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Settling old scores: Saul Bellow’s Heart

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Pictured – Greg Bellow as a toddler in his father’s arms

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow    Bloomsbury    $26.99

Greg Bellow first heard of his father, Saul Bellow’s, death on the car radio. The media were informed before the family. At Saul Bellow’s funeral, the eulogies were given by luminaries such as author Martin Amis, Bellow’s literary “son”, but none of his own three sons were asked to contribute. Over the ensuing weeks, tributes flowed incessantly from writers, such as Philip Roth, who had been mentored by Bellow and by his many friends. So orchestrated were these testaments of public grief, that Greg Bellow wondered: “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart is a poignant cri de coeur of what it was like growing up in the shadow of that huge literary presence, and monumental ego. It’s a commonplace that just because you may be a great writer, you are not necessarily a great human being. Greg Bellow’s warts-and-all account of his father is refreshingly honest. Life was not easy with a man who was affectionate and easy to love but who expected much and often gave little in return. Greg Bellow recounts the many hours he spent as a child waiting for his father to finish writing in his locked study after being promised an outing that never eventuated. Saul’s Bellow’s gravestone simply states he was a “Writer”, not that he was also a “father”. Reading between the lines, it’s clear Greg Bellow ruefully understands where Saul’s priorities lay.

For a long time, Greg Bellow tried to separate his father’s public and private personae. This was partly out of respect for Saul’s privacy but also his own peace of mind. The older son of Saul Bellow’s first marriage, Greg’s early years were spent out of the spotlight, as his father struggled to write. But after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Saul Bellow’s star rose. By the time Herzog was published in 1964, he was not only world-famous but hailed by Time magazine as an icon of American literature. As Martin Amis wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize win in 1976 cemented his greatness.

For Greg, Saul’s rise to international prominence saw him change from the “young Saul” – warm, left-leaning, bohemian, tolerant – to “old Saul” – grumpy, conservative, arrogant and reactionary. It was the time of anger and recrimination. Greg, who had absorbed tolerance and liberalism in his childhood from both parents, could not accept “old Saul’s” right-wing views and the two were estranged for a time. Greg was also furious that Saul did not attend the marriage of his own granddaughter, Greg’s daughter Juliet. It was only later that he realised Saul was trying to cover up the muddle-headness that was besetting him in old age and did not wish to make a public appearance. Though reconciled at the end, their relationship was frequently a bumpy one.

This is also a memoir of justification – Greg is very keen to point out his own financial independence (he was a successful psychotherapist for over 40 years).  This is particularly relevant in view of his complex family history: Saul Bellow married five times. There were sons from the first three marriages, and a daughter with his last wife, Janis, forty years his junior. Janis became the executor of Saul’s estate after his death in 2005 and unpleasant family feuds and legal battles ensued amongst the siblings. Greg makes it clear he wanted no part in this and that he loved his father for himself alone. Part of the rationale for writing this book was to put forward his own personal view of a brilliant and difficult man.

There are many anecdotes in this memoir that shed light on Bellow’s personality: crying in the car after yet another row with his own father; the spirited, extended family dinners with everyone speaking Yiddish and talking at once; even the amusing snapshot of Saul’s sister falling asleep during the Nobel Prize ceremony, so interminably long were the speeches. Yet Greg Bellow never reconciles himself to the fact that as a public figure, his father was shared by many others, and this memoir quivers frequently on the verge of resentment.

This, then, is his final judgement of his father: “He was a man who lived for a singular creative purpose; a man who struggled with his deepest emotions; an author touched with literary genius; an authority with wisdom to impart; a father recently passed away; a father largely absent but emotionally present; and a man, father, and husband who promised more than he could deliver. And I was his little boy: a boy who felt deeply cared about; a grown son deeply influenced by the kind of love he received; and a man wrestling with the challenges of relating to a difficult father who walked away from shared family ideals.”

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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work