader’s biography and the earlier biography of Saul Bellow by James Atlas. Atlas is a very good story-teller. His biography is as readable, in places, as a novel. Leader is a scholar of lives, meticulous and comprehensive. His biography is a veritable reference work. To judge in favor of one or the other is to make a claim about the proper nature of biography.
Another point of comparison exists between the two biographies. In addition to their stylistic and methodological differences, Leader and Atlas differ in sympathy. In a memoir-cum-review in New York Magazine, Lee Siegel tells us that,
Orchestrated by Bellow’s executor, literary superagent Andrew Wylie […] this massive life by Leader, also Wylie’s client, is transparently meant as a corrective to the authorized biography published by Atlas in 2000, which presented Bellow as a racist and a woman-hater, among other things, and accelerated Bellow’s fall from literary grace.
Atlas’s biography released a storm of acrimony. When it was published James Wood and Siegel himself denounced it. Siegel writes:
Where Atlas meanly dwells on Bellow’s minor failures—a short-lived literary magazine, several unsuccessful plays—Leader rightly celebrates his triumphs. Where Atlas resentfully interprets Bellow’s characters as reflections of their author’s narcissism, Leader gratifyingly shows how Bellow transformed his personal limitations into liberating art.
So on one hand we have a biography written out of dislike, and decried by its subject’s acolytes; on the other, a biography suggested by its subject’s agent, and greeted as a vindication by his proponents.
Nearly everyone agrees – and I do too – that Atlas’s biography is more readable than Leader’s. It has the propulsion of a plot. So the question becomes, as Nathaniel Rich puts it, “does the tremendous accumulation of detail [in Leader’s biography] get us any closer to ‘the heart of the thing’?”
In his excellent long essay in The New York Review of Books, Rich complicates the simple dichotomy of graphe and bios by suggesting that a certain kind of writing—the kind Bellow himself, for example, was a master of—gets at more of life than a pedantic, unformed rehearsal of all the details. The story-teller’s art grasps essence where the scholar’s chronicling loses itself in existence. On this count, it seems that Leader fails, having given us an accumulation of details unlikely to be surpassed, but failing the mystical task of getting to the heart of things.
Franklin complains that
Leader devotes exhaustive analysis to determining whether the apartment building in which Bellow grew up—a building that no longer exists—stood at 3245, 3246, 3340, or 3342 Le Moyne Street. We are told which courses Bellow took in college, all of them, and the grades he received.
The result of all this over-the-top microscopy, according to Tanenhaus in the NYT, is that “Leader’s biography is less a refutation of Atlas’s than a giant footnote to it.”
All these reviewers imply that a life has a kind of essence that can be captured by fine writing and that, apart from this achievement, biographical details remain essentially superfluous. I would like to pose an alternative.
The “essence” that makes a novel or novelistically readable biography so easy to digest, so seemingly penetrating, is the artful lie at its heart, the plot. But plot, when a writer purports to find it in real life, is a willed blindness, a way of seeing certain things as teleologically related when they exist in an actually undifferentiated fabric of events. The image of life implied by plot appears beautiful, unified, and meaning-giving; but it is not the only way to represent life, nor is it necessarily the best. A biographer can also eschew the manufacture of essences in favour of pursuing the messiness of existence. Sometimes and for certain purposes this is preferable. We need biographies like Leader’s: biographies which, for all their pedantic comprehensiveness, for all their oh-so-tedious length, leave the reader with a sense of the incomprehensible richness of the unplotted vagaries of a life, biographies where the only shape the narrative takes derives from the natural arc of birth to death.
Leader’s big, neutral tome is like a block of marble from which future Bellowphiles can carve the Bellow they want and need to find, undistracted by prejudiced hot-takes and posthumous enemies. This feature of the book guarantees its longevity. It is a book written for the next generation of Bellow’s readers, not for the last. Rich, aware of this, writes about what will attract future readers to Bellow:
As Bellow’s contemporaries age out, the controversies over the representation of real people in his novels, so central to Leader’s biography and its predecessors, will lose their fascination. (I suspect they already have for most of Bellow’s younger readers.) If Bellow continues to be read, it will be for the exuberant prose, the rigorous wrestling with ideas, and the exquisitely vivid evocation of the eras and places that he occupied.
I believe Leader’s book itself can accommodate this transition. In fact I know so, since I came to the biography as an eager reader of Bellow knowing next to nothing about his life, and found it a rich supplement. But most of the extensive critical reception has taken the opposite tack. The sheer size, meticulousness, even difficulty of the book should remove it from the realm of polemic, of condemnation and vindication of Bellow the man, where so many of the cognoscenti—the critics, by definition—want to place it. In Vanity Fair, Martin Amis writes his hope for what this biography can do in years to come.
The really fit biography should duplicate and dramatize a process familiar to us all. You lose, let us say, a parent of a beloved mentor. Once the primary reactions, both universal and personal, begin to fade, you no longer see the reduced and simplified figure, compromised by time—and in Bellow’s case encrusted with secondhand “narratives,” platitudes, and approximations. You begin to see the whole being, in all its freshness and quiddity.
That really sums it up: in this book you will get quiddity, not a narrative; a reference book, not a novel.