Robert Fulford's column about James Atlas & Saul Bellow

(The National Post, December 12, 2000)

When he started work, a decade ago, James Atlas, as an experienced literary journalist and author, must have believed that he was more than adequate to the task of writing Saul Bellow's biography, and that performing this work would be arduous but satisfying. At that time there was no way for anyone, least of all Atlas, to know how calamitously wrong these assumptions were. Certainly no one could have guessed that Bellow: A Biography would turn out to be the worst important book of the year 2000.

No one can deny its importance, as the first extensive Life of a great writer, and it contains much useful information about the friends and relatives on whom Bellow based characters. But otherwise it must be the least satisfying of all the significant books of the year. Somehow, the peculiar stance of the biographer crippled and limited his book. Bellow: A Biography smells of hostility, it entirely lacks subtle understanding, and it presents an incomplete and unconvincing account of Bellow's personality.

In the decade he spent studying Bellow, Atlas's attitudes and tastes obviously changed. Where once he saw virtue, he began to see vice. Through a process even Atlas probably couldn't understand, prolonged exposure to the Bellovian world view turned him into the literary equivalent of yet another ex-Mrs. Saul Bellow, eager to find fault and unwilling to forgive. Atlas became an expert on the causes of Bellow's four divorces, not to mention the consequences of many love affairs, but became so caught up in this material that he produced the biography of an artist that says comparatively little about the art -- and almost nothing that is, in critical terms, original.

Atlas treats Bellow more as a neurotic patient to be diagnosed than as a literary subject to be understood. He doesn't explain Bellow; he tries to explain him away. This is a perfect example of what Joyce Carol Oates, a few years ago, labelled "pathography" (yet the dust jacket carries, inexplicably, an endorsement from Oates).

The reader of Bellow: A Biography eventually understands that through some hideous mischance, a great subject has fallen into the hands of the wrong author, and no good can result. One reason is that Atlas practises biography as a form of ambush. Wherever Bellow goes, whatever he says, Atlas stalks him, ready to pounce. When Bellow in 1941 says in a letter that he finds it hard to imagine the reactions of someone reading his work (a difficulty every writer on Earth faces at one time or another), Atlas jumps out of the bushes and starts yammering about what this tells us of Bellow: The man lacks empathy and always has!

Before this particular paragraph ends, Atlas has explained that Bellow's lack of sympathetic understanding extended to all his work and his life as well: "His failure to empathize with others, be they wives or lovers, children or brothers, rivals or friends ... was to limit his achievement and bring him much personal misery."

At another point, when Bellow in mid-life is speculating about the fate of the individual in mass society, Atlas claims that Bellow was really worrying about his own place in the world. He then tops that notion with this gimme-a-break example of vulgar psychologizing: "However large his public reputation, he still felt like the youngest child in the family."

Atlas, like Bellow, is a Jew who grew up in Chicago. If we didn't know that, we would assume he was a Protestant of a peculiarly Puritan type who had blundered across a copy of Freud for Dummies. He's a judger and a blamer who never hesitates to apply pop Freud to any emotion revealed by Bellow, a tendency he perversely combines with the Puritan's nasty habit of turning anything pleasant into a sin.

"Bellow was intensely attractive to women -- and knew it," writes Atlas. This remark appears on page 87, but even that early in the book, the weary reader knows what's coming next. Many consider attractiveness an asset, but not Dr. Atlas: "The narcissistic traits that a succession of psychiatrists diagnosed in him were no doubt fed by this gift from nature -- as was his prose, which suffered at times from an excess of self-delight."

It is a belief of certain Puritans that beauty invites the attention of the Devil. Atlas adds to this the thought that it also leads to bad prose. If only Bellow had been ugly, he might have amounted to something.

In the introduction, Atlas tells us that as a young reader he was captivated by Bellow's great intellectual range, which has always encompassed "the high and the low, Spengler and the pool halls," high culture in the University of Chicago and the life of the gritty streets outside. But 71 pages later this same quality of Bellow's has become a liability, and an offensive one. Atlas now finds Bellow "a culture snob" who crammed his novels with references to great writers and philosophers like Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, etc. This habit, which indeed is central to Bellow, Atlas now calls "a literary tic."

Atlas uses verbs in the style Time magazine made famous many years ago, to emphasize already negative opinions. On a two-page spread, 168-169, we read that "Bellow raged," "Bellow boiled up," Bellow "responded testily," Bellow "vacillated wildly between excitement and doubts," and Bellow's "bravado masked a deep insecurity." In Atlas, no event comes without its laboured explanation, and almost always he finds Bellow at fault. Atlas doesn't know when to shut up and let the story speak for itself. He doesn't know that readers, too, can think.

His simple-mindedness amounts to biographical reductionism. At the end of Bellow: A Biography, Saul Bellow appears, for a moment, a minor and marginal writer, little more than the product of unhealthy impulses, immature emotions and unworthy angers.

That leaves the reader with nothing to do but go back to Herzog or The Adventures of Augie March or Seize the Day or any one of eight or nine other books. In those works, which will be read when James Atlas is no more than a name in a library catalogue, we can rediscover why Bellow stands among the powerful and original figures in modern literature, even if he did have the misfortune to be good-looking.

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