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Bellow: A Biography James Atlas

Bellow: A Biography

James Atlas

Published
ISBN : 9780571143566
686 pages
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 About the Book 

James Atlas is a little self-conscious about having spent 10 years writing Bellow: A Biography, but its hard to imagine how the job could have been done any more quickly. Clearly Bellow, in addition to being one of the 20th centurys most acclaimedMoreJames Atlas is a little self-conscious about having spent 10 years writing Bellow: A Biography, but its hard to imagine how the job could have been done any more quickly. Clearly Bellow, in addition to being one of the 20th centurys most acclaimed and prolific novelists, was also one of the most peripatetic. Not the least of his maneuvers were his efforts to dodge biographers, though Atlass determination eventually wore him down (He realized that you werent going away, Bellows son tells Atlas). The result is a full-scale biography in the tradition of Richard Ellmanns James Joyce--in other words, the biography that a writer and cultural figure as important as Saul Bellow deserves. Bellow fans wont be surprised by the details of Bellows life, many of which are familiar from his novels and essays: youthful Trotsky clubs- waiting to be called up into WWII- lifelong enthusiasm for anthropology, philosophy, European literature, and other Great Books- sarcastic wit that verges on the malicious- friendships and rivalries with Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Edward Shils, Allan Bloom, Ralph Ellison, and other literati- innumerable wives, lovers, divorce lawyers, child-custody battles, and alimony struggles- big-shot brothers who disparage intellectuals- and of course, his beloved city of Chicago. Atlas, himself a Chicago native from the generation behind Bellow, covers all of this with patience and considerable authority, balancing Bellows lively, fictionalized accounts with a helpful amount of historical background.Atlas is also very good at establishing parallels between the tone of Bellows novels and his mood at the time of writing them. Often the two are so closely intertwined its not clear which came first: the freewheeling style of The Adventures of Augie March, for example, or the exhilarating period in Bellows life that accompanied it. (The book just came to me, Bellow wrote. All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.) Similar parallels include the Flaubertian perfectionism of the early novels, the cuckolds outrage that inspired Herzog, the fame and loss that pervade Humboldts Gift, the despair of The Deans December, and the senescent recollection of The Actual and Ravelstein.In a preface, Atlas, who is also the editor of the Penguin Lives biography series, describes the most discerning biographies as those imbued with a profound sympathy for their subjects foibles and failings--imbued, to put it plainly, with love. One suspects that Atlas began this biographer-subject marriage with more love than remained when he finished- his disappointment with Bellows character flaws (such as Bellows tendency to portray himself as a blameless victim and his stubbornly anachronistic attitude toward women) is palpable. But his criticism of Bellow the man is always measured, and it has the nice effect of placing some of the more unsavory elements of Bellows fiction in a kind of context. Bellow might not inspire a complete rethinking of Bellows work, but its a compelling reminder of its many pleasures. --John Ponyicsanyi