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Bellow: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – February 5, 2002

3.7 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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James Atlas is a little self-conscious about having spent 10 years writing Bellow: A Biography, but it's hard to imagine how the job could have been done any more quickly. Clearly Bellow, in addition to being one of the 20th century's 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 Atlas's determination eventually wore him down ("He realized that you weren't going away," Bellow's son tells Atlas). The result is a full-scale biography in the tradition of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce--in other words, the biography that a writer and cultural figure as important as Saul Bellow deserves.

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

Atlas took on the difficult Delmore Schwartz and got a National Book Award nomination for this troubles. Now he takes on Bellow.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library (February 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375759581
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375759581
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #890,773 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I am a Bellow fan, and aware of the upset this book caused with some, but thought Atlas's critique was very often on the mark. Bellow's early, short, novels are tightly-written, well-constructed American classics of alieanation - Dangling Man, Seize the Day and The Victim, for example. But Atlas zeroes in on the problems of the later, longer books that too often make up the core of university teaching lists - these longer books start off brilliantly, then pad out with a hundred extra pages or so of name-dropping and bizarre philosophizing (some of which belongs in the Chariots of the Gods category), and I think Atlas is right when he says Bellow's early, impoverished immigrant background left him with a strong desire to show off intellectually later in life, to the detriment of his work. Perhaps in his early days Bellow was insecure in a different way, in the right way, not allowing himself any self-indulgence in his early work and thus pulling off the indisputable classics that Dangling Man, et al, are.
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.
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Format: Hardcover
Actually, this is two books combined and correlated within a singlevolume. The first is probably the best biography of Bellow we canexpect unless and until he agrees to work closely with someoneelse. In that event, I suspect, the results would not be of the samehigh quality because Bellow (consciously or unconsciously) wouldmanipulate the material and the presentation of it with an intellectand a willpower few other persons possess. The second is acomprehensive analysis of his canon and I think it isfirst-rate. Others far better qualified than I may challenge some ofthe various analyses but they certainly are sufficient to my needs. Irank Bellow among the greatest American novelists of anycentury. Frankly, I was astonished when reading Ravelstein to findthat in this immensely complicated work, Bellow seems to be inhis prime. How can that possibly be true at his age and after all thathe has personally experienced for so many decades? Long ago, Whitmansaid "I am large. I contain multitudes." The same can be said ofBellow. Whatever anyone may think of his personal life as it hasevolved through the years, through marriages and divorces, throughfriendships gained and lost, no one (at least anyone with anyintelligence and taste) can deny his stature as a literary artist ofthe very highest rank. I am deeply grateful to James Atlas for hissubstantial contributions to my understanding and appreciation ofBellow.
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By A Customer on October 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Many reviewers are comparing this pleasant but uninspiring biography to Richard Ellmann's masterful biography of James Joyce, which bugs me. There's no comparison. The Atlas book is competently written but lacks...I don't know, affect, sensibility, a complex and rewarding attitude toward its subject. Great biographies, whether by people like Boswell or by Ellmann, filter the data of someone's life through someone else's consciousness. It's not necessarily done overtly, but great biographers somehow convey a general moral, aesthetic, and even spiritual understanding and appraisal of their subjects. (There was a great biography of Eugene O'Neill that came out a few decades back that, like Boswell's and Ellmann's work, managed to achieve this.) I'm not talking about vulgar "pathographies" here, but rather accounts of brilliant lives that offer a comprehensive portrait of work and person, and that do not hestitate to condemn as well as praise. Atlas seems strangely repressed in regard to Bellow. Clearly he does not like him, and his dislike seems warranted; and yet he does not follow through on this dislike with a discussion of, say, the way in which many great artists are humanity-challenged precisely by virtue of the tendency toward detachment and emotional cannibalism, if you will, that constitutes their peculiar mode of being. The Atlas biography reads, to me, like a "first" biography of Bellow - one written in the midst of his unfinished life and work, and therefore tentative - without the dimension of tragic summation, for instance, that Ellmann's (written after Joyce's death) had. Bellow, as he's the first to admit, is a very curious character, one whose life has much to tell us about the loathing of and entrapment by modernity. He will ultimately (posthumously) have a biographer who tackles the themes of his life.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one biography that was really worth the wait. One almost had the impression over the last ten years that, like Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, Atlas was waiting for his character to die so he could be sure of how the story ended. Fortunately, Atlas did not wait and we still have Bellow and this book!
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.
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