Saul Bellow's Heart

By Martin, Cameron | The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Saul Bellow's Heart


Martin, Cameron, The Christian Science Monitor


Saul Bellow's eldest son is a retired psychoanalyst, a profession that suited him because he was "able to relate to boys who suffered broken hearts," Greg Bellow writes in Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir.

The emotional anguish Greg suffered in childhood was the result of a father who pursued "a life where everything and everyone was subordinated to art," who engaged in "epic philandering" that contributed to the dissolution of four marriages and drove a wedge between him and his firstborn child.

But Greg Bellow's memoir is not a bitter screed about an absentee father who cared more about fictional creations than real people. It's a balanced expose of a Nobel Prize-winning author whose memorable, fallible narrators (including in "The Adventures of Augie March," "Herzog," and "Henderson the Rain King") closely resemble Saul Bellow at various stages of his emotional and intellectual lives.

"My father's novels are full of well-meaning friends, lawyers, schemers, and advisers brimming with helpful solutions for a series of narrators. Like Saul, his narrators usually ignore the advice and follow their own misguided efforts, which draw them into a destructive vortex."

Bellow's oeuvre has been examined many times by literary critics and biographers, but his son has unique insights into the author's heart, born of long conversations over many years about topics that a less liberal parent would have avoided.

"Beginning in my adolescence, when the two of us were alone, my father would inquire after what he termed my inner life. Initially I was a bit confused, but soon realized he was asking me to consider whether or not I was content with myself. This began a regular dialogue we came to call 'real conversations.'... they became a regular feature of our time together."

The relationship between Greg and Saul is informed by Saul's difficult relationship with his own father, Abraham, whose "failure to earn an adequate income aggravated his already volatile temper. He often blamed parenthood for his impoverishment and gave each of his boys a whack to cover their presumed sins when he got home from a day of hard work."

Abraham thought Saul was emotionally soft, and he pressured his youngest son to enter the family's coal business.

"When Saul resisted, Abraham derided him and his bookish friends with a vacuous tongue. …

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