The Long, Unhappy Life of Saul Bellow

Article excerpt

... one has to have a less than admirable character to be a fiction writer.

--Saul Bellow

The most penetrating literary criticism I know of the novelist Saul Bellow was made in my presence by my dear friend Edward Shils one afternoon in his apartment in Hyde Park. Edward had been reading, in manuscript, a portion of James Atlas's biography of Bellow. He put down Atlas's pages, and, with his fondess for extended metaphors, said to me: "You know, Joseph, Mr. Atlas will only grasp the true nature of Saul Bellow when he understands that our friend Saul, had he been allowed to sit for two hours in the lap of the Queen of England, would, when told by the Queen that she must now attend to her official duties, though she much enjoyed their visit, freshly emerge from the Queen's lap with two observations: first, that the Queen had no understanding whatsoever of the condition of the modern artist, and, second, that she was an anti-Semite."

Edward and Saul went back a ways. In 1962, two years before the publication of Herzog, Edward arranged for Saul to be made a member of the faculty of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. That same year Saul wrote to his friend John Berryman, "I love Edward Shils." Edward had contributed much to the composition of Mr. Sammler's Planet, chiefly to the cosmopolite character of Arthur Sammler, or so people who have seen the novel in manuscript have told me. When Edward told Saul that he did not require many friends, Saul wrote back, "you have a friend in me, I assure you."

Saul, with whom I used to play racquetball, introduced me to Edward in 1972. By that time their relationship had already begun to fray. These men were two of the greatest put-down artists in the country, and, of course, they regularly practiced their art, if still behind the other's back, upon each other. For a spell, I was an amused recipient of this slightly toxic banter. Of a Wednesday morning I might get a call from Saul, asking what I had been doing. When I mentioned having dinner the night before with Edward, who was something of a gourmand, Saul asked, "Ah, does he still have a leather palate?" Half an hour later, Edward would telephone, and, after I told him I had just spoken with Saul, remark: "Have you ever noticed that Saul is the kind of Jew [Edward was himself Jewish] who wears his hat in the house, and when he wants to talk seriously seats himself in a kitchen chair turned backwards to do so?" When Saul stayed at Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf's country retreat in East Sussex, and complained in a letter about the heating and other arrangements, Edward said: "Why did he go there in the first place? But that's our Saul; houses, women, if it's for nothing, he takes it."

Saul felt Edward did not treat him as an equal, and thought he was sitting in judgment on him and finding him wanting. He was, I fear, right about the latter. Edward thought little of Saul's choices of female company and was less than admiring of his taste for low-life. He thought him a lazy teacher, who didn't get anywhere near the most out of his graduate students and in later years he did what he could to foil Saul's attempts to get jobs on the Committee on Social Thought for his former lady friends. "I refuse to allow him to use the Committee," Edward told me, "as a rest home for his old nafkes." In the 1980s, he mocked Saul's forays into the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. "If there's a bad idea out there--Trotskyism, Reichism, Steinerism--leave it to our friend Saul to swallow it."

Things grew worse between them. I had ceased to see Saul, for reasons that shall be made plain presently. Edward, who was five years older than Saul but looked much younger, began to refer to him as "the old gentleman." Edward once showed me a note Saul had written him describing him as "wicked," a word choice that caused him to chuckle. Then, in his early eighties, Edward was struck by cancer. After two long bouts with chemotherapy, nothing more could be done. …