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Bellow: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – February 5, 2002
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Bellow fans won't be surprised by the details of Bellow's 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 Bellow's lively, fictionalized accounts with a helpful amount of historical background.
Atlas is also very good at establishing parallels between the tone of Bellow's novels and his mood at the time of writing them. Often the two are so closely intertwined it's not clear which came first: the freewheeling style of The Adventures of Augie March, for example, or the exhilarating period in Bellow's 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 cuckold's outrage that inspired Herzog, the fame and loss that pervade Humboldt's Gift, the despair of The Dean's 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 subject's 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 Bellow's character flaws (such as Bellow's 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 Bellow's fiction in a kind of context. Bellow might not inspire a complete rethinking of Bellow's work, but it's a compelling reminder of its many pleasures. --John Ponyicsanyi --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
This is a slightly odd biography in the sense that it will really, I think, most appeal to readers who pick and choose their fiction based more on the quality of the individual work, rather than those who have invested terms or years studying or teaching a particular author-personality - the most committed Bellow's fans will not like it, but those more detached will find this a very enjoyable and enlightening read. Newcomers to Bellow may wish to read a couple of his early, short books, before deciding if the later, more controversial novels, or this biography, are for them. I thought it a great read.
There have been comparisons already to Richard Ellman's work on James Joyce. Of course, Ellman's Joyce bio is a towering monument of scholarship and perhaps a harder book to write, but that is also a harder book to READ and not nearly as much fun as this one. I would compare Atlas's Bellow to Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf, also a very fun book and a book that is both a passionate defense and an exasperated apology for its subject.
Now, I am not necessarily comparing Bellow and Woolf except to say they are both prickly and deep. Like Bell, Atlas has the advantage of knowing his subject personally and like Bell, is not above occasionally letting his frustration show. Bellow is not an easy man to like, or even tolerate, but his gifts are prodigious and Atlas never resorts to bitter stereotypes.
This is a book written with a deep sense of the American vernacular. There are currents of Chicago-ese, Canadian, and Yiddish running through it in a delightful mix. Atlas writes a very clear, lucid style and quotes from Bellow's letters and unpublished manuscripts freely.
It is hard to imagine a Stanely Elkin or a Philip Roth without first a Saul Bellow. This book is a great introduction to the Nobel laureate's work.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” Thus muses the hero of Saul Bellow’s sixth novel in that book’s memorable opening line. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Tom Cummings
Wonderful biography - personal and societal history. A page turner and a delight to read.Published 12 months ago by urban elder
Excellent biography. Well-written, and it does not deserve the criticism that it depicted Bellow in a negative light. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Horatio
The biography is a marvelous journey. I was first turned on to Bellow when I picked up a paperback copy of Humboldt's gift about 30 years ago. Read morePublished on February 1, 2013 by Michael G. Steele
This is an enormously readable, brilliantly written Life of Saul Bellow. It beautifully fulfills the main requirment of a biography, that it bring its subject back to life. Read morePublished on November 18, 2012 by Richard Robertson
Why on earth was this book published in the first place? It is clear from the off that James Atlas has a grudge against Saul Bellow - based on no other reason that he is bitterly... Read morePublished on June 23, 2007 by Sirin
I thought that I would love this book because I love the work of Bellow,and love literary biographies. But the book proved to be too much of a good thing. Read morePublished on November 28, 2004 by Shalom Freedman
For some reason many of the authors we read are very interesting people, more interesting then the books they write. Dickens and Hemingway to name just a few. Read morePublished on December 25, 2002 by Kim F. Hill
Everyone who loves Bellow will need to read this book. It is breathtaking in its thoroughness. It is a very detailed, masterful description of Bellow's life and work, though... Read morePublished on June 14, 2001 by Werner Cohn