George Hodgman
November 03, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season
James Atlas
Random House
Nonfiction, Biography

We gave it an A

”I wouldn’t dream of writing my own autobiography,” Nobel winner Saul Bellow once declared. ”There would be nothing much to say except that I have been unbearably busy ever since I was circumcised.” But, not surprisingly, there is a lot to say about the curmudgeonly 85-year-old author of such novels as Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and this year’s Ravelstein. And the pleasure of James Atlas’ biography Bellow is that he lets the windy, cranky Chicagoan say so much himself. ”My character is like a taste in my mouth,” Bellow wrote to a friend in 1975. ”I’ve tasted better tastes.” Readers may not agree. Atlas shows that Bellow being Bellow — vainglorious, unpretentious, and never monogamous — is a better read than anything almost anyone else could dream up. Bellow talks (and lives) just as he writes. Women writers who put feminism before literature are castigated for ”wearing their ovaries on their sleeves.” Mary McCarthy, one of the few women the five-times-married Bellow didn’t want to sleep with, is dubbed ”a devoradora des hombres.” Advising William (Ironweed) Kennedy, Bellow intones: ”Don’t be afraid to write a lot…. Think of all those sperm: Only one is needed to create a life.” Unearthing Bellow’s wit and engaging storytelling after years of burial under the praise of existentialists, Swedes, and others is the greatest gift Atlas gives his entertaining subject. A

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