L.S. Klepp
April 05, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination

Current Status
In Season
Ruth Miller

We gave it a B

Saul Bellow threatened legal action against this biography by his old friend Ruth Miller and managed to delay its publication. But readers who have been conditioned by a generation of dirt-dishing literary biographers to expect a high standard of drunkenness, dissipation, and madness will be disappointed if they buy the book just because several lawyers have left their fingerprints on it. What Miller gives us is an earnest, sympathetic, awkwardly discerning, and decidedly unearthshaking account of Bellow’s books, with a few dozen pages of his life wedged in. In today’s malodorous biographical climate a reader would have to work hard to raise so much as an eyebrow over the revelation that Bellow has had four wives and as many divorces, with a number of girlfriends along the way.

”I don’t like to be pigeonholed, figured out, analyzed,” Bellow says to Miller in one of their friendly chats, and this is presumably the main reason he objected to the book. Bellow belongs to the honorable club of writers who don’t join clubs, even the ones formed by their own fervent fans. He has, in fact, backed off from anything or anyone trying to lay claim to him — ethnic group (he dislikes being called a ”Jewish writer”), family, friends, wives, critics.

Miller’s patient chronological trudge through Bellow’s books has the virtue of making it impossible to miss the romantic theme that runs through them. His heroes are all on a quest for authenticity and redemption. The early ones like Augie in The Adventures of Augie March want to escape family and convention and plunge into exuberant life, especially erotic adventure; the later, % disillusioned heroes like Artur Sammler in Mr. Sammler’s Planet want (or would like to want) to escape the entanglements of money, success, and sex and attain some sort of purity. If in later books like The Dean’s December the quest becomes too talkative, if contentious exaggeration and reiteration are found where dramatization, image, and understatement would be more artful, you must at least give Bellow credit for being so unfashionably committed to ethical art and spiritual life.

Miller gives him credit, and while she misses much of his philosophical resonance, she also gives him his sense of place. Chicago — Bellow’s ”somber city” — is present in his work even when absent. Like Dreiser, Algren, and other writers shaped by the place, he got from it his hard-boiled contempt for the pretensions of the New York and literary establishments and for mere formal elegance and polish. Above all, he got from it a sense of what the imagination is up against. Having decided to become a writer when he was 10, Bellow trained himself not only in the public libraries but in the streets and pool halls, at prizefights and parks. In his novels, his heroes, their heads in literary and metaphysical clouds, are periodically brought down to earth by cynics and hoodlums who tell them what’s what. If Miller’s book sometimes seems as flat as a bus ride on one of Chicago’s bleaker West Side avenues, it does let us off within a short walk of Bellow’s somber inspiration and luminous achievement.

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